In this interview with Club Industry, Alan Schwartz - the chairman of Tennis Corp. of America (TCA) and newly named first vice president of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) - talks about the future of tennis in our industry.

Club Industry: Tennis participation in the United States is continuing to decline, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. From a 10-year high of 18.8 million participants in 1989 (people who played more than once), the number of tennis players dropped to 10.9 million last year. Why has tennis participation declined so dramatically, and can it rebound?

Alan Schwartz: I have never looked, nor has the tennis industry, at the figures that the National Sports marketing surveys does because they just mail out 20,000 questionnaires and people fill them in. It's self-administered. We have always liked the surveys done by Sports Marketing Surveys (SMS). They have been tracing tennis, asking the same questions for almost 40 years [counting their predecessors]....

We like to go back to 1995 as a pretty key year because that was the year the initiative to grow the game took place. And at that time, there were 17.8 million tennis players. In 1999, [there were approximately] 20.7 million tennis players. Let me define tennis players [because some surveys would make you think that the number of players has dropped]. A player is defined as someone who plays four times or more in the past 12 months. And of those, in 1999, there were a little more than 14,110,000. Those who played between one and three times was 6,671,000, giving you a total number of players of 20,781,000. We believe that's the accurate figure. And that compares in 1995 with 17.8 million.

Comparing [these figures] with sales of tennis balls gives us, we think, the most accurate measure of play. Surveys are one thing, but you can't get anything more accurate than the number of tennis balls being sold. All of the manufacturers of tennis balls have been kind enough to submit their numbers to us. The 1995 tennis ball figure was 104,408,000, and in 1999, 113,182,000. Those percentages bear out the percentages of play.

CI: Great programs like Atlanta's ALTA demonstrate that participation can be driven by well-planned efforts. Why have so few communities been able to follow Atlanta's lead?

AS: First of all, some have followed ALTA's lead, such as Hilton Head [South Carolina] and San Diego. And there is a study group [that is making] a detailed study in terms of what has made ALTA so successful: the demographics, the economics, the social factors. We think that's something we can learn from.

In the meantime, ALTA is a Team Tennis format, and nationally, right now, the USTA, not counting ALTA, has more than 500,000 people playing in Team Tennis and leagues. That's up 30 percent in the past two years. Team Tennis is...more often than not both for youth and adults, and more often than not it's coed, and it has a format very similar to the format of Billie Jean King's World Team Tennis.

The main difference between Team Tennis and ALTA is that ALTA has a team comprised of people of varying tennis ability, whereas Team Tennis are people who are all of comparable playing ability. Both can work.

CI: Many clubs have abandoned tennis as participation in it declined. Still, other club tennis programs are thriving. What can clubs do better to develop and market their tennis programs?

AS: I think there are several things. One, they would do well to make the pros at the club year-round employees if possible and, two, treat them as employees and not as independent contractors.

Being treated as year-round employees can usually be done in indoor clubs because they have a long indoor season; you can have a few outdoor courts and an air-conditioned indoor. The second point, treating them as independent contractors, builds loyalty to the club. That may cost a little more for the club because they are paying social security, they may have a 401k plan, they may have health insurance, but you are showing them that you are treating them as an important member of the team rather than save that 15 to 20 percent that comes with some of these [benefits].

No. 3, I think that they should offer specialty programs for existing players. By that I mean programs that can give them an exciting new shot to what they already have. Examples might be a top spin lob, or it might be an American twist second serve, or it might be a half volley. When an average player develops a new shot in their arsenal, they get very excited and get recommitted.

The fourth thing I think clubs should do is reach out with group lessons to beginners to keep the pipeline full.

CI: The tennis equipment industry, the USTA, and commercial health and racquet clubs have made significant efforts to develop kid's programs to bring new players to the game. Considering the worsening problems we're seeing with youth inactivity, what needs to be done to attract more children to tennis?

AS: That's a great question. We think our biggest competition is the computer, not so much other activities, because active kids tend to be active in a number of sports. They may be soccer players in the fall, tennis players in the summer. But the computer has them glued into chat rooms and everything else where they are inactive, period.

