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It was the best of time, it was the worst of time

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Two USTA Flagship Programs on the Chopping Block?

A Tale of Two Programs or RIP Adult Leagues + NTRP.

By Rich Neher

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..."

Was good old Charles Dickens thinking about the USTA and their current decisions when he wrote these lines in 1859? Maybe? No? I'm just kidding, of course, but I couldn't help noticing how the beginning of "A Tale of Two Cities" sounded much like today's USTA shenanigans with the League and NTRP Ratings programs.

A Brief Look Back in Time

No, I'm not going back to the '1850s. I bet you none of the USTA staff currently involved in running Adult Leagues and NTRP Ratings has ever heard of or seen this book. Published in 2005, it commemorated 25 years of USTA League Tennis. Yep, that program was, after three years of planning and going through various committees, born in 1980 and had it's 40th anniversary this year. The people mentioned and celebrated in this book were instrumental in getting the most successful tennis program in the entire world off the ground. Names like Diane Ansay, Sheila Banks, Pat Devoto, John Embree, Sue Johnson-Maurer, Annice Seelig, and David Schobel, to name just a few of the 21 people listed, will forever go into the annals of USTA Adult League Tennis. And then there was Larry Jones. The man whose "CompuRank" computer program was instrumental in starting the entire NTRP ratings epoch, and who guided and mentored USTA League Ratings for decades and unfortunately passed away after a long illness in 2014. I think Larry is definitely turning over in his grave today.

Why? What Happened?

Because both USTA Flagship Programs, Leagues and Ratings, are in the hands of rookies who are hell-bent to destroy what dozens of capable professionals built by the sweat of their combined brows in the last 40 years.

I'm a strong believer in honoring the past when planning for the future. Much to my surprise, I found no mention anywhere that one of the USTA's biggest moneymakers and the single most successful recruiting program for new members had turned 40. Did any of our readers notice? 

I remember the turmoil that was created by Kurt Kamperman's and Jeff Water's 2014 ouster of David Schobel, who, with the help of many sectional and national leaders, built those two Flagship Programs to what they are today. 

Some of my friends thought 'God help us' when they realized that Jeff Waters was now taking over. From what insiders are telling me, Jeff had his own plans about what Leagues should look like in the future. He was heard saying, first and foremost, volunteers were not part of that plan. The organization had reportedly way too many volunteers for Jeff so he worked diligently to get rid of many. As a matter of fact, I was told that Jeff was telling mostly staff participants at the National Campus on December 16, 2016, "I have instructed the staff to work independently of the committee and the volunteers ... to not be concerned about what the committee chair or vice-chair, or anyone else on the committee, thinks or says". 

That just about seems to sum it up, doesn't it? Staff is in charge. One insider told me last August, "He had a very, very different vision for the League program - he would often say the League program needed to be put in its place. He single-handedly turned the national championship events into ho-hum events in weather plagued locations with Comfort Inns overlooking interstate highways and sub-par facilities with player parties served out of tin foil pans." Wow! 

Tensions within the USTA

It is no secret that tension between "staff" and "volunteer" exists at the USTA. Not sure if Jeff Waters was the source of this stressful work environment.  Insiders are telling me that "staff has worked for years to transition the USTA to a staff-run organization, making and implementing policy." But I'm thinking maybe more balance is needed, with the tradition of volunteers (committees, board, etc.) making policy, and staff implementing said policy?

 

Jeff is a USTA man for now 38 years now and I learned that nobody really knows why he was so ticked off by volunteers and grassroots tennis. In my opinion, he may well be part of that ominous USTA Deep State people are whispering about and he was just putting in motion whatever they were telling him.

Well, as of August this year, in the course of the structural changes at the USTA, Jeff is being moved to a newly created position, Managing Director, Section Support & Services. The old USTA game - moving mediocre performers laterally. Oy.

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Rookies take over Leagues and Ratings - the Apocalypse is coming!

