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Revising our game plan for growth

by Alan Cutler, USPTA

… any decrease in the number of participants requires our attention <br>because it will affect the entire tennis industry.
… any decrease in the number of participants requires our attention
because it will affect the entire tennis industry.

March 2003 -- Is the number of new tennis participants decreasing? The Tennis Industry Association says the number of new players fell slightly in 2001, but that it was not a significant amount. However, any decrease in the number of participants requires our attention because it will affect the entire tennis industry, from tennis professionals to manufacturers.

Before we jump right into finding new players, let’s look at what already exists. In the final report of 2001, TIA tells us that 19.2 million people over the age of 12 played tennis at least once that year. Eighty-three percent of tennis players are rated 4.0 or below. This means that just shy of 16 million people are beginners and intermediate players. And if we are only targeting upper-level players, we are concentrating on only 17 percent, or 3.2 million members, of the tennis-playing population. Have we been limiting our scope and target for students in our programs?

In 1994, the number of tennis players fell so significantly that the entire industry challenged us all to grow the game. At that point, it was a matter of survival. Perhaps it is time to consider what we learned from that experience and find out how we can use those lessons learned. Are we slipping into old habits and targeting only the upper-level programs and players? Where is the majority of tennis players?

Perhaps the better questions to ask are: Where are the other 16 million players, and how do we get them more involved in tennis?

These 16 million players are hitting balls at the public parks and schools. Many of these players have never played in a tournament, never taken a lesson, play maybe once or twice a year, and just play for fun and social interaction. These are the players who, if they get introduced to basic tennis instruction, will probably learn from a public park and recreation program.

Partnering with the parks and recreational programs in local cities may be one of the best ways to reach these players. Cities can offer low-cost instruction and often free or very low-cost court rentals.

One of the most difficult concepts for the tennis professional to understand is that cities are not in the business to make money, but to provide recreational services to their communities. That is a very different mindset from the purely profit-driven business with which we are familiar. But don’t be misled: In a public program, there are many untapped students, monies to be made and services to be provided.

Set goals
To start a public program in your community, first meet with the city staff and identify mutual long-term goals for the program. Most park and recreation supervisors are experts in dealing with grassroots programs, so be prepared to listen and learn from their expertise. They know how to reach their community and what will and won’t work.

As tennis professionals, we will bring our knowledge of building quality tennis programs and instruction to the cities. Keep in mind that recreational programs are a service and will always be designed to keep costs down. Sometimes offering quality service within the price range that cities are willing to charge may be difficult, especially in the beginning stages of the program. However, offering quality programs consistently will eventually bring in the numbers to make the program self-sufficient, and allow the instructors to be paid a fair hourly rate. Sometimes, this will require small, baby steps but it will be worth it in the long run.

Evaluate
Once you form a partnership with a city, look at what already exists. Evaluate the facilities and make recommendations for repairs if needed. Always remember that cities operate on fiscal-year budgets, and major expenditures have to be approved by an elected body quite a while before they can be expended.

Cooperate
Meet with current recreation employees and see how they might best fit into the long-term goals of the program. These employees have the historical knowledge of what has been tried and done in the past. To get their cooperation, you will need them to buy into the goals of the program. Once you have that, design a timeline or a starting schedule that will allow you to grow in stages.

Start small
The overall goal of the program may be to run pee-wee, beginner through advanced junior and adult group lessons, camps, clinics, semiprivate and private lessons. Nevertheless, unless you already have the numbers, it may be too ambitious to take on all at once. Start small, concentrating first on offering high-quality classes. It is the quality of the instruction that tends to make the biggest difference for the city program.

Keeping the ratio of students to instructors low will help maintain the quality. This sounds easy, but remember that city programs are there to provide a service. Therefore, city programs tend not to limit enrollment or ratios sometimes at the expense of quality. An instructor to student ratio of 1-to-8 or 1-to-10 seems to be best.

When working with 3- to 5-year-olds, one instructor per six kids seems to work better. And a 50-minute group lesson will give you plenty of time to cover the material and also time to talk to parents and participants between lessons.

Class structure
When programming, try to create a class pyramid. Structure the classes with twice as many beginner classes as intermediate, and follow the same pattern for advanced classes. By doing this, you will form a strong base that will feed your upper-level classes. Once this pattern is achieved and established, then you can start considering program expansion.

Equipment
Try to provide racquets or arrange for low-cost racquets to be available for purchase by the junior beginner classes. That way, all students have to supply is their time and a pair of tennis shoes. You can purchase junior racquets for under $10 each and may even be able to get them donated to your programs by USTA or racquet manufacturers. Remind manufacturers that brand loyalty starts early. Invite them to run racquet demo days for your upper-level players.