Having identified the computer as one of the big issues, the next point addresses your question directly: [When] the parent is involved with the child jointly, that's the way you get [children] into tennis in a big way.

There is, for example, a program called Rally Ball, in which the parent is part of the lesson program where they are feeding the ball to the child. The parent is involved and the child is involved, and it is time together. There is a program that the United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) has called Little Tennis in which the parent is involved with the child in the learning process. And there is a program that the United States Professional Tennis Registry (USPTR) has called Munchkin Tennis, with the parents involved....

CI: What efforts have suppliers of tennis made to help attract more people to the game?

AS: The Tennis Industry Association [TIA], which has among its members not only the United States Tennis Association but also tennis products suppliers..., have assessed themselves and their Far East manufacturers in order to develop a pool of dollars to give free tennis lessons, known as the Tennis Blitz, to get people started.

They [the tennis industry] have become part of a relatively newly established (in the last five years) pathway to play. And the pathway is: try, which is the free lesson; learn, the second part, which is Tennis 1,2,3, which is part of Plan For Growth, and we'll talk about that in a moment; play, the third part - that's where your Team Tennis and leagues come in; and lastly, compete, if you wish....

The industry has been coming up with close to a million dollars a year on the try part of it - the free lesson. I think that's pretty remarkable.

In addition, the industry has the Cartoon Network Smash Tennis series, which reached 164,000 youngsters [through July of this year; that's already 17 percent ahead of the total for 1999]. It's a traveling tennis carnival in which they have gotten the rights to certain cartoon characters, like Scooby Doo, and they bring that carnival to different cities, probably as many as 50 cities a year. That gets people, particularly youngsters, excited about tennis, and gives them a chance to try.

CI: It appears as if tennis was slow to be positioned as a healthy lifestyle activity to the masses. What steps do you think tennis suppliers, the USTA, and commercial health and racquet clubs should take to position tennis as a fun, healthy lifestyle option?

AS: The USTA and Tennis Industry Association teamed up as far back as 1994, first in a program called Play Tennis America, and then in a program that is now going, which is a five-year, $50 million program called Plan For Growth. [We] have tried very hard to show the healthy benefits of tennis, but I don't think we have been as successful in that part of the endeavor as we could be. We need to get more materials out there to let people know how healthy tennis is as an exercise.

The USTA has really reached out in its steering committee on the Plan For Growth to be inclusive of many other of the people involved in tennis, both commercially and noncommercially. For example, for the first time ever this year, in late August, the week before the U.S. Open started, the USTA turned over a large area for a tennis show - a little more than 30,000 square feet - at no charge. There was for the first time ever a tennis show at the grounds of the U.S. Open in which every booth was sold out. There were more than 80 exhibitors [manufacturers of tennis-related products].... The show was quite successful, and they want to do it again next year in even larger quarters.

CI: Congratulations on your nomination as first vice president of the USTA. How would you grade the USTA on its past and current efforts to promote tennis and increase participation levels?

AS: Up until 1995, the efforts to grow the game were minimal. A lot of effort was placed in running a successful U.S. Open and successful Davis Cup and Fed Cup. And there were certainly some major efforts for quite some years to raise the funds to build the new Arthur Ash Stadium....

But then two very significant things happened in 1995. No. 1, the USTA adopted for the first time ever a mission statement, and that mission statement is a simple eight-word statement which I'm pleased I had a hand in authoring. And it was, "To promote and develop the growth of tennis." It recognizes the fact that by an act of Congress, the USTA is the national governing body of tennis, and it resets the focus of going to the grassroots and developing the game.

The second key event that took place...was the creation of the Plan For Growth. Over a five-year period of time, the USTA committed $33 million dollars cash as well as untold staff and volunteer hours, and the Tennis Industry Association committed at that time a little more than $7 million dollars cash. And we have been spending more each year.... (We had a short period in 1997, in which about $2.5 million was spent, not part of that $40 million, and then we are just completing year three - 1998, 1999 and 2000.)

The goal was twofold: a, create 800,000 new players, and b, create a million more very active players (defined as those playing 21 times a year or more). We have blown away the numbers on the 800,000; as we stand now in October of 2000, we are already past the 700,000 mark. The new goal is to raise the 800,000 to 1,200,000.