 

So, after Schobel is gone, Waters takes charge with little knowledge of how leagues and especially ratings work. He hires Heather Hawkes because for sure, coming from the Tennislink Team, she knows something about both. right? Not so fast! Yes, Heather and I worked together on the USTA Tennislink Team, but I rarely interacted with her because to the best of my knowledge, she was a) pursuing a degree at a university and b) wasn't concerned with leagues and ratings too much. While I have no real good memory of Heather, I want to point out that people interacting with her at the USTA speak positively about her. Except for one who describes her as "power-hungry, the worst communicator." 

However, I'm willing to guess that NTRP was not her favorite subject and assume she didn't go to larry Jones for training. And from that assumption, I'll try to explain why her more than questionable decisions and activities are hurting all league players. So, Heather Hawkes probably comes in with a love/hate relationship toward NTRP in 2016. The USTA hires a man by the name of Michael Bumgarner who is quickly overwhelmed by the complexities of NTRP and gets little help from Heather. She reportedly didn't get along with him. He's gone within a short period of time. While my sources tell me Hawkes worked toward the demise of NTRP and jumped on the WTN bandwagon, Michael Hughes comes in.

An insider emailed me a few months ago: "The grand total of League experience in the League silo is about 5 years.  Micheal Hughes was a junior program guy when at the USTA/Midwest.  He had no League experience at the USTA until he got the job about 18 months ago to lead it." He has very different ideas about what the program should be. A staff member told me, "He also strongly believes that he has been empowered to convert the program to his vision. Many, many volunteers have fought him and his plans and ideas, but it appears that he has been granted the power and authority to do as he wants ... and a very drastically different program is the plan." 

And then another surprise move by the USTA: Noel Clarkson gets hired as Manager, Ratings in August of last year. Interestingly, he comes from a 28-year career in  nuclear energy. Wow. While people seem to love him for the pretty flow charts and project plans he creates, he gets very little training. (From whom, anyway?) Seems he was being told not to talk to NOG members. Hu? Aaah, NOG, the national Oversight Group for NTRP. Must have been clearly also in the crosshairs of Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Hughes.

But, he and Heather are the dream team now and they seem aligned in their thinking to get rid of what worked for decades and was/is the biggest moneymaker for USTA sections.

The Dismantling of NOG

 

I had to learn that at the time, Heather Hawkes seemed hell-bent on avoiding contact with the NOG members and worked diligently behind the scenes to get rid of the group and possibly of NTRP altogether. Two task forces are being established at the beginning of 2020. Their report is being discussed on September 24. The replacement of NTRP by the World Tennis Number WTN is mentioned in the report.

 

On Oct 2, USTA President Patrick Galbraith announces abandoning NOG. Boom. Gone.

I am reading the 'Minutes of the Meeting of the Board of Directors of the United States Tennis Association Incorporated' from a September 24 teleconference. I have rarely seen a more convoluted and puzzling document in my entire life. An ex-staff member told me, "My head is spinning with all the layers created." The minutes state that "the proposed structure aims to leverage principles of the RACI model (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) to establish roles and responsibilities as it relates to NTRP." Not sure who was behind bringing RACI into that new NTRP management structure, but maybe they should have googled RACI to learn about the disadvantages of that program, according to this report):

Disadvantages of RACI
 

  • Goals are not clear (they don't consider the bigger picture)

  • Difficult to determine who's in charge

  • Poor communication because of silo mentality

  • Lack of direct accountability

  • Delays in making decisions (who's in charge?)

  • The matrix itself will create an increase in conflicts

Bummer. If you look at some of the accompanying charts, you see all you need to see about this convoluted program. 

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The Destruction of NTRP

 

An insider asked me, "Was all this necessary just for the goal of wrestling NTRP away from NOG and then eliminating NOG?" I'm not sure what to say at this point and want to spare you going into more details. It's hard to comprehend that someone put a signature under that document.

