Holding court: bringing baby boomers back to public tennis courts could be as easy as changing your surfacing
Remember back to the 1970s–when your tennis courts were overflowing with folks who wanted to join the hottest sport on the planet? When people would get up at 5 a.m. to write their names oil the park court reservation list just to get a court later that day? When professional tennis boasted personalities such as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe?
Things changed during the next 25 years for all tennis fanatics. Fitness clubs sprang up, and pumping iron, aerobics, inline skating, triathlons and mini-marathons took the place of sports like tennis. But the real competition for time, money and energy became family responsibilities, careers, a second income for the household, spending time with kids and more T.V. time. Next came computers and more time spent watching and reading, rather than moving our bodies.
So here we are–a whole generation of people dubbed the “baby boomers” now entering our “middle age.” Our families have grown, jobs have plateaued and our bodies don’t look the same. We’re starting to worry not just about living longer, but living healthier.
The medical profession keeps us alive longer, but can’t guarantee the quality of life we expect. People our age used to be known as “seniors,” but with the extended life span continuing to grow, 50-somethings are now just in their middle age. With all those years ahead of us, we’re looking to get back in shape, be physically active, have fun, and meet new people. We’re not so keen on tennis competition, drilling to achieve perfect strokes, play that seems like hard work or adding stress to our lives. We want a hassle-free good time that is good for us.
Enter the Public Tennis Court
The condition of the tennis courts and amenities your facility offers will be a major factor in recruiting and retaining baby boomer tennis players. Rather than letting the private clubs have the baby boomers, start thinking of what you need to do with design and materials to attract the average, middle-aged tennis player. Evaluate your court surfaces, determine whether they need repair or need to be upgraded. Sometimes the cost of replacement is cheaper than renovation. And there are programs available such as the United States Tennis Association’s Adopt-a-Court grant program that matches funds to assist in your renovation and repair of tennis facilities. (See sidebar on page 63).
Perhaps the most critical decision for you at some time will be choosing the right court surface for your courts. As our population ages, more people head for clay courts or to cushioned hard courts to reduce their aches and pains, keep cooler and pamper their bodies. Hard courts made with cushioned surfaces provide a rubberized layer that helps with shock absorption caused by quick stops and starts, according to Tennis Industry magazine, a leading industry publication in the tennis world. “The gritty surface of soft courts allows the foot to slide, which dissipates impact stresses on the ankles, knees, hips and back,” states the magazine in its 2001 story comparing hard court versus soft court surfaces. Hard, unforgiving surfaces force the body to absorb the full impact of starting and stopping.
Kurt Kamperman, former president of the Tennis Industry Association and now chief of community tennis for the USTA, was quoted in the magazine in 2003 as saying, “Our tennis industry is still largely feeding off a large group of players who began playing during the tennis booth of the ’70s. The great majority of those players are now 50-plus, and it behooves us to make soft courts available to that market to keep these people in the game.”
On the East Coast, clay courts have long been popular, but now new technology in clay court construction has made it a realistic option from the Midwest all the way to the West Coast. Choice of court surface is complicated by the fact that the design, construction and maintenance are affected by the local ground surface, climate–including temperature and rainfall–and availability of water. And of course, there is the cost.
Historically, soft court surfaces had a less expensive initial cost but were more expensive to maintain over the years. Hard courts required less daily maintenance, but had a higher initial price tag. Over the
years, with advances in design, the cost of court surfaces has evened so that they are comparable in many locations. (See Figure A on page 60.)
Soft courts rely heavily on water to maintain the optimal playing conditions. Climates that offer little or modest rainfall and where water is a precious commodity, opted for hard court surfaces instead. But the recent trends toward underground, subsurface watering mitigates this problem since less water is used, and none is lost to evaporation in the air. The city of Hollywood, Fla., switched from regular clay courts to subsurface “hydro courts” five years ago. Prior to this upgrade, the tennis center’s maintenance staff had to water the courts daily to maintain their cushion. With the underground irrigation system, the courts are only raked once a day and require no down time between games, says Lindsey Murphy director of the David Park Tennis Center. “Once people get used to clay courts, they won’t play on hard,” he says.
Clay tennis courts also stay cooler in the heat of summer, which is a consideration for avoiding problems from playing in hotter months or climates. The court surface absorbs the heat of the sun rather than reflecting it back up to the player. And after a rain shower, the absorbing quality of clay courts allows play to resume in less time.