As far as the active players are concerned...our goal was to go from 4.9 million, which is what we had in '95 and '96, to 5.9 million. At the end of two years, we are at already at 5.4 million....

I would also give USTA good marks for being inclusive and having as part of the Plan For Growth partners such as the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). We have gone to 21 states now and given courses for which the recipients receive credit from the NRPA in how to run and manage a tennis facility. We will hit all 50 states within the next year and a half.

[The Plan For Growth initiative] includes the USPTA and the USPTR.... It includes the ATA, which is the American Tennis Association, which is the African American tennis association. It includes the TIA.... It includes World Team Tennis.... It includes the WTA, the Women's Tennis Association, which is the women's touring group. And the ATP, which is the Association of Tennis Professionals, which is the men's touring group....

CI: IHRSA has set a goal of 100 million health and fitness facility members (worldwide) by 2010. What goals will you set for the USTA in terms of growing participation in the sport?

AS: My own personal goal, one that has not been officially articulated by the USTA other than through the Plan For Growth, is to see a 4 percent to 5 percent compound annual increase. And we're ahead of that pace as measured by ball sales.

The exciting thing was that...first of all, 1999 ball sales were up 5.4 percent over 1998. No. 2, the recent [ball sales] figures we have for the first six months of 2000 were up 9 percent over the first six months of 1999. We are on the way up, and people need to realize that.

What's so interesting about our Plan For Growth [is that it] has been so successful that baseball, football, golf and skiing have all contacted us...for details of our plan. And golf, as measured by rounds played, has declined in the last year, and [golf] has already started to implement a program based on our Plan For Growth....

CI: From the perspective of the commercial health and racquet facility owner and operator, whom would you identify as partners for them to work with to grow the game?

AS: I think that there are at least four or five partners that are involved in tennis and a couple that are not.

The USTA would be very important for them because we have programs, we have innovative grants available, we have lots of things available.

IHRSA would be very important because they can compare statistics there, they have innovative grants there.

The third would be the two pro organizations, the USPTA and USPTR, and then the Tennis Industry Association. All of them have programs and information, and either grants or other things which absolutely are there if the commercial health and racquet facility will take advantage of [them].

Then I would reach out beyond that, and I think that if the commercial clubs would either adopt a park or adopt a school or maybe adopt a group of Girl Scout or Boy Scout troops or a combination of some of those, they would do well. It would make them a real part of the community, and there would be all kinds of potential for junior programs to develop from it....

CI: It appears as if the popularity of tennis hinges on the popularity of its stars. What impact do you think the most dominant players in the sport today - such as the Williams sisters - are going to have on levels of participation?

AS: Another really great question. A recent survey done by the Tennis Industry Assocation showed that only 4 percent of the youngsters who take up tennis do so because of the stars of the sport, and more than 50 percent because of the influence of their immediate family - parents and siblings.

That said, I think the Williams sisters are a very special phenomenon, and I believe that they are helping to fuel the growth of tennis. They are filling a bit of a void left by McEnroe and Connors. They are tapping into more diversity in the sport. And I think they can continue to be a very positive influence.

There are some issues that tennis is facing in the United States by virtue of the aging of that magnificent class of '89 and '90, which is now aging and retiring. That class included Sampras, Agassi, Courier, Chang, Martin, Washington and Weaton. It would be very helpful if men's tennis could produce a new crop of American stars, and the USTA is funding an $8 million a year effort to develop those stars, both men and women. In the meantime, we are relying on our bumper crop of American women until the player development produces replacements for the classes of '89 and '90.

But softening that blow is the emergence of some very, very attractive international stars, [with whom] people all over the world can identify. You don't have to look any further than Marat Safin, who just won the U.S. Open; Martini Hingis; Mary Pierce; Patrick Rafter; Mark Philippoussis; Marcelos Rios; Alex Corretja.

There are some young, bright stars, and to the extent that stars help, we've got them. It's the grassroots, basic, bring them into the game, have the parents involved, see how much fun is involved and how it can be fun for a lifetime and bridge the generation gap...message that will continue tennis on the exciting upward swing it's on now.