Building a tennis community
by Kevin Vincent, USPTA (August 2011)
Edited by Lille Krukrubo
Growing your membership base is a priority for any tennis club. But how do you go about finding new players, especially if you feel that you’ve already reached all of the current players in your area? The answer is simple: Create new players.
While encouraging adults to pick up the game of tennis can often be difficult, attracting junior players to the game is one of the easiest ways a club can begin to grow its player base. But how do you reach these potential players? That’s often the real challenge.
Ten years ago, when I started working at Maine Pines Racquet & Fitness in Brunswick, Maine, it was already a successful, mature club. The first challenge I was tasked with wasn’t even to grow the tennis membership but simply to maintain the current levels. I knew the best business model for us would still ultimately be reaching new players, but it appeared that we had already tapped the pool of local tennis players, and there seemed to be little potential for growth, at least among adult players.
Learn to Rally
To start building up our player base, I decided to create a new program for the Midcoast Tennis Association, the local community tennis association, founded by Maine Pines. MTA is a nonprofit organization with a mission of providing education, programs, events and opportunities for children and adults in the Midcoast area to enjoy tennis.
Our plan was to offer a low-cost tennis program that was easy for families of all income levels to try, with the goal of instilling a lifelong passion for the sport in children in the Mid coast region. The six-week program, which I called Learn to Rally, was designed to teach kids ages 4-11 the fundamentals of tennis in an easy, no-pressure environment, utilizing equipment specifically designed for this age group.
MTA hired local teaching professionals and supplied all of the equipment necessary for the program, including child-sized racquets, Quick Start nets and foam balls. We also provided a nutritionist to talk to the kids about healthy eating habits, and taught them some stretches and other exercises to help them warm up and cool down. Focusing on healthy habits was a priority, because ultimately, in addition to creating new tennis players, we are also trying to create a healthier community.
To further augment the teaching staff and ensure a healthy ratio of instructors to students, MTA also encouraged Maine Pines club members to volunteer their time to help out with the lessons.
The next challenge for me was effectively marketing the program to reach kids and parents in our region. Naturally, we posted fliers in Maine Pines and featured the information prominently on our website. But with no budget for advertising, how could we meet our target of signing up 100 kids for the inaugural program?
Reaching the kids through the school
Wouldn’t it be great if you could print up fliers for your tennis programs and place them directly in the kids’ hands at school? Unfortunately, a for-profit business like a tennis club can’t; it’s simply against school policy for companies to promote themselves directly to children. However, there is a solution to this problem – nonprofits can promote their programs in the school, as long as they have permission from the school district.
As a board member on MTA, I reached out directly to three local school systems and asked for their permission to provide fliers for all children in our target age range. Since we’re a non-profit and we were promoting a healthy activity for children, the schools said yes. We got our fliers in the hands of hundreds, if not thousands, of local schoolchildren, and roughly 90 signed up for our first class.
To further strengthen our ties with the school systems, we also created an after-school program, officially sanctioned by the schools’ physical education departments, for students in two local towns.
So, by working through a non-profit, offering tennis lessons at a low cost and marketing our program directly in the schools, we were able to generate one of the largest and most sustainable entry-level tennis programs the state of Maine has ever seen.
Parks and Recreation
Now that you’ve made inroads into the schools, how do you keep the momentum going, especially as you head into summer and schools are closed? Simple: Partner with your local parks and recreation department. Since most kids are looking for outdoor summer activities, parks and recreation tennis programs – which you can run and staff – offer a natural fit for any club that wants to keep kids involved with the sport during a club’s slower summer months. It also provides a great way to attract new kids who might not have tried your programs at the club, but would be tempted to sign up for an outdoor class.
Professional Tennis Organizations
Remember, your club is not an island. You’re part of a nationwide network of various tennis organizations, including the national USTA, your local divisional chapter, and most likely a state or community tennis association. The primary focus of these organizations is promoting the growth of tennis, and one of the ways they do so is by providing financial assistance through grants, marketing and exposure on their websites.
You should definitely be taking advantage of these resources. If you don’t, it’s like you’re turning your back on free money and marketing. They want to help you, so don’t be shy about asking. While you’re asking, don’t forget to also talk to local businesses about donating money or resources to help your program. For example, if you contact almost any printing company and ask them to print a thousand fliers for a non-profit kids’ program, I can almost guarantee you their answer will be yes. Again, you can find ways to help support your programs; it just requires some work and a little creativity.
Your program ends and the children have had a positive experience. They found that they love playing tennis, and would like to continue to play the sport. So, where are they going to turn for lessons and/or court time? Exactly – your club. And that is how you successfully begin to grow the game in your community and at your tennis facility.
Obviously, not all of the kids who go through Learn to Rally will become club members. We may never see a lot of them again. But we will see some of them. And, if the kids really love playing tennis they will talk about it to their friends, and then those friends might sign up for lessons. And maybe those friends have parents who used to play tennis, and it reignites their passion for the game. Next thing you know, your adult classes and leagues start to gain new members. People are playing tennis, they are getting healthier, and your club’s membership roster grows. It’s as simple as that.
Note: Kevin Vincent is a USPTA P-1 Professional and tennis director at Maine Pines Racquet & Fitness in Brunswick, Maine.
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