USTA’s rate hike

Here’s the full text of an email I received this week from the USTA Northern California about an impending rate change:

Dear League Players,

The Directors of the USTA Northern California Board write to you to discuss the pending USTA Northern California Adult League Fee increase. This fee, better known as the “Facility Fee,” was passed by the Board of Directors at our December 2019 meeting, reviewed again in February and upheld. It will go into effect April 13, 2020. In addition to the $29 fee you pay to play USTA leagues, an additional $25 will now be charged that will be distributed amongst the member organizations of USTA NorCal.

It is correct that this proposal had been overturned in the past. However, controversial and non-controversial proposals have been heard by the board multiple times in the past as well. Procedurally, this is not unprecedented. Such is the nature of a voting body whose makeup changes over time. It is not uncommon for laws to be heard multiple times before passing as local, state and federal governments change regularly; a non-profit voting board is no different.

Regrettably, this information was leaked outside the board room prematurely causing a section-wide panic and mass confusion. As with any new program, bylaw change, or rule change, our intent is always to properly communicate these changes in a proactive manner and we regret that this goal was not accomplished.

That said, our focus with this letter is to explain the thought process behind this fee increase and clarify why it is necessary. Make no mistake, fee or price increases are never going to be popular. Over the years, USTA League players have objected to small $1 fee increases so we knew this decision was not going to be popular. But tough decisions must be made for the sake of our organization and for the member organizations that deliver our “products” to the individual members. The current league structure simply will not survive with the current fee format.

USTA membership and even league participation has fluctuated over the years but generally remains stagnant and has prevented us from growing the organization as we would like, and other programming is often sacrificed as well. Many of our organizations are full with Adult League play and no opportunity to increase revenue or grow their tennis membership. Our mission is to grow all tennis, not just Adult Leagues and our membership represents a broad base of demographics, ages, geographies etc…

We believe USTA membership continues to be one of the best values on the market, and we believe Adult League costs have been among the most competitively priced adult competition programs in the United States. We want an open dialogue with our membership but have been surprised by the number of people indicating the $29 fee was extremely high. This is definitely not true even within the organization itself. Comparing it to other products the USTA League offers, it is by far a stronger product than any other competitive tennis USTA has to offer. We recognize other Adult League products exist but despite the low cost, we do not feel any substitute offers the structural integrity our programming does, especially the expert management brought to the table by our staff.
Like any other specialty service, we must also consider the extremely high cost of living in Northern California. It can be difficult for our organization to operate under the same umbrella as other sections in the USTA where the cost of living and doing business is substantially lower. It is not unheard of for private tennis coaches to raise their rates $5, $10 sometimes even $20 a year per hour of instruction and while $25 is certainly higher, there has been no progressive increases over the years as we have seen in other parts of the sport.

Our member organization feels that same pinch when faced with the decision to continue to operate or perhaps sell to developers ready to build expensive housing or office space. It’s ironic that much of the feedback aimed at USTA NorCal in response to this fee increase has been to blame “elite clubs” when in reality is those smaller clubs are struggling to stay afloat the most, not the large mega-corporate chain clubs that are already charging their players substantial fees beyond the USTA Adult League Fee. Many of these smaller clubs have resisted such fees but have made clear a correction needs to be made.

Over the years, USTA NorCal heeded the requests of players to form new leagues that are unique to Northern California. As a result, we have more league offerings than any other section in the country. The cost of managing those leagues falls on USTA NorCal and its staff. Our goal has always been to give players the most league options possible. We believe we have achieved that overwhelmingly and will continue to do our best to offer the greatest menu of leagues in the United States.

The mission of the USTA is to grow the sport of tennis and while USTA Adult Leagues are a big part of our organization, many other offerings tend to take a back seat to the popular program, sacrificing our ability to grow our membership for the future health of our organization. There was a time that the greatest organizations in our section were home to top-notch junior programs, but because of the high demand of Adult League Tennis, that has changed dramatically. Our clubs have become home to many Adult League players, and we love that, but it regrettably pushes out those not interested in that type of competition, especially junior players or adults just looking for simple recreation and socializing on the tennis court.

