USTA Florida's Effort to Save Public Tennis Courts


Posted on August 21, 2007

By Richard Vach

Public tennis courts and facilities are under attack in Florida, and never has  there been a better time for developing a strong “tennis advocacy” program throughout the state.


The Florida legislature has forced cities to make drastic cuts to support a 2007-2008 budget that limits the property taxes cities can collect. The plan will reportedly save most homeowners between approximately $100 to $200 in property tax for the year, but at the same time will cost cities tens of millions of dollars in cuts — cuts often directed at city parks and recreation, or public tennis courts and facilities.

The situation really hit home for Florida tennis players when the City of Daytona Beach announced it would cease funding for and close the Florida Tennis Center, the five-year-old 24-Hydro-Clay court complex and headquarters for USTA Florda.

Never mind that the Florida Tennis Center contributes approximately $6 million annually to the local economy through 10-15 sectional state-wide events held at the complex each year. After the departure of a tennis-loving city manager who helped get the center off the ground, the new city manager saw closing the center as a way to save a few hundred thousand dollars a year. This set USTA Florida and Daytona-area tennis advocates into action.

TENNIS ADVOCACY IN ACTION

The Daytona Beach hotel association rallied support for the Florida Tennis Center, whose 10-15 sectional state-wide events each year bring 400-500 participants and their families and friends to Daytona Beach during each event — and more than $500,000 for each event into the local economy. In addition, USTA Florida only schedules their tournaments between major area sporting events such as the Daytona 500 and Bike Week events, filling in the gaps in the local tourist economy. Daytona-area tennis fans, hotel industry representatives and other supporters attended city commission meetings, speaking on behalf of the center that is filled weeknights and weekends with camps, league, junior and adult recreational and tournament play.

Local newspaper columnist Dick Evans and other reporters of the Daytona Beach News-Journal also stirred up what became a bee’s nest of local support.

“In my mind, the Florida Tennis Center ranks right behind the Daytona Speedway, Embry-Riddle and Daytona Beach Community College as a major sports attraction for the City of Daytona Beach,” Evans wrote. “If you don’t believe me, then talk to some of the merchants who benefit greatly from the income derived from local, state, and national tournaments at the Florida Tennis Center.”

Tennis advocates and community leaders have rallied to pressure the city to reconsider the plan, and a final solution is being negotiated. USTA Florida Executive Director Doug Booth spent numerous days meeting with Daytona Beach community leaders and city officials, explaining the facility’s benefit to the city.

“I hope that this place will not be closed Oct. 1, but we are still exploring options and negotiating with the city to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Booth said. “And that has to happen in every community.”

FLORIDA’S CHANGING LANDSCAPE

Tennis facilities are under attack in many cities at the same time that tennis participation and sales statistics are approaching that of the Golden Age of tennis in the U.S. -- the late 1970s and early 1980s. Currently tennis has the largest participation increase of any sport nation wide over the last six years, and is leading all sports in increased participation.

“Tennis is the only traditional sport reporting increased participation during the past six years,” read envious PGA promotional golf literature, referring to the 2006 Sport and Fitness Participation Report. “NRPA & The PGA of America are striving to do for golf, what parks and recreation have contributed to the resurgence of tennis.”

The USTA Florida School Tennis program has also been systematically introducing tennis to school districts across the state as part of their physical education curriculum and after-school programs, creating a whole new generation of players waiting to take the courts. Much of that play will be on public courts, but at the same time, state tax legislation has cities cutting back funding of public facilities. According to USTA Florida, approximately 75 percent of tennis in the state is played at public tennis centers and on public courts.

“I am seeing more and more parents show up at public tennis courts with their children who have learned tennis in the schools programs,” Booth says. “Moms and dads want more quality time with their children.”

Youth racquet sales are up a whopping 48 percent over 2006. Tennis ball sales, the “magic indicator” for the industry, are up over 10 percent, while overall racquet sales are up 30 percent over the last three years.

“Everyone I speak to around the state says their summer camp participation is through the roof,” Booth said. “This is prior to the commitment we have from some of the state’s largest districts to join our schools program. We just brought in Dade County [Miami], we’ve had Hillsborough County [Tampa] on for two years, we just did a deal where we’re going to get Palm Beach County. All three school districts are in the Top 12 in the United States in size. They are doing a county-wide initiative in their elementary and middle schools to have tennis because the federal government passed a ‘school wellness’ mandate, and they can check off their activity as tennis. These are going to be the next crop of adult players, and where are they going to play? They are going to want public tennis courts to play on.”

