Tennis, of course, is only one option among many for American kids overloaded with homework and inundated by a sometimes overwhelming set of responsibilities. But, over the last five years, parents have become increasingly aware of TGA Premier Youth Tennis. TGA stands for “Teach, Grow, Achieve”, and they have provided a blueprint for families in communities nationwide with their sound business model. As TGA likes to put it, they “use their skills to build a tennis ecosystem throughout” tennis communities. This is a one of a kind model that makes tennis available in a structured program at schools, community centers and elsewhere prior to transitioning the new players to youth and adult programs at tennis facilities.
TGA has activated no fewer than 37,000 young tennis players and has made the game available to more than 250,000 families. TGA’s alliance with the USTA has been a significant step as well. Their founder and CEO is named Joshua Jacobs, and this 39-year-old dynamo started his first sports company dedicated to kids in 2003. That was TGA Premier Junior Golf. But, in 2011, using the same business model, he commenced TGA in the field of tennis, and soon his partnership in that endeavor with the USTA took shape.
I spoke by phone with Jacobs last week to get his views on TGA’s role in tennis, their joint work with the USTA, and what might be in store for the future. He says, “We make the sport of tennis unique to the general public by bringing it to them. We bring it to middle schools, elementary schools, community centers, churches, temples, anywhere where there are kids and there is reasonable space to play. The key to our programs is showing parents and students that, hey, tennis is available and is something you can experience and create a passion for. I am not sure this has ever been done before in a structured setting. That is what we do in our introductory program. What sets us apart is we introduce life skills and character development, rules and etiquette of the game. And we are the first tennis program to incorporate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). STEM is a huge, hot button topic in schools and amongst parents.”
Amplifying his message, Jacobs says, “Kids these days—especially the ones in elementary schools ages five to ten—have a million things that they can do. There are all of the other sports, as well as instruments and technology. You have to find a way to put tennis on a level playing field with other sports and other activities, and that is why you bring it to them. Every core sport is played at elementary schools during P.E. or whatnot. The individualistic sports like tennis and golf have not been played there at the schools, so I think what the USTA did with 10-and-under tennis initiative was phenomenal. Now they are supporting the opportunity for schools to paint lines and create basically portable tennis courts. Almost every single school has that kind of blacktop. They had just never thought to use it because a tennis program was never made available.”
Jacobs believes tennis has a monumental opportunity now, with programs like TGA’s and with the USTA targeting the youth movement. As Jacobs asserts, “There are a lot of people who really want to play tennis but they don’t know how to get started and how to get engaged. Bringing it to these kids gives tennis a leg up. I believe what is going to differentiate our programs from some other education programs is the big physical fitness move within the United States. There is so much child obesity. People need to be fitter. Tennis is an amazing sport for developing physical fitness, and an amazing sport for ethics and character development. It teaches kids so much about themselves and the world. So when we make tennis available to them it has a lot of selling points. By making these programs available, tennis has a greater shot to make it on a grander scale.”
The average student in TGA’s introductory programs stays about two years. There are three levels for these kids: the introductory, recreational, and competitive. The idea is for the kids to transition from the introductory to recreational, and then some move on to the competitive. But Jacobs points out that of the three million kids who play tennis, only about 80,000 play in tennis tournaments. According to Jacobs, “there are a decent percentage of kids who play in one tournament but never play in another one again.” And yet, he adds, “Golf is completely the opposite. Golf has about the same number of kids playing the sport but four times as many kids who play tournaments.”
Having thought this though and knowing thoroughly about the subject, Jacobs asserts, “I know the USTA is working hard on how to make their competitive structure work. I know that Craig Jones has been great in leading that initiative. But, in between the competitive and introductory, you must have that recreational component: the camps, the play days, and the ability to get parents out there with their kids, which is really a big step. We don’t want to be everything. We want to concentrate on the introductory and recreational levels and hand them off to our partners who are the USPTA pros and the USTA for their competitive activities.”
Expanding on what makes TGA operate effectively and how the ecosystems are so essential to their cause, Jacobs says, “It is proven that individualistic sports grow at the grass roots level with the local stake holder. You must have that. You can’t be an overarching entity and hope to put a footprint in. Let me paint a picture for you. You have got a local stakes holder, and it doesn’t matter who it is. It could be a local pro, a local entrepreneur, a parent or a tennis facility. The stake holder—whoever he or she is—activates the community. The first step is to bring tennis to where it isn’t. We bring it to the middle to upper income areas in the form of after school programs that parents are signing up for and paying for. You grow your base through that. We get to control the pathway while beginning to create the ecosystem.”
We turn inevitably in this discussion with Jacobs to the TGA’s alliance with the USTA. How valuable has that been for the growth of TGA? Why was the USTA attracted to this national partnership?
