With national trends showing overall growth in tennis, clubs and resorts are riding the spike in popularity by expanding programs and enhancing facilities.
In its 2015 State of the Industry report, the Tennis Industry Association found that 17.9 million people played tennis in 2014. The top reasons listed by participants for taking up the sport included finding people to play with, joining a tennis league, and taking lessons.
This data, while indicating that tennis is still a popular “traditional” sport (participation has grown steadily since 2012), also highlights a golden opportunity for clubs and resorts that offer tennis amenities. By providing up-to-date facilities, structure through leagues and clinics, and social experiences through frequent events, properties can continue to build participation and benefit from the burgeoning tennis bubble.
Front and Center
When Ben Hay joined Crane Creek Country Club in Boise, Idaho as its General Manager ten years ago, the club’s tennis program was primarily an amenity enjoyed by a handful of women who were looking to exercise and socialize in the mornings. But during the past decade of Hay’s leadership, tennis participation at Crane Creek has grown more than 400%, and is now the most active part of the club.
“Tennis used to be an added benefit—now it’s a competency,” Hay says. “A lot of people are making primary decisions to join [our club] based on the tennis program.”
The club’s growth in tennis participation came in part from how the property “rode the wave” in line with national trends, Hay notes. But Crane Creek facilitated the expansion of its members’ interest in the game by hiring a new tennis pro, introducing new programming, and making facility investments. Most recently, the club added two additional indoor courts to three existing indoor and five outdoor courts.
After many revisions and discussions of a planning process that began in 2010, Crane Creek started construction for its tennis facility upgrade in October 2014, as a component of the club’s overall strategic plan. Existing space was reorganized by shifting the putting green and parking lot, and a separate building was added for the two additional indoor courts.
An existing outdoor court between the new building and clubhouse was reworked into a stadium court that was reconstructed so it could withstand a 100-year flood. Hay now describes that space as “a vibrant hub of activity.” When Crane Creek unveiled its new tennis complex in June 2015, the club hosted a members-only event and a greater community celebration, welcoming teams from other clubs to help test out the new facility.
While member response to Crane Creek’s expansion has been positive, the tennis program was already popular, with the past three years seeing 96% court utilization from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., 350 active tennis players, and growth to 23 USTA teams. Now, with additional courts in the mix, there’s even more room for growth—and the club expects much of that to come from adult men.
“The most common situation for someone new picking up the game is when a woman who is playing on a mixed team then invites her husband to start playing, and then he makes friends,” Hay explains. “A lot of the new players are golfing members who didn’t know where the courts were 10 years ago, but now play more tennis than golf.”
Crane Creek has also seen spikes in interest across the board of player segments, and particularly in junior tennis, where registration set records this past fall—even within Hay’s own family, in fact. “I’m a PGA member and I really wanted my son to play [golf], but when I ask him which one he wants to do, he says he wants to play tennis,” Hay says.
The club appeals to younger players through QuickStart Tennis programming that gets kids hooked at a young age through an easy and fun approach to teaching the game. That emphasis on fun is also extended to adults—a recent throwback social event proved wildly popular, with attendees donning wigs with headbands and dressing in white from head to toe so they could resemble John McEnroe (and break a few wooden racquets in the process).
Still, Hay notes, that event’s popularity was as much because of the members themselves as the theme or specific activities. “It was more about the people engaging and calling their friends than the event itself,” Hay says. “If you get the right mix of members, it’s going to be popular.”
Getting members involved also gains more momentum from the more active and successful players’ word of mouth, Hay notes, than from the club’s distribution of weekly e-mails, monthly newsletters and yearly calendars. “No matter how much communication we do formally, it’s essentially finding those one or two members who have won the championship event who then invite their friends that moves the needle of participation,” he says.
It’s no surprise, then, that creating a sense of community around tennis is the club’s ultimate goal.
“We want to continue to grow tennis, pushing the bounds of the high-level competitors,” Hay says. “At the same time, as people get older, there aren’t as many things they can compete in anymore, but both golf and tennis are still accessible.
“The biggest thing for us is utilization,” he adds. “The more people who are involved, the more we can get them to pay dues next month—and that’s the best way to tell how successful a club is.”
Resorts with high-end tennis facilities face different challenges with tennis than private clubs. At Topnotch Resort in Stowe, Vt., three segments of people frequent the property: local clientele and club members, second homeowners who visit for weekends or summers, and guests.
|Getting Into a Pickle
Milan Kubala, Director of Tennis at Topnotch Resort in Stowe, Vt., reports that participants in the resort’s tennis program have skewed younger over the past couple years. But pickleball, which requires similar skills to tennis, but uses smaller courts, underhand strokes, and is played at an overall slower speed, is gaining traction among an aging clientele.
According to Tennis Industry magazine, 68% of all pickleball players are over 60 years old, and participation now totals 2.46 million. The game can be played indoors or outdoors on a 22 ft. x 44 ft. court with a plastic ball similar to a wiffleball and paddles made of lightweight composite materials, such as aluminum and graphite. The court is striped similarly to a tennis court with right and left service courts, with a 7-foot non-volley zone (referred to as the “kitchen”) in front of the net. Courts can be constructed specifically for pickleball, or they can be converted using existing tennis or badminton courts.
Pickleball is played either as doubles (two players per team) or singles, though doubles is most common. Unlike tennis, both styles use the same size playing area. Players serve underhand, with the paddle coming into contact with the ball below the server’s waist. Points are scored only by the serving team, and games are normally played to 11 points. For full game rules, visit www.usapa.org/rules-summary/.
Sources: Tennis Industry Magazine; USA Pickleball Association
The resort even shifts its tennis operations depending on the season, utilizing an indoor tennis center with four courts in the winter, and moving across the street in the summer to the resort itself, to use six outdoor courts. During the winter, 60% of the clientele is local and 40% are guests, but during the summer, running from June through part of September, up to 90% of clientele are guests.
After its tennis program was managed by the now-defunct American Sports for years, Topnotch began offering memberships in the late 1990s, and then developed in-house tennis clinics and programs. Director of Tennis Milan Kubala came on board in 2004, and over the past four years, he notes, the tennis program has grown. He also partially attributes the increased popularity of tennis at the resort to the sport’s national growth, noting that it’s one of the few traditional sports that is still showing positive momentum.
The resort’s location in the ski town of Stowe is also helping the tennis program, Kubala notes. “Stowe itself is a destination because of all the year-round activities, and tennis is always a big part of that,” he says. “Someone can go skiing one day, and the next day they can play tennis.”
In the past two years, Kubala notes, he has seen a shift in tennis-participation demographics at Topnotch. Where previously guests who played tennis were a bit older (in their late 40s and early 50s), he now sees younger players, including travelers in their mid- to late-30s and early 40s,
No matter who’s playing, he adds, the level of skill runs the gamut. “A casual tennis player, in order to enjoy the game, has to be serious in some way,” Kubala notes. “It all depends on their motivations. Beginners and advanced players are just motivated differently, and recognizing that helps us to cater to them. Deep down, everyone wants to keep improving.”
Further, Kubala adds, many “casual” players are otherwise busy people who like to “park” themselves for an hour to play and focus on just the tennis ball. “You could still consider them ‘serious’ because they want to improve in that one hour,” he says.
A study from two years ago determined that six out of 10 of Topnotch’s guests are returning over the course of multiple years, and Kubala believes the longevity and quality of the staff, plus positive word of mouth, keeps guests coming back. In the past two years, online sources and social media buzz have contributed to the resort’s continued growth.
“Tennis is a constant message within the resort,” Kubala says.