Public Tennis Facilities, is USTA really helping them?
By Jim Reffkin

January 2007

Jane Brown Grimes, our new USTA President, has set forth her goals for the next two years and one of them is to continue Past President, Franklin Johnson's initiative to, "invigorate tennis in the Public Parks." Thank you Franklin and thank you Jane!

You would think that most Directors of Municipal Facilities would be encouraged that the USTA is supporting and promoting Public Parks Tennis, I certainly am impressed and do appreciate our governing body's efforts. However, based on my thirty-two years of public parks experience at the Reffkin Tennis Center, and having visited public facilities in almost every major city in the United States, the consensus from many of my peers will be - let's "wait and see."

Realistically, we still have a lot more work ahead of us, and believe it or not, Tennis is still fighting the "Country Club" image and years of steerage in the goodship USTA. In other words a couple consecutive years is not going to change the perception many Parks people still have on our Association's willingness to continue supporting Public Parks Tennis. In the past - not always - new Presidents pick a new direction to set themselves apart, a new identity that stamps their time as President - a lasting mark of their achievement. We can only hope that our new President fulfills our Past President?s original goal of growing tennis participation in the Parks, it certainly is a noble and unselfish cause if she does.

My experience is not only three decades as a Public Tennis Center Director - Reffkin Tennis Center - but also the unique opportunity as National President of the USPTA and National Tester, to visit facilities in almost every major city in the United States. It is clear to me, that even though seventy percent of tennis is currently being played on public courts, it is far from reaching its potential in growing our game. There is still a huge challenge to educate Facility Directors and Parks Departments on how to develop a "model tennis environment" suitable to the needs of the community they service.

So far there has been an outstanding job of having matching funds available to improve tennis facilities and marketing efforts. So far the goal for advocacy to increase funding in Parks and Recreation budgets is getting traction. So far the collaboration with Tennis Industry has successfully introduced Cardio Tennis. So far the NRPA and USTA collaboration is beginning to bridge the gap with other major recreation sports played - as Merv Heller always says, "we're gaining on them." So far Tennis Service Reps (TSRs) are beginning to get traction and they should become major players in our efforts.

And of course the highlight this last year is having Billie Jean King aboard and naming the National Tennis Center in her honor; this was fantastic and should go a long way in breaking the "Country Club" perception.

For whatever its worth, here are a few "Tennis in the Parks" suggestions:

Suggestion #1 Offer or suggest innovative sources of activity to increase revenues - its called "Programming." Many facilities do no more than private and group lessons and take court fees; this will not sustain participation and the facility is destined to be a parking lot or soccer field. The already existing Junior and Adult "Participation Path," endorsed by the National Tennis Innovation Committee, has years of proven success and is being copied everywhere, including other countries. This simple incremental progression of participation needs to be available at all USTA Section offices for immediate implementation, including training and the materials to initiate.

Suggestion #2 Recruit former experienced Facility Directors - retired volunteers - to consult on how to create a business plan, how to negotiate an equitable contract with Parks Departments and how to introduce adequate programming to sustain the facilities financial bottom line. After visiting a variety of tennis facilities, it was obvious expectations are so far off that both the city and concessionaire suffer in the wake of its failure. The issue of city employee versus private concessionaire has always been a contentious issue for parties involved. City contracts are so one-sided that most qualified candidates are scared off almost immediately. This means negotiation is critical, because most of the time city government is receptive to proposals that would be fair to both parties.

Suggestion #3 The biggest problem we have is convincing facilities to enrich their programming. Facility Directors or Teaching Professionals are visited by USTA staff, but normally extremely busy directors do not want to "change" the status quo. One thing is clear, Public Tennis Centers are understaffed and would consider in a heartbeat sharing a TSR as an employee. What a win-win opportunity to have an immediate USTA tennis impact at public facilities. In other words solicit new Tennis Service Reps for key Tennis Facilities. These same individuals would establish the "model tennis environment" for their own facility and be a model for a major metropolitan area.

Suggestion #4 Correct the existing facility design of High School and neighborhood public courts by offering a model for schools and parks. Lack of shade, no water, continuous cyclone fencing and no seating is universal. Consider USPTA's suggestion of allowing teaching professionals the opportunity to promote and control these unsupervised sites.

Suggestion #5 Offer "no charge service" consulting on basic functional design - not working plans - for public facilities. Get communities at least started in the right direction; many new facilities are "over engineered" and will quickly become difficult to maintain in relation to the revenues they will be collecting. Most architects do not understand the needs of a typical public facility - they will not even refer to USTC & TBA Guidelines for Tennis Courts. I have seen enough "botched" facilities to know that architects never hire a tennis consultant. Ask Kurt Kamperman on his experience with this extremely important issue. Do it right the first time!

Suggestion #6 One thing is clear, and is a no-brainer, rather than being on a committee that will hopefully influence facility directors to adopt USTA programming, why not have facility directors on the committee that will do the influencing? Better yet, how about offering a National "workshop" for Public Facility Directors at the USTA Annual meeting, or at all sectional annual meetings. Arizona Workshop!

Special Note: John Austin, Tennis Director for the new facility in Surprise, Arizona and the Reffkin Tennis Center in Tucson are initiating a Southwest Facility Directors Workshop during the USTA Annual Meeting in March. If you are a Public Facility Director please contact John or myself.