Replies Jacobs, “The reason is that our model holds people accountable and provides a level of quality control that they don’t have as a national organization. The USTA is structured from the bottom up. It is a volunteer organization. I have met my share of volunteers out there from all of the 17 sections and there are some incredibly bright ones and maybe some who should not be in the position of making decisions on the business of tennis. Are they passionate people who love tennis? Absolutely. Are they entrenched in the community? You bet. But those volunteers change every two years and that makes sustainability very tough.”
Elaborating on this theme, Jacobs thoughtfully points out, “The way the volunteer system works at the USTA— not the volunteers themselves—inhibits the growth of the sport. That is why I believe the USTA has seen TGA as a franchise model with quality control measures across the board. There is accountability and they have responded to that.”
Jacobs is fundamentally fair in his assessment of the USTA and how TGA joins forces with them to help young American players. As Jacobs says, “The USTA provides a level of credibility for our programs that is very helpful for when we are selling to consumers. When we are fighting basketball, golf and other sports and we present a program in partnership with the USTA, that is a big feather in our cap. We have the infrastructure, the model and the wherewithal while the USTA has been great from a curriculum standpoint, as well as helping us with tennis skills and progression. In that respect it has been an excellent partnership.”
Is the 10-and-under initiative the key in many ways? Jacobs responds, “You just asked the hundred million dollar question. It is the same in the golf world as the tennis world. You create all the initiatives you want and have all the best curriculums, you have all the materials you need, but if you don’t have a sustainable and a scalable model and program to go with it, who is going to take tennis? If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? I feel that TGA has set itself apart with a model for the delivery system that activates people and that is why the USTA gravitated to us so quickly. TGA has people that are totally vested to grow the sport of tennis.”
Jacobs is convinced that tennis can move beyond itself to a higher level. He wants to make TGA an important vehicle in that development, and believes this sport can compete favorably against others. As he says, “Let’s think about this. Football? On the decline. Nobody wants their kid to get hurt. Basketball is becoming more physical. Soccer has a very low shelf life. How long can you play it? So there could be no better time for the tennis industry to invest in introductory programs, but again you must have those vested stake holders at the local level to be successful. Almost all of the other sports are in decline. This is a big opportunity for tennis. You can get great exercise and it doesn’t cost a lot to play tennis. If I were the USTA I would find a delivery system and a model and stick with it. And, by the way, the model we have created— whether they own it or we own it—can also be a revenue generator and not just be about participation. You can actually generate revenue for the USTA that they can put back into umpteen different places. They have done an amazing job creating ten-and-under tennis, and with the mindset. People who aren’t doing ten-and-under tennis are totally missing out. But the delivery system is critical. Otherwise the sport will be stagnant. You have to evolve. We realized about a year ago if we did not become a part of this STEM initiative that we would be dead in the water, so we inputted it.”
Many longtime observers of the American game yearn for another major champion among the men. The last American man to capture a Grand Slam tournament in singles was Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open. Can increasing the number of kids playing tennis in this country alter the picture, and help produce another great champion? Jacobs replies, “If you increase the pool of people who play and the availability of the sport to the general public, the odds and the probability are that you are going to produce a champion. That is the first thing. The second thing is that tour players do not control participation. I will give you a reference: Tiger Woods. Here was probably the most popular athlete on the planet for a number of years. When he first came upon the scene you saw a little bit of growth within the junior golf community. But that didn’t last and it dropped off the face of the earth while he was still in his heyday because there weren’t enough introductory programs out there. It is a simple case of supply and demand, not rocket science. If you have a demand you must create the supply, and that is where the tennis industry has a tremendous opportunity now.”
As for TGA, I ask Jacobs near the end of our interview where he envisions his tennis business 10 to 15 years from now? “You have to do what you do best,” he says. “Look at the USTA with the U.S. Open. It is the most popular and attended U.S. sports event annually, and they make more and more money on it every year. It is an amazing accomplishment. It is what they do best. TGA’s best thing is we have created a model for getting new people to play the sport and keeping them in it. I honestly don’t know where we will be in 10 to 15 years. Believe it or not, that will be dictated by the USTA. They have the power to take our model and do great things with it. The question is if they will do that or not. I believe in business when you have synergistic partners, that is when one plus one equals five.”
Jacobs is very philosophical about the USTA and what could transpire with TGA in the years ahead. He concludes, “I give the USTA all the credit in the world.. Kudos to them and to Scott Schultz and Kurt Kamperman for being forward thinking and seeing the possibilities with us. I just think that the USTA unfortunately has some handcuffs around themselves [with their structure] that have been there for a long time. In this day and age, if we are going to change with the times, you have got to un-cuff at least one of those arms, but that is a tough thing to do. It would mean getting away from tradition. Change is hard, especially when it comes to a long history at the USTA and the sport of tennis. Tennis in my view will be in a much different place five to seven years from now.”