What is clear to me is that everything is pretty much screwed up now when it comes to Leagues and ratings. As a friend put it, it's a "sad day in the USTA League world, and getting sadder. Total and complete control of the League program has been turned over to two USTA staff members (one who does not even play tennis, and a few years ago was in charge of customer service at Active, and another who has about 9 months of experience having anything to do with the League program)." 

Eliminating Competition from Adult Leagues

The Guidelines and Characteristics documents - the very foundation of Leagues and NTRP, looks to be abandoned. Several staff members have indicated that they are envisioning a program that is "less competitive and more social" in nature. That may actually mark the end of the League program as we know it. A former Board member added, "The millennial staff at the USTA now have a chance to reimagine the League program in their vision - trophies for all players and teams, no more Nationals because, well, not everyone can be the winner." Oh, what a great program the League program used to be. Right?

And not running 2020 Year-End Ratings? What was that all about? While certainly not necessary to totally cancel the 2020 ratings, it seems in line with the thinking of the two people behind all this nonsense. Get rid of NTRP, get rid of NOG, don't follow their last suggestion of running ratings. Here you go, oldtimers, we showed you!

World Tennis Number (WTN)

As far as the WTN is concerned, just a few remarks. When the ITF hired ClubSpark to knock off UTR and create a World Tennis Number, they gave that task to a company that seems to be in over their heads with it. Just look at the number of months (or years) they are already behind schedule. But that didn't prevent the USTA to also hire ClubSpark for creating the new Tennislink and more. Kevin Schmidt wrote in his BlogWhen it came out they were working on the TennisLink replacement for the USTA (I saw/learned from somewhere last year when I wrote about it) it seemed a bit odd as, at the time, all their sites were primarily community type sites, not high volume league/tournaments/matches/ratings, and they'd primarily done work for the LTA.  I suspect all too common cronyism with their connections to the LTA/ITF gave them an in with the USTA despite the lack of experience.jo

I used to live in England. I love that country and its people. But, as a U.S. software entrepreneur puts it, "think about it, when was the last time you bought anything from England? I mean there are probably great products coming from the UK but innovative ideas, state-of-the-art products and software, all this comes from the United States, Japan, Israel. Right?" So the idea that an English company that has so far only created small-scale, community type systems can replace Tennislink and NTRP, seems far fetched, to say the least. This is the old school (before Covid) 'money grows on trees, let's spend it' USTA thinking that's been prevalent for far too long within this organization.

The WTN is, of course, a shot across the bow of UTR. And who seemed to have been the go-to person for ClubSpark? Heather Hawkes. Someone who doesn't understand NTRP well and whom I was told didn't consult with anyone at NOG. They had to find out through 3rd party sources that she was in the UK helping ClubSpark. A concerned staff member called this "A blind leading the blind." A tennis pro asked me recently, "How do you sell the WTN to the 50+ demographic that is used to NTRP for 30+ years and are probably 90% happy with it?" As far as the USTA's plans to publish the WTN as a number with decimal value is concerned, the old question regarding "professional Captains" will be rearing its ugly head again. What prevents those Captains from selectively rejecting players after seeing their rating's decimal value?

 

Also, the plan to run the ratings only once a week instead of nightly (like NTRP) may be saving the USTA some money but are they now 'penny wise and pound foolish?' Will those ratings be as accurate as the NTRP numbers? The only reason I can see for that weekly plan is they are not expecting as many competitive matches as usual. Do you guys see the writing on the wall? If the USTA Adult Tennis League program is planning to give out trophies for all players, what would they need daily ratings computations for? 

To quote Charles Dickens again: "It's the age of foolishness."
 

RIP USTA Adult Leagues?

Why don't you email Heather and Michael to tell them what you think of their work so far?
Good or bad, they may want to know it.

 

heather.hawkes@usta.com

michael.hughes@usta.com

Or maybe go directly to the CEO, Community Tennis. As the man responsible for Net Generation I bet he'd love to hear from you. Make sure you tell him you don't want Adult Leagues to go to the same graveyard where Net Generation has gone.

craig.morris@usta.com

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