At USTA, we recognize and appreciate the incredible support from individual and family members, our valued customers that play USTA tennis. However, often overlooked is that the Member Organizations that deliver our products (Leagues- Adult and Junior, Tournaments- Adult and Junior and other programs) are also our customers. A member organization may be a big corporate club chain with many facilities to choose from, a smaller independently owned club, a community tennis association, a high school or college among other options. Our organizations represent as diverse of a socioeconomic and geographic group of players as any section in the country.

These member organizations, while charging membership, rarely see any direct financial benefit from USTA leagues. In fact, most sectional and district tournaments are held at the mega-corporate clubs who are compensated for hosting, while the “routine” league matches offer no such benefit to an organization. In order to continue to offer the leagues we do and pay for the infrastructure to manage these leagues, USTA NorCal is simply not able to allocate the standard USTA league fee to these member organizations without sacrificing the service provided by our great staff. Our passionate and dedicated staff work hard to manage the league program, we know that many have professional opportunities elsewhere and we know we are blessed to have a group of people dedicated to the non-profit work supporting the sport that we all love.

By contrast, a club that offers a tournament keeps over 80% of the revenue that comes in but often finds itself the recipient of angry league players who find that not enough league offerings are available and move on to other organizations. Therefore, many clubs stop hosting tournaments and other mixer, inter-club type events.

It has become commonplace for USTA Adult League players to leave clubs and operate out of public facilities. We love our public facilities and welcome more activity on public courts, but inevitably some matches will be played at private clubs that front the cost of the courts, the maintenance, and other overhead in order accommodate these matches. In a nutshell, the club hosting a match pays for every element of a USTA match without any financial benefit and sacrifices its courts in which it could be earning revenue. In many sections in the United States, clubs charge enormous guests fees every time a visiting team comes in to play a match at their club. Imagine a simple guest fee of $10 was charged every time you played at an opposing team’s facility. This would end up being more than $25, notwithstanding the fact that many clubs may charge up to $20 or $25 per match.

There are many misconceptions floating around as a result of this matter and it’s important to set the record straight.

Misconception #1- A Facility Fee is a new idea.

There are several member organizations that surcharge its players for playing in leagues. Ironically, several are among those leading the charge to defeat this facility fee. It’s worth noting that these mega-corporate club organizations have enormous influence in the board election process and have wielded such influence for years. Keeping the price of leagues very low has benefited these organizations that turn around and charge enormous fees of its league players at the expense of smaller clubs. Any insinuation that this new policy is elitist is incorrect as the goal is ultimately to level the playing field and assure that all clubs can participate in this popular program. Internally, the true push back is coming from the mega-corporate clubs that can afford to lose members who do not want to pay their high surcharges on league participation.

Several mega-corporate clubs have already been charging a minimum of $25-$40 more per player per league. Others charge hundreds and many players do not think twice about paying this fee to play at their favorite club.

Misconception #2- This is a power grab by the “Country Clubs.”

Most member organizations that are “Country Clubs’ are independently owned and not a part of any mega-corporate club chains which means that their voting power within the organization is substantially smaller. Ultimately, this matter gained steam as many of these smaller clubs have carried the financial weight of USTA leagues for years whereas the mega-corporate clubs have not been in a position where they cannot still carry other tennis offerings due to the large number of facilities or courts per facility.

