(May 3, 2013) -- The USTA’s goal of growing the game of tennis, while both noble and necessary, is big business. Each one of their partnerships with sponsors, retailers, and outside tennis programs is a strategic one; every high-profile event and high-society gala is carefully calculated with visibility and fundraising potential in mind.
So it’s no surprise that many of the USTA’s sections (the country is broken up into 17 of them), complete with their own president and a board of directors, function with the same profit-oriented mentality.
Consider the USTA Texas Section’s announcement that they will be partnering with Tennis Warehouse – one of the largest online tennis retailers in the world – to offer a 15% discount on “select” items when ordered through a special USTA Texas web portal. Of course, the discount applies to a minute percentage of Tennis Warehouse’s overall product selection, but the Texas Section insists the move will fund grassroots programs.
In this case, the USTA appears to have picked the low-hanging fruit, endorsing a giant, worldwide retailer to the detriment of local tennis businesses that interact with players and promote community events on a daily basis. The trickle-down financial effect sounds great in theory, but the benefit at the grassroots level remains to be seen.
Though Texas was the fifth section to engage in such a partnership with Tennis Warehouse, the USTA Eastern Section wouldn’t be so quick to jump on that bandwagon according to executive director, Jill Fonte.
“If we were presented with that offer, we would not be inclined to participate because we serve a lot of constituencies, and we want to support our organization members in addition to our general members,” she said.
Fonte went on to explain that she understands why local tennis stores and pro shops would be uncomfortable with those kinds of inter-industry sponsorship deals.
“The USTA in general needs to be really careful, particularly at the sectional level, about what kind of partnerships we take on,” she continued. “We need to make sure we’re true to our mission to support and develop the growth of tennis.”
Tennis Express is a Houston-based tennis retailer that has consistently supported the local tennis community, sponsoring tournaments, leagues, events, and donating to NJTL tennis programs for underserved youth in the area. The USTA sections’ deal with Tennis Warehouse hurts businesses like these that consistently work to advance the game at a grassroots level.
Houston Tennis Association president, Emily Schaefer, explained the value of brick and mortar stores like Tennis Express.
“They’ve always shown a commitment to growing tennis in Houston,” Schaefer said. “Their support of our local youth tennis program (NJTL) has impacted thousands of children in our area. Tennis Express demonstrates how local retailers can contribute to the USTA mission of promoting and developing the growth of tennis and is worthy of recognition.”
Richard Flores, owner of the specialty store First Serve Tennis in San Antonio, is troubled by the USTA Texas decision to prioritize profit over progress.
“The local retailers and small pro shops are on the front lines,” Flores said. “We’re promoting the sport. For the USTA to say we’re going to partner with a big mail order place, it just doesn’t make much sense to me. You’d think they would want to direct their support to the people that are helping them indirectly.”
According to the Tennis Industry Association, tennis in the U.S. is a $5.57 billion business. Their recently published State of the Industry report for 2012 showed a 3% increase in the total tennis economy from 2011; however, the current Consumer Confidence Index for the tennis industry is still nearly half of what it was in 2007. Growth and recovery are clearly needed, making the USTA sections’ job of supporting grassroots programs all the more important.
The balance between growing the game and raising funds is a delicate one. Tennis players and fans should carefully consider where they purchase their gear with the knowledge that local programs and retailers are truly instrumental in creating the tennis communities we so enjo
For more on the USTA's role in various aspects of tennis development, see Wayne Bryan's update on TennisInsiders.com.
(Photo Credit: Simon O'Dwyer)