By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
As the 2010 USTA League National Championships kick off for both the 5.0 and 2.5 adult players in Southern California this week, USTA.com celebrates the 30th anniversary of USTA Leagues by speaking to a man who has been instrumental in the expansion and evolution of the world's largest organized tennis league – David Schobel.
Starting as National League Administrator in the early 1980s, Schobel has been a progressive hand at the helm for the past 27 years, trying tirelessly to get adult players from all backgrounds and ability levels into organized tournaments. Now, as Director of Competitive Play, he deals regularly with organizers at the national level all the way down to local clubs and everywhere in between. His main job description: Overseeing and teaching those underneath him how to create a fun, healthy environment for American tennis players, where those at a similar point in their competitive curve or those of similar age are properly matched up to face off.
The idea to establish competitive leagues for all different tennis types was not Schobel's idea, but he seemingly does everything within his power to perfect it. He has been an advocate for change in the NTRP ranking system, match scoring and the development of different play divisions.
Recently, Schobel sat down with USTA.com to discuss how far USTA Leagues has come since its infancy, where it is now and where he thinks it is destined to be in the future.
USTA.com: In the beginning, we had 13,000 players across three rating levels. Where are we now, 30 years later?
David Schobel: It's gone from really three levels – 3.5, 4.5 and 5.5 – to now, where our highest level is 5.0. That's a very good player, and we make our way down now to 2.5 in half-point increments for league play. In the beginning, it was only adult, as well. Now we have senior leagues, super seniors and mixed doubles as our main four national championships. Thirteen thousand were members at the time when we first began tracking, and now we have close to 340,000 unique members.
USTA.com: In the program's third year, you came in from a teaching position at the national tennis center and became a national administrator and then director. Now, looking back, how has it progressed over the years?
DS: The program has just become so vast in scope, and without the support of the sections and the section league coordinators, none of this really happens. Coming from an on-court position and being an instructor in Easton, Pa., I actually became a verifier back when the USTA used them, learning about creating teams and league play at the club level with the people I taught. From that, my experience was, "OK, I can see this valuable tool to go beyond this local setting," with three or four clubs in the area, to the bigger picture where you can now go ahead and have competitive play with others in a broader region. It has continued to evolve ever since. For me, that background in being a teaching pro and understanding what the NTRP was like was a benefit in our expansion to the national stage.
At the time, the USTA was looking for someone who could really get a handle on what was going on out there in the sections. There was no control over the NTRP, no control over who played at what level. What we did was create the first national group to deal with NTRP, learning about regulations, including a system for grievances, player disqualifications, creating sub-committees to help volunteers run their programs. In my first five years at the post, I like to think that I learned most by listening. Getting competitive league play established for players other than the elite amateurs and moving it into where most can recreate and really have a satisfying local league experience against players of similar skill sets was essential. That players of average skill can advance all the way through to national championships and experience the thrill of progress and competition is the result.
Using money wisely, we expanded the program to account for senior players and those who wanted to play mixed doubles. That was a major milestone for us. We also changed our scoring system a bit as the years progressed, going to a third-set tiebreak, instead of playing two out of three sets. We went to round-robin play, instead of straight knockout. These are the major things that took place regarding times we regulated, working closely with our legal department in terms of how and when.
USTA.com: How would you describe the relationship you have with your colleagues at the USTA?
DS: The great thing for me has been that I've had a chance to work with people personally from all over the country and with different attitudes about tennis. I've seen people come and go, and even those that go, there's still a bond with them with what has happened over the last 30 years.
USTA.com: You are obviously very passionate about USTA Leagues and what you do. Does that come from within, or do certain people bring it out in you?
DS: There are several people that have been involved with USTA League tennis, both on the volunteer end and on the staffing end. I think it’s a combination of those folks, plus the players themselves and their passion. They'll be very quick to point out that a new initiative is "the dumbest of all time" or "the best idea of all time." I draw from that. I think all of us in the program still have that enthusiasm and a passion for the sport to relate to that kind of feedback.
This grew up from being the stepchild of tournaments to where it’s the biggest, most successful program that the USTA has, sometimes in spite of me but sometimes, I like to think, because of some of the things that I have done. Always with the thought, too, that it’s not just one great idea but that there's a group of people who together have brought the best ideas forward.
USTA.com: A select few USTA national employees are essentially in charge of hundreds of thousands of tennis players each year. How is it done, and to what extent do the sections lighten the load?
DS: We all have our areas. Regulations belong to the National League Administrator, but certainly within this program, you have all the day-to-day website duties, providing the tools for the players to make the program easier. One person normally handles that. Another person organizes all the national championships, but none of it really gets done, just due to what we do as national staff. We have a whole gamut of volunteers; a national committee who are all experts because they grew up through USTA League tennis in various capacities, from local to district and then from sectional levels. They're involved with programs, regulations, PR and media. There's another group that has the oversight of the NTRP, which I'm involved with.
The staff people within the sections and their associates, that's what makes this thing click. There's no one person. If anything, the best ideas bubble forward from within from the sectional level, rather than the other way around.
USTA.com: There have been many key partnerships Leagues has had with sponsors, whether it was Michelob at the beginning as a title sponsor or through partnerships with Wilson, Chrysler, Citizen Watch, etc. To what extent has sponsorship helped in the process of gaining exposure?
DS: One of the groups that did a great deal, from my perspective, is Volvo. They were involved with us for so many years, and we learned from that relationship about the positive and negative impact of media. The people at Volvo were very strategic and creative with how they leveraged our program, and in many circles and cases, we became known as the "Volvo Leagues." The running of the program was all but done by us, yet Volvo got a huge hit at the time. They weren't in it just because they were doing good for the sport. They were doing good for their branding and selling cars, which was their business.
