Building Better Tennis Facilities: Interview with Todd Carlson from USTA Tennis Venue Services

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SVC: In this edition of our Expert Insights series, we are delighted to welcome Todd Carlson from the U.S. Tennis Association. Welcome, Todd! Could you please introduce yourself briefly?

Todd Carlson: Sure. I’m Todd Carlson, Director of Tennis Services. It’s been quite a journey to reach this point. Many people don’t realize there are roles dedicated to helping build tennis facilities and providing grants to grow the game nationwide.

I started in the high-tech industry right out of college but felt unfulfilled. After some self-assessment, I decided to shift my career to sports. I joined USTA Texas, one of the 17 sections, working in community tennis. I handled various responsibilities, from community tennis associations, wheelchair tennis, adult recreation, adaptive tennis, and facility management.

When the USTA National Campus with 100 courts opened in Orlando, I was recruited for this department. It was a great opportunity, and I made the move over seven years ago. Since then, I’ve risen to head the department. My passion for tennis started when I began playing at seven, so I’ve been connected to the game for a long time.

Introducing USTA Tennis Venue Services

SVC: Can you explain briefly what Tennis Venue Services does?

Todd Carlson: Absolutely. As the national governing body of tennis, the USTA aims to grow the game, and this is challenging without adequate facilities. We started in 2005 by consolidating funds to provide grants for building or renovating tennis facilities. We oversee this by building relationships with local leaders, park directors, and community tennis associations, which are volunteer-run nonprofits that promote tennis locally. This collaborative approach helps us effectively grow the sport across the country.

What services are offered to project planners?

SVC: Can you provide an overview of the services available to project owners through your organization?

Todd Carlson: Certainly. We offer comprehensive technical, business, and advocacy services to support project owners.

Technical Services

We provide consulting services through a civil engineer to assist with general contractors and architects, ensuring projects are well-managed and aligned with best practices. We also help with evaluating Requests for Proposals (RFPs) and bids to ensure clear and specific requirements, which helps in receiving comparable bids. Additionally, we promote RFPs to contractors and review the bids received, helping project owners make informed decisions. We also offer 2D concept designs and colorful renderings to support project planning, presentations and securing stakeholder buy-in.

Business Services

Over the past five years, we’ve formalized our business services to help lower risks to project owners, develop sustainable profit-loss statements and offer expert advice on financial management. Our experienced business consultants, with over 60 years of combined experience, provide invaluable insights and tips to ensure long-term success.

To give you one example, if you’re a municipality looking to put a facility out for bid to be managed by a concessionaire, we can review the bid and offer valuable tips and ideas. If a municipality lacks expertise in tennis, they turn to us for guidance. We also assist with master planning. If there’s a park plan in progress, we can provide expert input on the design, especially for tennis and pickleball facilities.

Overlap with Other Stakeholders in the Project?

SVC: Right. So, you touch on many areas in the planning phase. Usually, project planners work with a project manager from the private sector. Is there overlap between what you do and what they offer, or do you work together?

Todd Carlson: Great question. We don’t act as a big brother dictating what to do. Instead, we meet project planners where they are and offer support. We collaborate rather than encroach on others’ territories. With our extensive experience—handling around 833 inquiries last year alone—we provide niche expertise in tennis and pickleball, helping to manage the complexities, especially for municipalities. This includes balancing resources for both sports.

Grants and Funding Opportunities for Project Planners

SVC: What kind of grants are available for project planners?

Todd Carlson: We offer grants in three main categories and they are specifically for tennis courts. For combined tennis and pickleball facilities, we assess grants based on the tennis court costs alone.

The first category covers amenities such as backboards, shade structures, and windscreens, providing up to $5,000 or 50% of the project cost. For instance, a $5,000 project can receive up to $2,500. The second category focuses on resurfacing projects, with funding based on the number of courts and specific limits. The third category includes new construction and reconstruction, such as lighting projects, offering up to 50% funding with a maximum of $55,000, which can be exceeded for indoor facilities.

SVC: Do project owners need to have the other 50% of the funding secured before applying?

Todd Carlson: No, if they are on their way to raising funding and are establishing land, they may complete the online inquiry form. 

SVC: How can project planners apply for USTA grants? 

Todd Carlson: Visit usta.com/facilities and fill out the inquiry form. Our project managers will gather the necessary information, which is then reviewed by our technical team. If the criteria are met, a grant application is extended and a decision is made. If an approval letter is awarded, the client will complete an accountability form showing proof of completion. The grant funding will be paid as a reimbursement. 

Learn more about grant and funding opportunities on the USTA website.

Challenges in Tennis Facility Development

SVC: What are the biggest challenges that project owners usually face?

Todd Carlson: The two biggest challenges are money and land. Securing land can be particularly difficult in high-cost areas like DC or California, where the opportunity cost is high due to competing interests, such as residential development. The thin profit margins for racket and paddle facilities make it tough to compete with such projects. This is where public-private partnerships become crucial. We often engage in these projects, helping to leverage local partnerships for a common cause, supporting project owners through the process.

Opportunities and Trends

SVC: Looking to the future, what opportunities and trends do you see for tennis facility development?

Todd Carlson: One significant trend is recognizing tennis as not just an outdoor sport but also an indoor or covered court sport. We’re seeing increased demand for covered courts due to climate concerns, such as extreme heat, which affects playability and safety. This demand is evident in both warm and cold climates. 

We also have an advanced tool that assesses the demand for tennis and pickleball based on local population characteristics. This helps project owners determine the optimal design, number, and type of courts to meet the area’s needs. We incorporate extensive data, including health characteristics and socioeconomic factors such as free or reduced lunch program participation. This allows for tailored programs, such as low-cost or scholarship-supported tennis and education initiatives, in collaboration with the USTA Foundation and the National Junior Tennis and Learning program.

Success Case – Leftwich Tennis Center, Memphis, TN

SVC: Your organization has been involved in hundreds of tennis facility development projects. Can you share a success story where you were heavily involved?

Todd Carlson: One notable success story is the Leftwich Tennis Center in Memphis, Tennessee. We partnered with them from the very beginning through to the grand opening and beyond. Initially, they had a modest facility with four indoor courts and six outdoor courts. Recognizing the need for a hub within Memphis, a group of tennis enthusiasts reached out to us. We supported their architects in designing a 24-court outdoor facility.

This project involved a partnership with the University of Memphis, giving students access to the courts, and the city, which provided funding since the facility is on city property, and the local National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) nonprofit which supports low socio-economic kids with a tennis and education program. The NJTL raised the majority of the $31 million—for the project. We assisted with the technical design, business model, and coordination among various partners.

The mayor was a strong supporter, and the grand opening took place in November last year (2023). Remarkably, within the first few months, the facility saw 75,000 visitors. Every court is equipped with shade structures for the fans, making it a comfortable venue for both players and spectators. We are excited to see how this facility continues to drive economic impact and community engagement in Memphis.

Conclusion

SVC: That’s all for my questions this time. Is there anything else you’d like to share with the project planners out there?

Todd Carlson: Yes, I’d like to emphasize the importance of reaching out to us as early as possible in your project planning process. Even if you’re in the initial stages, it’s beneficial to discuss your plans. Understanding what to expect and the available resources can make a significant difference. If project planners come to us too late, we might not be able to provide the necessary assistance, especially if the design is already approved. 

Additionally, there are substantial funding opportunities, including matching grants from our sections and districts, which can significantly multiply your available funds. So, connecting with us early ensures you maximize both our expertise and financial support.

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