By Ed Shanaphy For RSI Tennis Magazine
With the summer season upon us for clubs in New England, Michigan and across other Northern areas, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the tennis industry. Real estate prices across “destination” locations, such as Maine, Martha’s Vineyard and Mackinac Island, are dropping precipitously. Summer in New York State’s Hamptons will be far from what it was a year ago. COVID-19 has changed family travel plans, thoughts on memberships to clubs, and the way we will play tennis this summer.
But, is the virus just a catalyst? Was there something afoot already in our industry in relation to teaching professionals?
For years, an older demographic of Americans would travel down to the warmer Southern states at Thanksgiving. The seasonal “light switch,” pros call it, would turn on around Jan. 8 and turn off just after Easter, when the “snowbirds” would migrate back North. The pros would follow suit and follow the sun a bit later in May or June. But all this is changing.
Without air travel as an effective mode of transport for the time being, the snowbirds are staying South. And they are finding that May and June are two of the most beautiful months in Southern states. But this trend of a later migration was already happening long before COVID-19, for a number of factors.
Exodus to the South
One reason is that residents in “high-tax” states like Connecticut and New York were no longer allowed to claim certain deductions on federal income tax, which has contributed to an exodus of “residents” to lower-tax states in the South. In 2018, for example, 64,000 taxpayers changed their tax residence from New York to Florida. This influx of new residents to Southern states is growing with each tax year.
Maintaining a tax residence in a state, or to leave the tax web of a former state, a taxpayer must reside in the new state for 181 days per calendar year. Rather than just heading South in late November, these residents are arriving in October and staying through May, if not longer. They expect full service at their clubs, on the golf courses, in the club or gated community’s gym, and on the tennis courts.
“We are at 90 percent occupancy,” said a general manager at a gated community in Vero Beach, Fla., in early May. “We’ve never seen occupancy this high, even over spring break.” His clubhouse kitchen is cooking take-out dinners for the club’s residents daily.
As residents flee the highly populated cities of the North or remain in Florida, Texas, Arizona and other Southern states, country clubs, golf courses and tennis facilities are seeing heavy usage. The season that started back in late October looks to continue through the end of June, and July 4, rather than Easter, appears to be the new date to turn off the light switch in 2020.
Real Estate, Rentals and Readiness
“COVID-19 could put us back 15 to 20 years on the island,” said a real estate agent based in Edgartown, Mass. She pointed at homes in the $1.5 to $5 million range. “These homes rely on renters to defray the costs of being on the island. Without a major upgrade to healthcare infrastructure and facilities on the island, renters won’t be coming.” Summers usually see owners using properties in such “destination” locales in June and July and then renting those properties for the month of August. That one-month rent often covers the running cost of the property for the year.
The head of Martha Vineyard’s hospital, Denise Schepici, wrote an open letter pleading for home-owners to stay off the island: “Our community hospital was simply not built to simultaneously handle an increasing population and a worsening pandemic. … If you have a permanent residence off-Island, please stay home.” With just a few ICU beds, people are rethinking rentals, and even ownership, in far-away locales.
Adding a possible four hours to air travel for COVID-19 preparedness and procedures at the airport could spell doom for many summer destinations as residents simply stay in the Southern states. According to Forbes Magazine, smaller airlines, which service these seasonal locations, are in danger of turning off their engines forever.
End of The Southern Seasonal Pro?
What does this all mean? It means that the Southern teaching professional and director of tennis is becoming a year-round position.
As one looks at the job boards and discussions on Facebook and changes in the industry, it is impossible to not notice that there are fewer and fewer seasonal jobs in Florida, Texas and other Southern states. “Full-time” or “year-round” along with the FLSA legal jargon of “exempt” employee are the new normal.
While this trend was under way before COVID-19, this pandemic is now cementing the year-round position. With many Southern states continuing to be “open for business,” snowbirds are staying and delaying their return North. Across the South, what were once seasonal positions have become or are becoming year-round.
Interestingly, the age of doubling salaries and revenues with a 10-week season up North and then heading South for the winter is disappearing. While there are seasonal jobs in New England and Colorado for the summer, there are fewer seasonal positions down South now in the winters, leaving teaching pros literally “out in the cold.” And both Northern and Southern seasons seem to be getting longer, and overlapping.
If not specifically advertised as a year-round role, the quiet extension of the Southern season is making the director’s position a year-round one, and this extension ends the journey of a seasonal professional. Clubs across the South have been elongating their contractual periods with their professionals from April into May and beyond.
The average age of tennis professionals is rising. Healthcare comes with year-round positions, so it’s not surprising to find established professionals taking year-round roles. The traveling tennis pro is becoming a rare bird. In fact, as of mid-May, on the largest job board in the industry, the USPTA did not list a single seasonal position south of Kentucky, with the winter season is less than four months away.
Heading into summer, teaching professionals are facing plenty of challenges. As the talent pool for Northern clubs dries up as more professionals remain in the South, instruction and member service could see a decline at long-established country clubs and tennis facilities in New England and Northern states.
But more alarmingly for the tennis professional, winter creates a new challenge. Incomes will not be as lucrative as more positions become permanently full-time down South. More worryingly, far fewer opportunities will be available.
Ed Shanaphy is President of BeyondTheBaselines.com, a subsidiary of SBW Associates, Inc. He earned his B.A. from Duke University and his M.A. from The London School of Economics. He is a USPTA certified professional and serves as Director of Tennis at Sippican Tennis Club in Marion, Mass. This article first appeared in the July, 2020 issue of Racquet Sport Industry (RSI) Magazine.