Because of the friction of the ball on the court surface, the pace of the ball slows down significantly after the bounce. If you have watched the French Open Championships from Paris, you’ve seen the long rallies even from powerful professional players. In fact, throughout Europe, clay courts are the standard for play and have been for centuries because they simply offer a better quality of play. Tennis purists would agree that an all-court tennis game that requires a full range of skills is best developed on softer courts. The length of rallies increases because it is more difficult to put the shot away. Physical conditioning is also critical because of the typical length of a point.
In the professional game, the average hard court rally lasts only three to four exchanges, while on clay, the average is seven to eight hits, according to Richard Shonborn, former chief coach of the German Tennis Federation.
In Highland Park, Ill., the park district recently updated four asphalt courts into soft courts, or clay courts. Highland Park is a suburban city outside of Chicago that has a population of about 30,000. Because all the private facilities in the area offered soft courts, the city wanted to offer an affordable alternative for its tennis-playing residents. “We’re excited about providing the soft courts to the public,” says Park District Tennis Manager Tom Soens. “The clay courts offer a different playing experience for tennis players. Compared to typical asphalt courts, soft courts provide a softer surface that result in slower play, easier movement on the body and a cooler playing surface.”
As we age and mobility decreases, the extra second to reach a ball is a welcome benefit. If you’re looking for a workout, keeping the ball in play longer for each point is the best way to ensure a vigorous game. For those that enjoy the strategy and tactics of play, slower courts also expand the shot possibilities that make the game a fascinating intellectual exercise.
Challenges of Concrete Courts
In the past, many municipal facilities installed concrete or asphalt tennis courts because they seemed easier to maintain than clay courts. But after a few years, cracks in the surface appeared, resurfacing was delayed due to budget tightening, and the reality set in that even hard courts needed maintenance. The fact is, whether you choose clay or hard courts, you need to factor in the maintenance costs over a period of years.
According to Tennis Industry magazine, even hard courts require sweeping or cleaning with water at least weekly to prevent dirt buildup and excessive abrasion or staining. They also typically require a new acrylic coating every three to five years depending on usage. In cold weather climates, frost and freezing can produce cracks in the surface that need to be repaired as soon as possible.
So there is a whole new market out there for tennis–and it’s people just like you and me: a little older, a little wiser, but anxious to fashion a healthy lifestyle for our next 25 years. We’ve got time. Our careers are winding down. We’ve got money, in fact 70 to 80 percent of savings accounts in the United States are held by the 50-plus crowd. And, there is just so darn many of us–more than 75 million out of a population of 280 million. In the next five years, the population of those under 55 will grow by just one percent while the 55-plus population will grow by 74 percent, according to Sandy Coffman, board member of the International Council on Aging and expert in 50-plus programming. You just can’t afford not to actively recruit us for your park programs.
Operating Costs Comparison *
Based on assumptions listed at right and the costs
as shown on worksheet–will vary regionally.
Other costs for overall maintenance of facility, personal
choice items such as windscreen will vary based on
Type of Court
Approximate cost to build court
Specific Costs Original cost Avg. life
Net $149.95 4
Net Post 285.00 10
Center Strap 7.50 1
Windscreen 500.00 4
Line Tape 172.95 4
Tape Nails 37.60 1
Fast-dry Cost (del) 110.00 depends on location
Man Hours 12.50 wage rate per hour
Labor Hours 7.50 wage rate per hour
Water Usage 2.00 water cost per 1000 gals
Drag Brush 125.50 3
Line Sweeper 104.95 3
Court Roller 1,995.00 10
Lute 42.95 2
Rol-dri 66.50 2
Jet-Sweeper 85.00 2
Annual Resurfacing 500.00 1
1″ lift for 6,000.00 20
1″ lift for Reg. 6,000.00 20
Resurfacing Color 4,000.00 20
Asphalt Overlay 13,000.00 20
cost of court less
fence & site prep
Total Annual Cost
of Ownership based
Estimated Annual Cost
Type of Court HydroCourt Sprinkler Hard Court Cushioned
Approximate cost to $28,000.00 $23,000.00 $20,000.00 $25,000.00
Net 37.49 37.49 37.49 37.49
Net Post 28.50 28.50 28.50 28.50
Center Strap 7.50 7.50 7.50 7.50