ADVOCACY CASE STUDY: PALM COAST

The city of Tampa is slated to lose its largest public tennis facility, while numerous other facilities are under the microscope of city budgets, and some cities are also choosing not to replace retiring city directors of tennis to save a city salary. The need for grassroots tennis advocacy in many Florida cities, say USTA Florida representatives, is dire.

USTA Florida is  excited about the upcoming USTA National Advocacy Initiative that will be rolled out by the USTA national office during the US Open. In the meantime, USTA Florida representatives are undergoing training in preparation for the advocacy program launch, as well as seeking “advocacy scouts” in each Florida region.

If you want to see advocacy in action, says Booth, look at Palm Coast, an extremely active tennis community on the ocean just north of Daytona Beach.

“Cities that expect world-class facilities, their players demand them,” Booth said. “We have got to do in other cities what Palm Coast did. When Palm Coast lost the property at The Players Club — it has been there forever and it is one of the nicest facilities in the state of Florida with grass, clay and hard, sort of like ATP [headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach] — they sold the property. It happens all over the state, once they sell out and a club becomes equity, they start saying ‘So where do we cut money?’ They started slowly taking the courts out, because the courts weren’t as valuable to them as building condos on. Then you had the tennis people that were out-placed, and they had to drive 30 minutes down here [to Daytona Beach] to play. Then they got mad.”

The Palm Coast players rallied their political connections, started attending city council meetings and took to the floor to speak, sometimes 10-15 speakers — one after another — to make the case for tennis in their community.

“Many of these were retired people with time and connections, and they started showing up with ‘Friends of Tennis’ buttons on their lapels at meetings, and the city council said, ‘These people are going to show up until hell freezes over if we don’t give them what they want,’” Booth said. “They kept showing up to the meetings, they kept calling because many tennis people are very well-connected. They knew the city commission people and others well enough to call and say, ‘We still want this place — please find the money!’”

Booth says it is a critical time for tennis in Florida, where the current trend if continued could see the elimination of many public courts and a return to the exclusive ‘country club only’ state of tennis.

“What we have to do is make sure we have ‘Friends of Tennis’ people all over the state,” Booth says. “What’s happening in Tampa, they have a ‘friend of tennis,’ someone involved in public relations, and with our help they have formed a new Community Tennis Association, and are talking to the Tampa Tribune tennis writers, and they have changed attitudes and the dialogue over there. And we’re doing the same thing [in Daytona].”

THE TENNIS ADVOCACY SOLUTION

When the USTA advocacy program is rolled out, USTA Florida wants to see tennis players supporting existing facilities, and pushing for new ones as USTA Florida assists communities in need.

“We want to see public parks built that can also host high school tennis teams, and vice versa, high school courts built that also support community play,” Booth said. “The money is there, from what I’m seeing with these legislative moves. They’re cutting back on operating dollars yearly, but it’s not cutting back on capital expenditures. A lot of cities still have a lot of money they’ve developed over the years from sales tax and other things in capital dollars, which they can use for capital projects — not to support current projects, but to build new tennis courts and facilities.”

USTA Florida Director of Community Development Linda Curtis is certain that the new advocacy tools will arm tennis communities under fire with ammunition that has already saved courts and tennis facilities in other cities.

“It has to start with a group of people passionate for tennis like they have in Palm Coast,” Curtis said. “And as shown in Palm Coast, the advocacy movement in Florida and across the nation is so important to the future of tennis. We’re putting into place the tools for advocacy and showing people ‘You can make this happen.’”

Booth says USTA Florida will further tackle the issue of the availability of public courts, tennis advocacy, and the trends that will effect the growth and the health of the sport in Florida over the next 10 years at their year-end annual meeting in December.

“We’ve got to make sure tennis people understand the power of their voice and their connections in saving existing facilities and getting new ones built,” Booth says.

To learn more about tennis advocacy in your community or city, contact USTA Florida Director of Community Development Linda Curtis at (386) 671-8934 or
curtisl@florida.usta.com.

This article appears in the September 2007 issue of JAX Tennis magazine, Northeast Florida's Tennis Source at
www.jaxtennismagazine.com.
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