The game is having a growth spurt as it proves to be a good match for all ages-but to cash in, your program has to expand, too.
At first blush, it might seem that tennis had its heyday in the 1970s, when Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, and other athlete/celebrities were making headlines. These days, activity at the ubiquitous tennis court in city parks is not always a given—and while the Williams sisters and other high-level pros are keeping tennis in the limelight, what can the game’s current standing mean for your facility?
The latest statistics say that it can mean a lot.
National figures show that since 2000, participation in tennis has grown more than that of any other major sport. The public’s interest in the game has been rekindled as not only a social activity or source of competitive play, but also as a great source of exercise (as evidenced by the recent jump in “Cardio Tennis” programs nationwide).
The game’s appeal has also been given a boost in these economically challenging times by its relatively lighter start-up costs for training and play, compared to the investment needed for golf or other leisure sports.
Last but not least, tennis is the quintessential example of a family-friendly activity that can be enjoyed by both young and old. In fact, because tennis cuts across so many lines, one of the biggest challenges seems to be finding the best ways to offer something for everyone, without diluting the quality of a program.
“If you’re going to be successful, every market niche must be touched on,” says Tom Daglis, Director of Tennis and Fitness Operations for Lakewood Country Club, Rockville, Md. “Plus, you have to be fun, enthusiastic and friendly. People want to be around that.”
Daglis knows of what he speaks. As a certified Master Professional of the U.S. Professional Tennis Association—a distinction held by less than 1% of USPTA membership worldwide—Daglis was the Director of Professional Tennis Management and Racquet Facility Manager for Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., before joining Lakewood in late 2008. Besides appealing programming, he ranks member retention as a critical component of successful tennis offerings.
“We all know it’s easier to keep existing members than recruit new ones,” Daglis says. “When members open their bills each month, they need to justify the expense and feel they’re getting value. That’s part of what goes through my mind as we schedule events and programs.”
Shane Wells, Director of Tennis for North Hills Club in Raleigh, N.C., is relieved to not have to compete with a golf program at his current property, as he has had to do previously in his career. That lets him focus on his biggest goal right now: tapping into the non-tennis playing market.
“Because we’re known for tennis, we obviously have a lot of members who are players,” says Wells. “But we have to create programs for beginners, both juniors and adults, so they can see tennis as an option for fitness and recreation.”
|“If you’re going to be successful, every market niche must be touched on,” says Tom Daglis, Director of Tennis and Fitness Operations for Lakewood CC.
This outreach doesn’t have to be confined to the courts or to prime tennis season, either. During North Hills’ holiday open house in December, Wells and his staff held a pro shop sale. The shop not only moved old inventory, but brought new awareness to the game.
“The open house is where the members’ spouses and kids attend, and we were able to reach out to a wider audience,” notes Wells.
If You Host It, They Will Come
Another proven way to spark interest and garner new members is by hosting tournament play. North Hills not only hosts a professional women’s event (increasing from a $25,000 cup to $50,000 in 2009) that benefits the local Boys and Girls Club chapter, but also holds a clinic for that chapter.
“Our event raised $4,000 for [the club] last year, and our sponsor met that halfway,” Wells says. “Plus, our clinic put a free racquet into the hands of about 100 kids, with an hour of instruction and a free lunch. Kids who have played football or basketball but might not have otherwise had a chance to try out tennis found how quickly they could pick it up.”
In preparation for a new season, Lakewood’s Daglis is firming up details to introduce his club to an annual USTA Junior Sanctioned Tennis Tournament. While care must be taken to recognize and balance how public events can take court time from members, he notes, the clear upsides are how they can elevate a club’s status and help members who are looking for competitive play have a “home court advantage.”
New Ways to Charge the Net
La Jolla BeacH & TENNIS CLUB Tennis Director Bill McGrath feels that word-of-mouth remains the most powerful source of member recruitment into a tennis program. “While we use e-mail and point-of-purchase signage, member customers are our best advertising,” he says.
William Kellogg, President of the renowned California club, agrees that getting people talking, both inside and beyond the membership, is key. “We are definitely trying to rebuild our junior tennis program, and have gone out of our way to get the word out that the club has a quality instruction program that caters to all level of players,” Kellogg notes. “We started by inviting some of the top juniors in the area to participate in our clinics, even though many were not members. After a period, the best juniors began to return to our programs; we now are self-sufficient to the point that over 80% of participants are club members.”Hosting tennis tournaments is another way to attract media attention, boost food and beverage business, and build a property’s brand. It also helps when you have known entities on-site. Tom Daglis, Director of Tennis and Fitness Operations for Lakewood Country Club, Rockville, Md., notes that his head pro is a former ladies NCAA champion, and one of his assistant pros played for the Davis Cup in West Africa. It even works when the big names are from other sports. Dane Clegg, Director of Tennis for Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., notes that the legendary status of his club’s golf pro, Hank Johnson, attracts golfers to the facility—who then bring family and friends who like tennis.
