by Ed Shanaphy, USPTA, PTR, CMAA
It’s the world of here and now. Social media allows us all to show and share a life at full pace at the instant we live it. We have Instacart and Doordash – food on demand. Even our Xfinity app is called “On Demand” on our smart televisions. And, Netflix allows us to watch our favorite movie at any time, anywhere there is WIFI. We are just so accustomed to service on demand, we expect it in everything we do. We simply text, call, email, open the app and have our food, our coffee, our vaccines or PCR tests, booked or delivered. I feel like an old antiquarian while ordering my DD on a hard-to-hear speaker and microphone outside Dunkin. Even my local sheriffs now just walk in and collect their “from-the-app” to go orders. No chatter or doughnuts with this generation of law enforcement. They just want their coffee and they want it now.
Why should tennis or fitness be different? They aren’t.
The proof is in the pudding – the role of the concierge is growing. Front desk management at sports clubs has moved on from just saying hello and grabbing a member a towel. It’s a more mature role. An all-encompassing front desk these days, from booking spa and nail, or massage appointments, to being a personal shopper for a member delving through the tennis and fitness merchandise, it’s not just the attendant we used to know. And both fitness and tennis are following what the millennials want out of their leisure time – on demand, individualized programming.
Generation X Now Serving The Millennials
Unfortunately, like Flywheel, SoulCycles spin off – no pun intended – and competitor which recently filed for bankruptcy, the days of being social and calling around to see who’s available for a game of doubles are disappearing. Even Men’s Day at most clubs is a simple text: “You in or out this Tuesday evening?” Leave it to the tennis pro to figure out a plan where no one has to play with someone for more than 15 minutes or 4 games, no ad. Today’s ways and desires of players and gym-goers were sown a long time ago.
If we think about it, it all started with the generation just prior to the millennials – Generation X. As the older Baby Boomers age off the tennis courts and gym floors, Gen X now serves as the committee heads and presidents of clubs and centers of leisure, from elite golf clubs to city clubs named after Ivy League institutions. And recall how that generation began its time on the tennis courts? Junior clinics. As clubs matured through the 70s and 80s, the juniors that comprise Gen X were part of on-court tennis programming from an early age. Games like Scramble and a bit later, Touch The Fence, were the mainstay of junior tennis clinics. Participatory rather than truly competitive as the political pendulum swung back and forth.
From Group Exercise and Soul Cycle to Independent Programming and Peloton
It’s Generation X that is now heading up tennis and fitness committees. It’s the millennials who are asking for more spa space, more TRX classes under an hour, and more personal, independent training. As Covid reared its ugly head in 2020, gyms closed, group fitness in confined spaces disappeared, and personal training and fitness moved into the home. Now, it’s all programmed. From Peloton to The Mirror, programmed fitness is here to stay and is one of the biggest industries in the land. And the stock market is betting that fitness programming is here to stay for a long time.
Just a few years ago SoulCycle was the newest fad. Front desks at SoulCycle studios popping up and closely dotted across major metropolises were hard-pushed to keep up with the demand for reservations. Would-be riders would call 5 minutes ahead of a booking time and keep the front desk attendant on the phone until the time was right to make the reservation. Now, that’s all gone. The studios are dark after complaints filed in that SoulCycle wasn’t attending to the needs of its clients anymore with such fast and furious growth. Millennials wanted more individualized service, varied programs, and on demand.
As we travel from club to club studying trends, we note that static bikes are no longer just bikes. Well, if they are, they are in the spin room. But spin has faced challenges from Covid and many of those studios, like Flywheel’s bankruptcy, are dormant or gone. But the bikes are still in the main gym – they are just Peloton bikes with their own television set showing you an instructor and a program. Above are the televisions showing you CNN and FOX News, other outlets now attempting to program us.
It’s the apotheosis of programming – one on one training, based on likes and dislikes, on a bike. A bike at home or just inside the gym door. Peloton and The Mirror have shown us what Nordic Track and Bowflex had known for years – people want programming on demand. Peloton is betting on itself in the long term, as it is selling convertible debt at a higher rate than Tesla did just last year, according to a recent article in Barrons.
Peloton is betting long, and it looks like fitness will be almost all programmable and personalized, and tennis is starting to look the same.
