The “wars” between the deeply rooted followers and investors tied to tennis and those now flocking to pickleball have been well documented.
Lines in sand…or grass, or clay or hardcourts for that matter…are not very productive for anyone looking to grow an expansive business with high-end clientele. Fortunately, a solid group of investors and entrepreneurs are seeing the real blue ocean in giving the consumer, from age nine to 90, whatever choice of racquet sport they like on whatever day they choose.
One of those investors is Claude Okin, the CEO of Sportime. Since 1994, Sportime has been operating tennis and sports facilities, currently 15 club locations with 194 indoor and outdoor tennis courts and 70 pickleball courts, as well as the John McEnroe Tennis Academy (JMTA), rinks, turf, camps, gyms and more, at sites across NYC, Long Island, Westchester and in the N.Y. Capital Region.
An independent entrepreneur with a thorough understanding of the business, Okin sees a tremendous opportunity not just with New York consumers, but regionally and nationally, as well. He is charting a way forward, not just for tennis or just for pickleball, but the nearly $300 million a year racquet sports segment.
Okin’s investment in the sport is not just on the recreational club business, it is also on the development of young athletes through his relationship with John and Patrick McEnroe and the JMTA business. JMTA continues to achieve its mission of not just creating elite stars who can go on to college and professional careers, but in finding ways to bring racquets, together with education and healthy lifestyles, to top of mind for thousands of inner-city kids.
Is it too big a racket to swing? We asked Okin to lay it out.
Team Marketing Report: You are one of the first to recognize that the growth in participation is for racquet sports versus solely tennis or pickleball. How were you able to convince factions that having both available makes sense?
Claude Okin: Luckily Sportime is a private company, so I really only had to convince myself, and my partners, all of whom share my rising tide philosophy. We don’t really see a competition between different racket sports; we see a synergy, though we do tend to think of tennis at the top of our racket sports pyramid.
Of course, there are always challenges to solve, like the noise a pickleball makes when struck, which is stressing some folks out. But being able to figure those things out, and to offer a variety of racket sports that can be housed in a variety of spaces, allows for more players and more growth. Of course, our heartbeat will always be tennis, but more is more!
TMR: Sportime has had a longstanding partnership with the McEnroe family. How has their involvement on the youth side helped expand the business beyond just the successful club in New York?
CO: The John McEnroe Tennis Academy brand, which Sportime launched with John in 2010, has become internationally recognized. And running a really good and serious urban and suburban tennis academy is a labor of love and endless hard work. So, we couldn’t be more proud to be training some of the USA’s—and the world’s—best players at our JMTA Flagship in NYC, and at JMTA sites on Long Island and in Westchester, not to mention supporting hundreds of players each year who go on to play college tennis and for whom tennis is going to be a lifetime sport.
John and Patrick are New York’s own tennis royalty, and they are also accessible and passionate people, so it has been, and will continue to be, a great and productive relationship. I am so pleased that Sportime was able to create the corporate strength and stability, and the tennis infrastructure, to support and grow the McEnroe relationships, to make the McEnroes proud, and to burnish their NY tennis legacies beyond even their playing and broadcasting achievements. The hope and the plan is that JMTA will be here, developing the players of tomorrow, for a very long time.
TMR: The announcement earlier this month to expand through pickleball regionally is pretty significant. How do you see the business evolving in the coming years beyond just a New York focus?
CO: Sportime is already operating 70 blended and dedicated pickleball courts at our clubs across N.Y. State. Our new subsidiary, Sportime Pickleball, will run stand-alone pickleball clubs, managed by Sportime. We have locations in development in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, for now, but we are looking at an expanding geography.
Each club will offer 10-15, indoor, year-round, regulation pickleball courts, with great support facilities, and some sites will be larger. Our model is play-based, meaning that, while we understand that a great deal of pickleball’s appeal is that it is social, welcoming and accessible, and while our larger clubs will have great food and social spaces, the core of our mission will always be focused on what happens on-court. Our clubs will have great coaches, and uniquely high-quality programs for players of all levels.
We also anticipate that youth pickleball will be a growing part of our business, as it seems possible, if not likely, that in the not too distant future, pickleball will be a college sport, and possibly an Olympic sport, and as it is already becoming an international sport. Sportime has always led in tennis around youth programming and instruction for kids and adults, and we plan to lead in those areas in pickleball, and generally, in designing and executing great commercial clubs that can welcome and serve players and students who embrace this rapidly evolving racket sport in our expanding markets.
TMR: As the business expands there are opportunities for brands to be involved with a growing number of consumers. How does Sportime take advantage of the brand value with companies?
CO: This is a work in progress for us. We have very productive and longstanding relationships with Head/Penn and Nike, both of which we expect will evolve as we continue to grow.
On the player development side, both Nike and BNP Paribas have provided major support to the Johnny Mac Tennis Project, our partner charity, through which partnership Sportime is able to underwrite and deliver thousands of hours of free community-based tennis learning opportunities in NYC, and also to change the lives of NY kids who could not otherwise afford to play, and who are able to access college scholarships and more through their fully-funded opportunities to train at the Academy.
So, Sportime is working hard to build a platform that will allow brands to connect with our growing, and very appealing, consumer base, and also with feel-good stories around the impact that tennis and racket sports can have on the lives of those who play, young and old!
TMR: Lastly, we saw Coco Gauff win the US Open this year. JMTA has produced — and is producing — several young stars of the game. How important is it for the health of pro tennis in this country to market and grow its young stars and how do you see that developing from your position?
CO: We are lucky in NY to have the US Open as our “local, hometown” tournament, as it is the ultimate annual sporting event and the most effective tennis fan incubator imaginable. And the US Open grew even during the years that American pro tennis was in a deep hole. But of course, we had Roger and Rafa and Novak and Andy dominating on the men’s side for more than a decade. And, notwithstanding the lack of other American success, we had Serena and Venus on the women’s side for even longer.
This is really a perfect storm for the growth and popularity of American tennis. I am not worried about us somehow failing to maximize the marketing opportunities around Coco and the next generation of American stars. And, of course, we are hoping that at least a couple of those future stars come out of JMTA.
As John likes to remind us, he was last to do it, and we want another New Yorker to win a US Open singles title! I do always want all of the stakeholders to do a better job of marketing the sport of tennis, and making it more accessible. Key to that is refreshing much of our public tennis infrastructure, most of which was built at least 50 years ago and some of which is being redeployed for pickleball growth. Some people are freaking out about that, but I think it is all going to be OK.
This is, for sure, a time of opportunity for American pro tennis and for the larger tennis and racket sports industry—and it has been a long time coming!
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