Anyone Insane Enough to Think We Know What the Hell We’re Doing?
Why America’s governing body of tennis is on its way to becoming insignificant
As former USTA Adult Tennis Leagues and national ratings program (NTRP) leader on the USTA Tennislink Team, a support function for over a thousand section league coordinators, I was able to get thorough insights into the inner workings of that non-profit organization. I left in 2010 and started my own company following the USTA, its people, and its activities. In January of 2014, I started to write and publish TENNIS CLUB BUSINESS, a monthly newsletter for tennis professionals and club owners which has over time evolved into a hub for “holding their feet to the fire” by reporting about USTA executives, their many unfortunate decisions and often negative results.
The last (and lasting) USTA success story is the Adult Leagues program which started in 1980. Just a few years later it was enhanced tremendously with the National Tennis Ratings Program (NTRP), still today the official system for determining the levels of competition for the USTA League Program.
In the following two decades, leagues were growing like crazy, thanks to great leadership and dedicated league staff in the 17 USTA sections. Those sections, heavily supported by USTA national dollars, had a clear mission: Grow tennis locally with a variety of good programs for every age group and every level of tennis.
This all changed in 2007 when lawyers got a foothold in the USTA on every level. They started to become the prevalent professionals on USTA Boards, national and sectional.
When USTA CEO Lee Hamilton resigned in 2007, the search began for a new CEO. Lee was in the chemical industry for Exxon and he succeeded Rick Ferman, one of the last “real tennis guys” ever to head the USTA.
Gordon Smith was the first lawyer in the CEO position. A lot of things changed during his reign. It is well known that lawyers can be quite persuasive. So it comes as no surprise that his salary was raised from $600K (his predecessor Rick Ferman’s salary) to $712K plus bonuses. When Smith left his position in 2020, his salary had grown to $1,353K plus retirement benefits. But, what had Gordon Smith done in those 13 years to justify more than doubling his income?
He presided over the greatest decline in U.S. tennis participation in the history of our sport. And like every good lawyer (and as I’m told it’s quite common in large non-profit corporations) he was able to hide the real numbers in front of the Board (and the sections) so well, they continued to raise his salary.
Now, picture this, a lawyer tells a Board of Directors that is increasingly filled with other lawyers and people who want to profit from their relationship with the USTA, that all’s good, tennis is growing, and it’s really those darn Millennials to blame but “Kamperman will get them all in the fold.”
Aaah, Kurt Kamperman. The former CEO of Community Tennis and then gatekeeper of the USTA National Campus in Orlando. Kamperman and Smith were a perfect tag-team, like brothers from a different mother presiding over a former empire and seeing the Titanic sink while executives’ bank accounts and retirement benefits grew bigger and bigger.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Tennis Magazine and Racquet Sports Industry magazine. They certainly have a place in the tennis ecosystem and they most definitely know how to toe the line. But while telling us about the so-called accomplishments of the “tag-team” they conveniently suppress what really happened in the last 13 years. Besides the fact that more and more lawyers got onto sectional and national Boards,
Salaries grew and participation shrank
Tennis became even more expensive and less affordable for many
The expensive search for potential U.S. Grand Slam winners began siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars
Kids began to increasingly turn away from a sport where cheating is prevalent
An army of contractors started to siphon off tens of millions of dollars
The organization decided to get away from volunteers
A culture of mistrust cropped up with vendors in the tennis space
Let’s look at those points one by one to shed some light on all of them. Maybe you, the reader, are a USTA Board member (national or, e.g. PNW!) and have never heard of any of this. Open your eyes and take it all in. You can resign tomorrow if you like. I won’t blame you.
Salaries increased not only at the national level, but certain section executives began “looting” (whistleblower choice of words) their organization. It appeared that most decisions made by the “tag-team” were designed to keep the status quo and ensure everyone in the USTA family keep their jobs to the detriment of their mission.
- Cost of tennis
Have you looked at the cost of kids’ tournaments lately? Thanks to those ever-increasing sanction fees and the cost of hiring officials, tournament directors were forced to increase their fees astronomically. Add travel, hotel, and food to the registration fees and you know why so many parents are just not doing it anymore. Then came the ill-fated decision to create a new junior ranking system that requires parents to shell out even more if they want their kids to succeed and you have the perfect land mine preventing kids from entering tennis in large numbers.