Rates
Student costs and instructor percentages are two of the big issues with all employers, and working with a public program is no exception. Consider this example: If a beginner student is charged $25 for a five-week program ($5 per 50-minute session) and there are eight students on the court, that court hour brings in $40. Intermediate students might be charged $35 for a five-week program ($7 per 50-minute session), and advanced students might be charged $50 for a five-week program ($10 per 50-minute session). If the instructor’s percentage is 60 percent and there are eight students in each class, then the hourly rates would be $24 for beginners, $33.60 for intermediates and $48 for advanced players. Other factors that may affect the rate charged are instructor qualifications and group size limits.

Hiring instructors
As the program becomes more successful, you may find the need to hire additional, qualified instructors. Establish a mentor program that will be a good source of instructors. Look at the better players from the local high schools or colleges. Sometimes, even parents might be a good source. Provide them with training and encouragement, and identify their growth potential. These instructors should also be encouraged to attend USPTA educational opportunities and, as their skill levels and experience increase, encourage them to join USPTA. This not only makes for good instructors, but also makes the employees feel like they are receiving more than just money.

Start new instructors in the beginner junior program, which is a great place for hands-on training. Expect instructor turnover because they will move on to other things, such as college for your high school players, or to better-paying positions as they acquire more experience.

Attracting students
Now, how do we get students into the program? Most cities will regularly send out a community service bulletin four to five times a year, before their classes start. These recreational classes are highly publicized, and the bulletins are generally mailed out to all residences in a community. Word-of-mouth though, seems to work better. Encourage students to bring friends and family members, who are also potential students. Running small, free clinics on a regular basis during the year should be part of the program. For example, you can advertise that every 10 weeks, a free clinic is available to everyone.

Running larger USPTA Tennis Across AmericaTM events and partnering with racquet manufacturers is another way to promote your programs. Most cities have public access TV that can be used for this promotion. You might also find that your local newspapers will mention these events because they are city-sponsored clinics that are free to the community.

Another way to publicize your program is to contact your local school districts to distribute fliers and offer to run a physical education class on tennis for them. Try volunteering time to provide free clinics to the local high school tennis teams. This will familiarize you with some of the local players, while allowing you direct access to a target audience.

USPTA and USTA have a couple of programs that help attract players. Using these programs, it is easy to start small leagues or competitive events within your own programs, and it is also a method for allowing players to compete with each other. USPTA’s Junior CircuitTM gives beginner students the ability to compete with their peers and get familiar with tournaments without the pressure of more intense competition. USA Tennis Leagues also provide good structure for any program. The USTA National Junior Tennis League uses public facilities and offers 18 hours of instruction for $20. There may be some junior racquets and balls that are available if you run this program. Private schools are easier to approach and generally more willing to allow these programs than the public schools. Since families of private school students are used to paying for quality instruction, they are often the first ones to take advantage of these lower-cost programs.

Expanding
As the programs expand and facilities allow for it, you can consider expanding to multiple courts in the same hour. Another idea that works well is to offer both a beginner junior and beginner adult class at the same time. This way, the parents in the beginner adult class know their children are in a quality program while they get some exercise and learn to play at the same time. When a parent and child both take advantage of instruction, they have a built-in person with whom to hit. And best of all, it gives the parent and child some quality time together.

Targeting a specific group, such as a girls’ high school tennis team during the required down time before the season or during vacations, may result in camp and clinic business. Having a “Stroke of the Month” clinic is another good idea. This will also allow you to target people who want to work on specific skills.

Consider the dead times that you have in your facilities. In most cases, courts are empty during the weekday hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Those who work at home or on alternate schedules can fill in these hours. Find out what might interest them and create special programs to meet their needs. An example is a “Mommy/Daddy and Me” program during these hours.

Think about semiprivate or private lessons as other services you might provide. Consider catch-up or group lesson supplements, students wanting individual attention or more advanced students. Although this is typically not a large source of enrollment for most park and recreation programs, it will need to be addressed to retain students in the program.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that in a public parks and recreation program, the goal is to get as many people started in the game of tennis as possible. Cities are not in the business of running tennis academies. Their main goal is to give students a positive introduction to the sport and a great foundation. And, when someone outgrows the program or needs services that you cannot provide, it is time to send that person to a facility that can better meet his or her needs. Dust off your USPTA roster, and refer that student to someone with the right style of teaching and the necessary expertise.

As USPTA tennis-teaching professionals, we must all do a better job of working to develop the base of new players for our sport. We have a vested interest in sharing our enthusiasm and love for the game. Each person we meet, and each person he or she meets, is a potential tennis player. It’s up to us to convince them it’s time to pick up a racquet and hit that ball.

Alan L. Cutler is a teaching professional at the Whittier Narrows Tennis Center in Whittier, Calif. He is a USPTA California Division secretary, a local excellence training coordinator, and has completed levels I and II of the USTA sport science certification. He has a master’s degree in computer science and more than 20 years of experience in technology and information services. Cutler was named a 1999 USPTA California Division District Professional of the Year and received the 2002 USPTA Industry Excellence Award.
 
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