July 10, 2020

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USTA transformational plan means major job cuts

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As Open Court Tweeted last Friday, bad news on the employment front was indeed announced by the USTA Monday.

The details of some of the firings were shared on a conference call at 9 a.m. Monday morning, and the news is not good.

The American tennis federation will look drastically different after a complete planned revamp of its structure. And the biggest casualty appears to be the player development department.

And, if it is what it seems to be, the USTA may be trying to get back to its roots as a vehicle to grow the game in the U.S. – which the country really needs – and not be a subsidized tennis academy whose goal is to create star players.

Official statement from the USTA

“The USTA today announced a transformational plan that aligns the organization to both execute against the USTA mission to promote and develop the growth of tennis as well as combat the negative long-reaching financial effects of the COVID-10 pandemic.

The plan is designed to streamline costs and focus investments and people on supporting the grassroots of tennis, and bringing the tennis community through the relief, recovery and rebuild phases of the pandemic.

The plan also ensures that the USTA’s commitment to the US Open and all other USTA-produced events will remain at a world-class level. The USTA is pivoting from a program-based organization to a service-based organization with new technologies, structures and services designed to boost the entire U.S. tennis ecosystem to help the sport thrive for the millions of existing, and the attraction of new, tennis players.

In April, the USTA announced a comprehensive industry relief and recovery package focused on supplying information and needed funds for tennis facilities and providers to alleviate the hardships caused by the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. These actions included identifying more than $20 million in savings by instituting salary reductions of USTA management, furloughing approximately 100 employees, cancellations of the USTA annual and semi-annual meetings, eliminating programs in Marketing, Player Development and Operations, and deferring all non-essential capital projects.

The next phase of the USTA’s plan will result in an additional $30 million in annual savings and align national staff and its volunteer committee members towards the strategic priorities of the USTA.”

What does that even mean?

Well, some of the keys to it are bolded above. But it doesn’t really specifically outline WHO lost their jobs today.

(We’ll note that we have just a bare-bones notion of exactly how the USTA truly works, and the information below was culled from some inside sources on some of the employees let go, and on publicly available financial documents).

We have heard that Stacey Allaster, who joined the USTA as Chief Executive, Professional Tennis about five months after a sudden departure from her job as the WTA Tour’s head honcho, will be confirmed as the new US Open tournament director. Allaster would replace David Brewer, the longtime TD who retired after last year’s edition.

Numbers-wise, it appears to say that another 110 are gone, in addition to the 100 already gone in April.

The USTA is not a cash-poor organization, despite its non-profit status. In the most recent financial statements, it boasted more than $200 million in cash and short-term investments (about evenly divided between the two).

The US Open, the largest item, listed some $380 million in revenues, against approximately $152 million in direct expenses. In 2018, the amount of its grants to “domestic organizations and governments” totalled just under $74 million.

Here are the biggest grants, in a long list of annual USTA stipends. Note that the money devoted to the national player development program is nearly $20 million.

The USTA had already cut down expenses for the player development program, which was more than $1.5 million in the red for 2016 and just under $300,000 in the black in 2017. The program just about broke even in 2018.

Here are the largest coaching and administrative expenses for the player development program in 2018, the last year for which records are publicly available. What’s clear is that they are paying big-time salaries to a select group of people.

A five-point re-imagining

You can find the full text of the USTA announcement here. But here are the bullet points.

The USTA has spent the last 18 months doing “hundreds of interviews and workshops” throughout its sections and “the broader tennis ecosystem”.

What they have decided to focus on going forward, in a nutshell:

*Keep the tennis players they have, and attract more

*Make improvements to “Tennis Delivery System, Provider Education and Consumer Experiences

*Invest on the digital infrastructure and platform side

*Keep making pots of money at the US Open

*Work together for the common good.

New CEO, new priorities

The retirement of longtime CEO Gordon Smith was the perfect time to proceed to a comprehensive review of the entire organization, which is somewhat bloated in places, to be sure. From what we hear, new CEO Michael Dowse not a huge devotee of “player development”, so that end of things is going to feel significant pain.

What it kind of feels like, at first glance, is an eradication of the middle class in the American tennis eco-structure. The elite level – the US Open – will continue to be invested in to generate a greater return. The development of players, which had gotten bigger and bigger, culminating in the massive and expensive “national centre” in Lake Nona, Fla. – is now going to be left largely to public and private clubs.