Greystone also attracts members from other clubs with a tennis shop that has created buzz for its retailing savvy and racquet-repair skills. “Our shop manager, Lyn Gilbert, has a knack for what to buy and develop,” Clegg says. “There’s a lot out there that doesn’t fit the demographic. If you’re attracting from other clubs, though, you’re doing something right.”
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Lakewood, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is looking to wrap up its $5 million clubhouse renovation in March. While the renovation doesn’t include Lakewood’s four hard indoor courts and six clay courts, Daglis says he’s grateful that the indoor courts are in a permanent building and not a bubble. That means the tennis program can accommodate larger numbers—which is important as a program grows.
“We try to keep events on the same weekend every year,” Daglis adds. “This lets people plan around them and offers continuity.”
Growing Old Together
When Dane Clegg accepted the Director of Tennis Position for Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., nearly three years ago, he came from a tennis and fitness club background. He was surprised to find that while Greystone’s ladies’ tennis program was strong, the juniors’ and men’s programs were in need of some attention. The club had started as golf-only, but had added a tennis program about nine years ago.
“One of my biggest goals right now is to grow a junior program,” says Clegg, who notes that the club’s 12 clay courts are enticing to members, but require a lot of maintenance. In addition, many junior competitions are played on hard courts, not clay, so he hopes to see hard-surface courts added to the lineup down the road.
Still, Clegg is quickly approaching his goal, having hosted two junior tournaments at Greystone and growing the juniors program from four members to 60.
The tournaments seem to add a bump in tennis membership, he notes. “Our May tournament had 135 kids, and we had traffic of between 200 and 300 guests,” he says. “It’s a great way to get our facility out in front of potential members.”
|“One of my biggest goals is to grow the junior program,” says Dane Clegg, Director of Tennis, Greystone G&CC.
Seeing the Game in a New Light
Even an established tennis center like California’s La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club is putting renewed emphasis on its juniors program.
“We’re implementing a basic-to-advanced progression of learning,” notes Conan Lorenzo, La Jolla’s Junior Tennis Director. “For example, the week that we introduce how to hit a deep ball forward to our beginner players, we have each player understand how to run back to catch a ball, how to run back and make contact with the ball, and then finally create an opportunity for them to compete, by feeding a first ball as a deep forehand that they must put it into play to start a point. It is very basic and makes it easy for them to learn, while also allowing them to learn how to compete.”
For more advanced players who are playing open and national-level tournaments, La Jolla has incorporated an elite training class, which involves “fitness, weight lifting, pattern play and more, all while we work on periodization and aiding in their tournament scheduling through three-month cycles,” according to Lorenzo.
La Jolla has just added lights to four courts, bringing its total to 12 lighted courts. After-dark play allows more juniors to play, Lorenzo notes, and also encourages adults to play longer. In addition, he reports, lights help extend league play, which is quickly becoming the core of the club’s tennis program.
“League play not only fills the courts for matches, but also gives team members a reason to take group and private lessons to improve their skill levels and help the team,” explains La Jolla’s President, William Kellogg. “When the parents become active players, there is a greater chance that they will transmit this enthusiasm for the game to their kids. And for kids, grooming them to be competitive in local and national tournaments is a big incentive to support our lesson programs. [It creates reasons] for the kids to simply hang out at the club and play lots of tennis on their own or with their parents.”
“Creative scheduling” of both league play and lesson programs has helped spread tennis activity throughout the day and even into the evening at La Jolla, Kellogg notes. The club also has a Tennis Host/Hostess on duty during normal business hours to arrange games, coordinate court use and advise members and guests about the use of the courts.
“Before we actively managed this process,” Kellogg says, “we used to have a huge crunch of players, creating long waiting times to get on a court, at 9 AM and also at about 5 PM. But the courts were almost unused at other times of day.
“Now, the courts are used more steadily during the day and on into the evening under the lights. There are seldom wait times that exceed 15 minutes to a half-hour.”
The junior academy at La Jolla uses about four courts daily. “To maximize the court use, we have academy class times stacked on each other, so our little kids can train for an hour while the older, more-advanced players can train afterward,” Lorenzo explains. “We have also added tennis camps to our summer calendar, which has created more food revenue for our tennis shop and beach club hut.”
“There’s no magic number when it comes to how many of your members must be tennis enthusiasts,” notes North Hills’ Shane Wells. “Clubs today are so member-diverse that many are offering golf-only or tennis-only memberships. Whatever works in your market is what you have to capitalize on.”
With the renewed interest in tennis, there is some speculation that other racquet sports may also gain popularity. While that remains to be seen on a national level, it’s again all about what your specific market will bear. Wells reports that some newer members are inquiring about a possible future installation of paddle tennis courts at North Hills. At La Jolla, however, Kellogg reports that after the club started a pilot program for beach tennis, it found that the new option took away some of the focus from the tennis courts, and also created a competition for beach space with non-playing members.
Greystone’s Clegg, perhaps, sums up the current challenge—and opportunity—best: “Stay open-minded, and learn through experience.”