- Player Development
Since the USTA is so good at hiding real numbers, it’s hard to estimate how much money Player Development has swallowed up in the last 20+ years. I guess between the 19 regional centers established in 2008, the 60 some staff they had until recently, and the expensive operations at Lake Nona they have wasted at least $300–400 million. In 2020, PD Managing Director Martin Blackman described the “clearly defined objective: … to develop Grand Slam champions and Top-10 players.” Yep, he really said that.
- Cheating in Junior Tennis
Much has been written, lots of people have chimed in. As always, the USTA stays with its wishy-washy approach in order to not offend anyone. Nothing will change in the near future and thousands of juniors will leave the sport in disgust because they were cheated out of winning matches. Eliminating Player development would probably free up more than enough money to put an official on every court in every junior tournament. Those funds would also pay for all sanction fees and make junior tournaments more affordable.
- Wasting Millions on Outside Contractors With No Significant Results
Only now are we getting behind some of the most outrageous money pits the USTA has opened up under the “tag-team.” Both familiar and unfamiliar names are floating up and in some cases, I really don’t know whether the Board is always fully informed about where millions are wasted. I hope to be able to report about some of them soon. Foremost about Deloitte, the most obvious. In the last 4–5 years, that company has siphoned off $25 million and produced no significant results. More about Deloitte soon. Others are in my crosshairs, such as ClubSpark, a company that has never done anything but small-time tech development and all of a sudden was thrown into a multi-million dollar adventure with the USTA that seems to spiral out of control. But there are others, too. I am researching…
- Where are the Volunteers?
As soon as “lightweight” (an insider) Jeff Waters came to some power in Community Tennis, he redirected the organization away from volunteers and towards staff initiatives and direction. For generations, the USTA had a strong relationship with thousands of volunteers and he thought he could do without them. Sad story. This all went hand in hand with getting away from NTRP and toward a new rating system they all cooked up with the ITF. Deloitte had their hand in it and so does ClubSpark. What could possibly go wrong?
- Treatment of Vendors in the Tennis Space
Where do I begin? Current and former USTA executives are known as “the copycat team” (a vendor). Whether you are a CEO of a court registration app company or the CEO of a tennis rating business, if you go to the USTA to negotiate to work together, you’ll be screwed because those guys know it so much better than you. They’ll immediately turn around and attempt to make it themselves. And besides, they should be the only organization making a profit in tennis. Didn’t you know that? Wanna know the funny thing about the UTR-copy WTN? It seems in order not to appear as having blatantly copied UTR, the USTA brains decided to not go from 1–16 for rating levels but from 40–1. Real smart. No?
Now that the new CEO Mike Dowse is on board, a lot of people are hoping things will change for the better for the USTA. Maybe because he is not a lawyer? But it appears to me the entire USTA show has just gotten much more confusing.
The organization is hemmorrhaging money. The monster facility in Orlando is a giant money pit, a prestige object they are very proud of. So were the owners of the Titanic before its maiden voyage. Will they ever get out of the red again?
The sections are in rebellion mode. They want more say when it comes to allocating (not wasting) funds from the US Open on senseless projects and initiatives.
The Adult League program is facing tough times. Not only are more and more competitors coming up against them (UTR being the largest and CONGA SPORTS being the latest) but the ruthless and senseless war against the NTRP system in favor of WTN will leave a lot of corpses in its path.
Besides Net Generation, Serve Tennis is another USTA boondoggle. And who is working on it as well as on WTN? ClubSpark. It may be finished 2022 or 2023. Who knows?
The above points illustrate why I think the American governing body of tennis is on its way to becoming insignificant. I seriously believe they should contemplate some radical changes, like
- Behave like a real non-profit and disclose all numbers 100%.
- Reduce the organization to 1/4 of its size. Sell Lake Nona and focus on running the US Open. Maximum executive salaries $250K. No more funds are available for money pits like Deloitte.
- Eliminate some of the sections. Send more profits from the US Open directly to tennis providers. Leave much of the programming to outside providers. Leave all the tennis-teaching to USPTA and PTR.
Any comments? I’d love to see them.