Rusty Racquets - get former tennis players back to play
Some tennis clubs have set up new, regular Rusty Racquets sessions for non-members and boosted club membership considerably. A lively Rusty Racquets community has also added to club spirit, bringing new skills and energy. We explain what results your club can expect from Rusty Racquets sessions and how Minehead LTC came to start the movement.
What is Rusty Racquets
It started at Minehead Lawn Tennis Club in Somerset in 2012. ‘Rusty Racquets’ was first coined by Peter Bolla for tennis club sessions aimed at adults who may be out of practice, less confident about their ability and therefore not ready to commit to a club membership.
Typically sessions are targeted at adults who have not played for several years and who need to brush up on their skills before committing to returning to regular play. Sessions are informally coached (if at all) and they welcome players of all standards, including beginners.
How to increase and retain membership
With tennis in slow but steady decline over many years, membership retention and growth is a major concern for most tennis clubs today.
A strategy to improve a club’s attractiveness is the development of new facilities and the improvement of existing facilities. In a small survey by the TIA* published last year, 64% of clubs stated they were planning to improve their facilities over the next year. Another strategy is better marketing. 67% of clubs in the survey said they planned to review their marketing activities over the next year.
A Rusty Racquets session complements these measures. Increased membership means clubs have more funds and a wider pool of volunteers with which to develop their club.
Is there enough demand?
A 2016 survey by the LTA** of 37,000 people found that 11% were active tennis players, 15% used to play but had lapsed in the last 5 years, and an astounding 48% used to play but had lapsed more than 5 years ago.
Another LTA survey*** found that 41% of lapsed tennis players are interested in going back to the sport but there are three main barriers for them to do so.
- finding and booking a court
- not feeling ‘good enough’ to play
- finding someone of the right level to play with
Rusty Racquets sessions at your club can address all three points.
Minehead Lawn Tennis Club - where it all began
In 2012, Minehead LTC had 70 members with an ageing membership. The facilities were in need of an overhaul but there was not enough money in the club for refurbishments. Club member Pete Bolla had recently moved to the area. As a very competent tennis player he was quickly welcomed and attended regular club nights.
Pete recalls: “Two new ladies turned up one day for club night. Their level of play was pretty novice. With our club standard quite high, none of the members wanted to play with them. When I walked into the club house at the end of my match, I saw one of the ladies was upset. I offered to knock a few balls with them the coming Saturday afternoon. A third lady overheard us talk and wanted to join us. That Saturday the four of us had a lot of fun. So much so that we agreed to do it again the following Saturday. One of the ladies was also a member of a book club. She mentioned our planned knock-about to her book club friends and the very next Saturday we were already half a dozen people keen to play. Everything grew from there.”
Pete continued to run regular sessions every Saturday from 2pm to 5pm. With the help of a couple of other volunteers and they are now a firm club fixture. Sessions cost £2.50 per person to cover cost for tennis balls and use of the facilities. There is no pressure to join the club. You can participate as many times as you like. No commitment!
"People started to bring cakes and coffee. They come and stay and mingle. There is always a lot of lively chatter and laughter about the club on Saturday afternoons".
Growing the club membership
Rusty Racquets players are restricted to play on Saturday afternoon only. As their play improves, they usually want to play more often and want to join club nights too. That is when they have to join and become members.
Full membership at Minehead is £150 a year which can be paid in monthly instalments. At £12.50 a month this is roughly £3 a week, only 50p more expensive than paying cash for a weekly Rusty Racquet session. The financial hurdle into membership is very low. At Minehead LTC, 90% of regular Rusty Rackets participants become full members.
Pete remembers: “Suddenly our membership was actually growing. The club chairman was impressed. Just five years after we started ‘Rusty Racquets’, membership had doubled. The club was able to build two new floodlit, astroturf courts with the additional income. We continue to have 20-25 people regularly on a Saturday and Rusty Racquets is going from strength to strength”.
But as successful as it has been, Rusty Racquets was not all plain sailing. There were a few complaints from original members who were less welcoming to the new players largely based on the lower playing standard of the ‘rusty players’.
Pete said: “From my experience, most small tennis clubs look for and welcome new adult members who can play well. Very few clubs encourage adult beginners to join. I used to joke with our Chairman that we were the only club in the country looking for people who can’t play”.
Making people of all playing standards feel welcome was the key ingredient to turn Rusty Racquets into a success at Minehead.
If done well, regular such sessions can substantially boost club membership and a club’s financial health. This can lead to better facilities and in turn even more members joining. Expect your club to become more vibrant, energetic, fun and youthful.
Have we captured your imagination? Would you like to start running sessions at your own club? Contact us if you need suggestions or if you would like to chat with Pete Bolla directly.
In our next blog we will share Pete’s top tips on how to implement a ‘Rusty Racquets’ programme at your club.
*TIA Club Business Report 2020 survey
** Who Plays Tennis – Adult Segmentation – LTA publication – February 2016
*** LTA - Tennis Opening Up? LTA Presentation -Business of Tennis Forum 2019