It can work. We've had several sponsors in the past, and we've also made a go of it alone for stretches. I'm sure we'll get another sponsor at some point. We certainly know that it doesn't hurt, in terms of the publicity and the added money, which allows us to free up additional funding to do other things with USTA Leagues. Like anything else, there's got to be plusses for both parties. One thing, we have gotten a lot wiser.
USTA.com: Has competition at League events, perhaps not just at the national level but when you break it down to the sectional and district levels, evolved as fast as the player counts have grown in three decades?
DS: Yeah, absolutely. Look, in its simplest form, it takes a local organizer and it takes a number of people in groups to come together to say, "We're going to start a local league." It’s now that we can offer to them more locations and more coordinators – certainly more than there ever were – in order to help manage this, along with our Internet TennisLink system.
I'd say in the last 10 years it’s more sophisticated, by virtue of the fact that the local organizer doesn't need to spend as much time dealing with memberships and other requirements; rather, they can focus almost solely on running the program. That's the good news. The bad news: Is the local coordinator committed to doing that? Are there enough courts to support growing programs? Do they have the bandwidth to do more than they're doing?
If not, then it falls upon the section coordinator to administer the program at the levels below national championships, so they're really faced with saying to the local coordinators, "We're going to narrow your focus and get more local league coordinators to help evolve some of the other programs, whether it be seniors, super seniors, mixed doubles or other programs that may at some point come into the national scope." That's the biggest difference. Most tennis people know about USTA Leagues. They may be very happy playing in their own league with less structure, but we have an opportunity and the ability to organize good local competition. The ability for advancement is a carrot – a powerful carrot – but it’s something that happens after local league play. The recent emphasis over the last two to four years has been on trying to improve the local league experience. We do that through survey work, focus group work. Those kinds of things help us to find out where we are, what we need to improve and how to improve.
USTA.com: We got to the turn of the millennium, and Leagues blasted into the computer age. You guys developed Dynamic NTRP, and then the sections got heavily involved with TennisLink, bringing League play to USTA members under one national umbrella and into their own homes for the very first time. It seems inconceivable that Leagues could have ever functioned without these advents. What are your thoughts about the changeover and the triumphs of TennisLink? What improvements would you still like to see?
DS: The thought was to gain the ability to document a player's history – to know where people are, where they were and even where they're going. That wasn't just for them, mind you, but also for our own purposes in terms of their NTRP rating. Certainly by having a compartmentalization into age requirements, gender association, divisions and a more efficient way to decide NTRP levels, we were able to help in the communication relating to those aspects of the program. To know the rules – how many matches you have to play to advance, for instance – creates a better management system and allows that local coordinator to go out and do what's necessary to build more league play.
The next generation is that we're now doing a user interface and are also studying up hard on providing a mobile platform so that people can look up NTRP ratings and match results all on their mobile devices. We are also working to develop a team-management tool to make things easier for the captains.
USTA.com: You mention captains. There are approximately 40,000 captains involved with USTA Leagues. How do they keep other league members involved, and what's the burden that's placed upon them?
DS: I think the burden is to keep 12 to 20 players satisfied, in terms of when they're available during the week, their preference in playing singles or doubles, hard court or clay court, if they're going on vacation – and all this juggling of personalities and schedules will, we hope, be made easier with the creation of the team-management tool. Knowing those kinds of things are critical for a captain to field a team that's competitive and matches up against the stronger teams in the league. At the same time, with the other players still part of the time, a captain must know how to meet their need for match play and improvement. Compatibility between players is another crucial element.
For such major responsibility, any tools we can develop to help them would be part of the next great innovation. Really, its time has come – certainly the technology and the applications are there. It’s hard enough to satisfy your husband or wife, let alone your entire tennis team and all their needs.
USTA.com: What's the most challenging aspect of your day-to-day duties here and now, in 2010?
DS: Dealing with the self-rate issues, people's integrity on questionnaires. Those are the challenges because, in terms of actual league play, people are not always as ethical as they should be. That's certainly a challenge. And also general communication.
Here in 2010, a shining example: We've moved 93,000 of our players to a higher NTRP level in order to create a better local league experience for the 200,000-plus that were complying with the NTRP guidelines, with what we saw on court matching what the ratings tell us they should look like. We feel it was a popular and fair move to get where we need to go but one that was simultaneously met with a lot of backlash from a vocal minority – 93,000 is a lot of people to take a chance on losing, especially when you're expecting to retain a certain quota each year. Thankfully, it seems that we haven't seen an increase in dropout rate from this group compared to USTA Leagues at large. Even with a perfect system, we know we're always going to have players leave programs due to injury, illness or lifestyle change.
USTA.com: What goals or ideas are on the horizon for USTA Leagues?
DS: I think we can be approaching 375,000 unique players, and we're doing the research work to hopefully establish another age division. The plan would be to go from divisions of 18, 50 and 60 years of age, to be looking at 18, 40, 55 and 70. The change in structure, we believe, will lead to an uptick in frequency of play. How that translates to local league play and opportunity, we don't know. I'm also hopeful we'll cut our regulation book down by five pages.
Above all, I'm for the idea that five years from now we will have reached a point where we are far enough advanced with our applications, like mobile and the captain's management tool, that it will be easier for people to play in USTA Leagues than ever before. The nature of play – trying to bring compatible play to your tennis experience in every match and continuing to keep improving on that – is what I hope to see in 2015.