On-Court Programming Will Soon Surpass Open Play Among Club Tennis Players
Tennis, the game, starts with love, and unless you are working with a ball machine or on the backboard or wall, it requires two or more people. It simply can’t be as individualized as fitness. Summer 2020 saw singles, though, take off amid a Pandemic. Family doubles followed around the country as the tennis industry waited to see how it would come out of Covid. As the summer wore on, programming with 4 or fewer people joining an instructor who was ordered to pick up all the balls as per USTA protocols, was the mainstay of most tennis club and facility programming.
And any kind of new programming you can add, they are all about it.Kelsey Waite, Head Professional, Bethesda Country Club, Bethesda, MD
But on-court programming has been gaining on open play for court usage over the past several years. As Kelsey Waite mentions on her upcoming BeyondTheBaselines.com podcast, her team at Bethesda Country Club are unable to keep up with the demand for live ball drills and games. “It’s incredible to see the numbers on court each and every day in our live ball clinics.” She continues on as the head pro at a year-round club, “They love any kind of programming you can offer. And any kind of new programming you can add, they are all about it. If they want more of what we can give… well that’s a great problem to have.” And it’s not just at Bethesda where they want more and more programming.
The same holds true for Harry Gilbert at Waccabuc Country Club and he says that Covid just pushed the pace for live ball programming a bit faster. It’s a common thread across many clubs he says on his most recent podcast with BeyondTheBaselines.com. Even players from an older demographic are finding live ball drills, competitive games with the pro feeding, enjoyable and a part of their schedule. It’s just how they grew up 30 years ago in junior clinics, dropped off at the courts, for an hour and a half full of competitive drills and live ball games without serves. Now, as adults with just an hour for a workout as part of their daily routine, these Gen X and millennials are hoping to get a workout in while on the court – a better workout than a doubles game can provide. But also, something to which they are more akin, leftover from their childhood.
But there are a few other reasons why programming is taking over open play. One is revenue. Clubs are seeing on-court revenues, and the club’s share of that revenue, growing exponentially. Once clubs see this growing stream of revenue, they open up more courts for live ball and programmed play with professional supervision. The growing revenue stream is defraying fixed costs such as salaries and liabilities. But it is also, and perhaps more importantly, breaking down barriers of entry in two ways. Revenue wise this new stream is allowing new member initiation fees to be paid over several years instead of just one lump sum, which in the past had been a barrier to entry into a membership. Now, with initiation fees being paid over, say three to five years at more and more clubs and member facilities, the financial barriers to entry are gone.
But there was one other major barrier to entry. The age-old doubles foursome. That barrier is disappearing as well. No longer does a new member have to break into a doubles game that’s been around for years. That new member can just call the concierge and get onto a programmed court with different members of all playing levels at any hour of the day. Different levels of play are accounted for by arranging levels by court. “It’s never the same group of players at cardio.” says one long-time member of a New England club. “It keeps the club socially fresh for me.”
It’s becoming a vicious cycle. A secondary factor to programming growth is cyclical. As the programming grows and strengthens aimed at attracting new member applicants, the number of new members attracted to that type of programming grows and adds to the numbers participating in clinic and organized play. Just as with other industries, tennis and clubs are adapting their play to shorter attention spans and fewer hours in the day for leisure. Round robins are more a 4-game shootout these days with no ad scoring rather than an elongated three setter or even a full set. Millennials don’t want to share their precious time on court with perhaps someone they don’t like or admire. They’re looking for quick rotations where players change courts and partners every 12 to 15 minutes and clubs and pros are acquiescing. Speed dating was the precursor to Up The River, Down The River on the tennis court.
As we hopefully move beyond the Coronavirus era and look forward to a new normal, although masks may have to be worn for some time, there is no masking the fact that tennis and fitness programming is fast outpacing doubles and singles play and simply working out on one’s own in the gym. Today’s active gym-goers and tennis players want a program, for them, right here, and most importantly, right now.
Ed Shanaphy is an industry leading management consultant and President of http://www.beyondthebaselines.com, an international management consultancy. He and his acclaimed consultancy have worked with clubs across the globe, most recently Wightman Tennis Center in Weston, MA and Pretty Brook Tennis Club, in Princeton, NJ.