It should be noted that for a long time now, the USTA felt it could do a superior job to the grassroots coaches in developing players – and its national programs depended in large part on poaching those players from the local level once they had shown some success in the juniors. This appears to be a complete about-face on that end.

It seems the legion of USTA volunteers are now going to be expected, regardless of what expertise they had previously offered because of their love for tennis, to be cheerleaders and promoters of the sport. That some marketing programs were disbanded in this change of strategic focus mean the onus will be on them even more.

Keeping the US Open as a top-of-the-line money making machine is a big focus. And then there’s yawning gap. And then you get to a structure that “better empowers our unmatched network of volunteers, and private and public tennis providers.”

110 national positions gone

*110 “national positions” will be eliminated by layoffs or voluntary buyouts

*The head office in White Plains, NY will be closed “in phases”. Remaining staff will move to somewhere in New York City.

*Significant cuts and synergies in player development, facilities and other “downsizing initiatives”. These will be merged into the “community tennis” part of the new plan.

*Only one “live” meeting for volunteers and staff per year, cutting down on all those expenses – and, by definition, removing one of the valued perks meted out to a grassroots staff that is largely volunteer-based.

*Standardizing platforms and other services so that the numerous sections and districts that make up the USTA can save money (or have their grants from the USTA reduced) by greatly reducing the need for employees in each section to do some of this work individually. The “volunteers and local staffs” can then “service and support local facilities, providers and players to grow the game.”

Community tennis – volunteer based

Among the many national coaches who were let go Monday, we’re hearing names like Chris Tontz and Nicolás Todero, as well as Stephen Huss, Roger Anderson and Eric Nuñez.

Also recent hire Ryler DeHeart; we hear that Richard Ashby and Jean Desdunes have taken buyouts.

Just a few days ago Tontz, who is a national women’s coach on the women’s side, working out of the Carson facility (and who has stepped in at times for players like Sloane Stephens when she was coachless), did a video podcast about his job description.

Todero, who has been with the USTA 10 years, had a significant list of responsibilities on his LinkedIn page.

Huss, a former doubles standout, worked as a national women’s coach. His wife, former pro Milagros Sequera, has been working out of Florida as the manager of adult tournaments. Let’s hope at least one of them still has a job.

The USTA-U program, instituted in 2015 and based in Florida, also will be folded into the community tennis arm. The purpose of it was to offer courses in tennis, management, hospitality and sport science in conjunction with American college programs, to develop the next generation of coaches and administrators.

It, along with the player develop and marketing parts of the business, are no longer “aligned with the USTA’s strategic priorities”.

Here’s an interview with the new CEO with Inside Tennis, published today, that talks about the changes. Among the tidbits are the fact that Kurt Kamperman, who oversees the new center in Lake Nona, Fla., will retire at the end of 2020. Kamperman’s compensation in 2018 was in excess of $800,000.

The current USTA partner called the “Community Tennis Association” is made up of “volunteer-based organizations supporting programs that grow the game of tennis.”

“Those who run CTAs are tennis enthusiasts who act as advocates, program administrators, promoters or fundraisers – and sometimes as all of these things at once.”

If we’re reading it correctly, these volunteers will now be expected to also oversee more of the development of the future generation of American pros, in facilities that don’t have the same full-spectrum expertise and modern conveniences of some of the current setups at the National Tennis Center in Queen’s, the spread in Carson, Calif. and – notably – the brand-new, massive campus in Florida where we’re told some office staff have already been let go.

The Florida facility is the headquarters of the community tennis initiative.

The Community Tennis arm of the USTA will now be tasked with a significantly increased number of responsibilities (USTA.com)

No more TennisLink

A new portal called the “Tennis Service Platform” will replace the unwieldy and complicated ‘TennisLink” portal and “provide a robust set of cutting edge digital modules for programming, registration, communication, court booking and membership management”.

The idea there is that coaches around the country will be “able to dedicate more time to interacting with players on the court”, rather than do paperwork and computer entry.

What they will need, of course, are more aspiring and current players to … do those things with, with this extra time. And, it seems, potentially less money to work with to do it if not in the short term, then in the longer term.

How this re-imagining will get those tennis players to the table in the first place, without the national programs that have helped drive that recruitment, will be the fundamental lynchpin on which the success of this whole new strategy relies.

It sounds just as complicated. Just different.

Will it be better? The verdict might well not be rendered for a few years.