Windscreen 125.00 125.00 125.00 125.00
Line Tape 43.24 43.24
Tape Nails 37.60 37.60
Fast-dry Cost (del) 165.00 330.00
Man Hours 206.25 412.50
Labor Hours 618.75 1237.50
Water Usage 165.00 528.00
Drag Brush 41.83 41.83
Line Sweeper 34.98 34.98
Court Roller 199.50 199.50
Lute 21.48 21.48
Rol-dri 33.25 33.25
Jet-Sweeper 42.50 42.50
Annual Resurfacing 500.00 500.00
1″ lift for 20 1.00
1″ lift for Reg. 20 1.00
Resurfacing Color 4 5.00
Asphalt Overlay 10 2.00
Estimated annual 2,232.12 3,585.12 274.24 274.24
Estimated major 300.00 300.00 2,300.00 2,300.00
Estimated annual 1,400.00 1,150.00 1,000.00 1,250.00
cost of court less
fence & site prep
Total Annual Cost 3,932.12 5,035.12 3,574.24 3,824.24
of Ownership based
Years of use for comparison 20
Supervisor Costs per hr 12.5
Labor Costs per hr 7.5
Water costs per 1000 gals 2
Length playing season (months) 11
* Based on figures for the Southeast region. Prices will change
according to region, because of availability of materials and
variability on construction. Chart supplied by Lee Tennis Courts.
Options for Attracting the Baby Boomers *
* Provide clean, comfortable rest rooms within easy walking distance of courts.
* Make sure to have water near the courts either in fountains or in coolers. Replacing fluids on hot days is not simply a question of comfort, but one of safety.
* Offer benches for seating at courtside during changeovers and rest periods.
* Create shade from natural vegetation or courtside awnings to allow players to escape the hot sun between games.
* Provide seating for spectators or for players waiting for a court.
* Promote socialization at your facility with tables and chairs, access to drinks and a pleasant area to chat after a great workout. Remember, the 50-plus crowd is looking for new friends to share activity and have fun. If your courts don’t offer a place to congregate, it will be next to impossible to promote the social aspect of the sport.
* Offer reasonably priced tennis packages of four or six weeks at different skill levels. Typical prices range from $45 to $70.
* Offer programs that are convenient for working people in the evenings or weekends. Daytime programs only accommodate those with flexible schedules.
* Emphasize doubles (more social, less court to cover), strategy and tactics and social time afterward.
* Consider three different types of programs:
a. Learn to Play Doubles–for those who have never played tennis or have not played for a long time.
b. Doubles Strategy and Play–for those who have played fairly regularly in the past and want to learn the finer points of smart play.
c. Doubles Round Robin Play For those who simply want to start playing again on a regular basis.
* Introduce the new tennis rackets that are lighter, easier to handle, easier on the body, have an oversize head and make the game easier to play.
* Include a “wellness” component with a good warm-up routine to get the blood flowing and body temperature up before play, and don’t forget the cool down after play to relax tired muscles.
* Train your staff and tennis instructors to work with the 50-plus population so they understand their clients and can tailor programs to meet their specific needs.
* Information gathered from the United States Tennis Association’s curriculum guide.
Operating Costs Comparison *
Based on assumptions listed at right and the costs as shown on worksheet–will vary regionally,
Other costs for overall maintenance of facility, personal choice items such as windscreen will vary based on personal preference.
Adoption program offers affordable alternative
The USTA Adopt-a-Court program was initiated by the Technical Committee in 1999 to financially assist public tennis facilities in repairing and upgrading existing tennis courts. In 2002, DecoTurf Systems signed an agreement with the USTA to support the Adopt-a-Court program and is now “the official court surface sponsor.”
Grants shall be used for repair and/or upgrading existing tennis courts, including fixed amenities, and shall include new construction limited to improvement or relocation of existing courts. It is a matching grant program for up to $2,500 from the national office matched dollar-for-dollar from the local USTA family (section or designated region or district office).
Applicants must meet all criteria and submit a completed Adopt-a-Court application. Incomplete or revised applications will net be reviewed, All applications must comply with the criteria set forth on the application. Completion of application does not guarantee that a grant will be given or that a grant will be given for the amount requested.
2005 application deadlines
Jan. 31 Feb. 28 March 31 April 30 May 31 June 30
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