The true financial burden of USTA leagues has not been equal across the member organization spectrum and a correction is needed to fix the decades-long structural flaws of USTA leagues. This is not an elitist movement by any stretch as we’ve been accused. In fact, this is a grassroots movement driven by the power of the many smaller organizations and their players that have sacrificed for decades in order to provide Adult Leagues. Many board members recognized that a change needed to be made and mobilized their efforts. Now the larger, mega-corporate clubs realize that this move has an impact on their bottom line while allowing us to treat the smaller organizations in a more fair manner. In an age of “Big Guy versus “Little Guy” political discourse, we assure you it is the smaller clubs that have been carrying the weight of this program that we are trying to help succeed so that they may continue to contribute to the organization as they have. Does this mean the mega-corporate clubs are not incredibly valuable to USTA success? Of course not! but we cannot survive on those two organizations alone.

Misconception #3- Individual clubs cannot implement their own surcharge.

This is incorrect and several mega-corporate clubs have, and some others charge guests fees. Our goal here is to level the playing field with the hope that this $25 per player, per team fee becomes the norm as opposed to an organization charging $10, $20 or more dollars every time you play a match at their facility. While we can’t control what each club does, we would hope you would find it more agreeable to pay $25 extra per season as opposed to that amount 6 to 8 times per season.

Misconception #4- This is unprecedented and perhaps illegal, or not consistent with the purpose of a non-profit organization.

This new facility fee is no different than the cost of USTA tournaments. The cost of USTA tournaments, for example, takes into account all expenses and the clubs are paid for the use of their courts. Even the USTA league districts and sectionals have fees that pay for the use of the courts at these facilities, just not the actual league play.

While many of our Adult League players are not tournament regulars, this fee is consistent with other USTA products that allow a member organization to cover the cost of hosting such leagues. Other sections have similar structures that assist organizations hosting Adult Leagues and many other sections have organizations that charge guests fees on a much more regular basis than we have in NorCal.

Misconception #5- This is a money grab by the powers that be.

We see these fees as a simple cost of doing business, and we hope that these fees will help alleviate some of the pressure of hosting adult leagues such as resurfacing courts. This is hardly a financial windfall for our member organizations. Some may see a few thousand dollars per year as a result.

After more than twenty years of play, most clubs, especially the smaller clubs, have been hurt financially by adult league play where it was once promised to be the saving grace of tennis clubs. Many players have left clubs to play in other settings (parks, schools, public facilities), generally for competitive reasons (stronger teams, more control over who is on the team, less supervision, no need to take into consideration the needs of members, facility, owners, etc… ).

While not discussed publicly every day, we are losing the support of our member organizations. Public facilities are becoming extremely expensive (it is not unheard of for public courts to charge $30-$40 per hour with a minimum number of hours guaranteed.)

Leagues cannot exist without tennis courts, nor can any other USTA tennis programs. We have seen a shrinking of the number of courts (often developed by builders) and an increase in court maintenance fees. A new court costs in the area of $50,000. Rebuilding a court after twenty years when the surface starts to fail is in the neighborhood of $50,000. Just keeping the surface up every 5-10 years costs on average between $5,000-$10,000 depending on how many cracks, etc need to be repaired. Washing the courts and maintaining the nets and equipment costs money, staff that manages a club, cleans, gardens. Those who build and maintain the courts do not work for free. We cannot continue to keep asking our smaller organizations to cover the cost of our business.

Without an immediate correction, we feel the long term sacrifice will actually fall on league players who find that only the mega-corporate clubs have the facilities and room to host Adult Leagues and tournaments, and will find themselves traveling very long distances in order to participate in a “routine” league match.

USTA NorCal and its board of directors would prefer not to have to increase pricing but in order to save the future of this program and our organization, this correction is very much needed. While this $25 fee increase may on the surface seem large, ultimately we still believe that USTA Adult Leagues are the most reasonable and valuable adult competitive sports league in the country and it’s a small price to pay to assure that we have the facilities to keep it successful for decades to come.

The current board of directors is in a difficult position in which it can make an attempt to protect the future of this organization, or allow the status quo to continue, which may be less controversial now but unsustainable long-term.

We appreciate your long standing support of USTA NorCal and its Adult League program but believe that much misinformation about this issue has been disseminated and wanted to respond with factual data.