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Building Your College Tennis Program

Chapter 3: Building A Booster Club

A strong booster club can do so many things for a program, from filling the stands to raising money for better facilities, even keeping a program alive. One coach calls his booster club the “lifeline” of his program. So if you don’t have one, you probably need one, and if you have one, you need to maximize it.

There are several ways to go about establishing a booster club and one of the most effective ways is to take your time and not rush into it. One of the great success stories, Jerry Noyce at Minnesota, built ties in the Minneapolis tennis community for about six years before formally starting a club. His worked so well because he had built so many strong relationships. Greg Patton, one of college tennis’ greatest promoters while at UC-Irvine and Boise State, invited a group of local tennis enthusiasts to hang out with him and his players and later contacted those same people for help in forming a booster club.

Many coaches like Noyce and Patton have had success creating booster clubs by bringing in the off-campus tennis community first, then looking on-campus. If you’re a coach in an area with a relatively small tennis community, you may want to start with past players (you can probably access their addresses through your alumni relations office on campus). Right there you may have a few hundred people with a natural interest in your program. Also, seek out the parents of recent past players and the people who come to your matches and try to get them involved as well.

As you’re developing a core group of boosters and potential boosters, you can then start to think about what you can offer them and how you can work with them. Talk to coaches about their booster clubs, and the ones that have strong clubs say these are the most important concepts and elements:

· You need to give something to get something

· Keep your boosters informed and active

· Make your boosters feel special

· Utilize your boosters

· Represent something people will want to be a part of

As mentioned earlier, one of the great success stories in college tennis booster clubs and building support for a program has been at the University of Minnesota. Jerry Noyce, University of Minnesota men’s coach from 1973-88, started it all. Noyce built a booster club and support system from scratch and it is still paying dividends today with a fully-endowed program and a new indoor tennis center.

“No one could have been in tougher shape than us,” recalls Noyce of the state of his program back in 1973. “We were last in the Big Ten, had old uniforms, no fans, no support.”

But by the end of the decade Noyce would develop a booster club that has been going strong for the past 25+ years.

After about two years there Noyce said he did what a lot of coaches do, he started a couple stand alone, pro-am type of events. After doing those, Noyce and the two people who were helping him with those events began the Baseline Club. The primary purpose of starting the Baseline Club was to gain fan support, not financial support. For $25 club members would become season ticket holders, get a newsletter, notice of home matches and a section at the tennis center with refreshments to socialize before and after a match. Noyce said they were charging to become “season ticket holders,” even though they weren’t always charging for matches, because it was more about being able to show a declared interest in the team.

Noyce sold the idea of a tennis booster club being different than for the sports like football and basketball. His tennis booster club was much more personal where members could get to know the players and through their involvement and support feel like they were actually making a difference with the program.

Noyce started from outside of campus to help him form the make-up of his club. Some coaches may be inclined to go after past players, but Noyce says looking towards the local tennis community was the way to go for him. Most of his club members never played for the team of even went to the university. But they saw it as a social club, another place to be with friends and bring friends to; something fun to be a part of. Plus, Noyce spent several years building strong ties with this local tennis community. He says that none of the support would have come his way if he hadn’t gone out to the area tennis clubs every weekend and built relationships. So when it came time for them to support him they came on board.

“The greatest lesson is that if you’re going to ask, you’ve got to give,” says Noyce of the support system dynamics. “A coach has to give time and expertise to build tennis in his or her community. If you’re willing to do that, the rest will come.”

When they called their first meeting the club charted a course right away, naming a President, Vice President and Board of Directors. The club had (and still has) a structure to it. Term limits were established for officers and it was registered as a non-profit organization with the State of Minnesota.

And the purpose of the club – to support the team – came to fruition. Minnesota would draw over 1,000 fans to some of its big matches. Once that was in place, Noyce tiered the membership to help raise money for travel. Second and third tiers of membership were added, called the “Golden Servers” and “Corporate Golden Servers,” respectively.

In ’88 Noyce and the Baseline Club turned their attention to the long term and raising money to endow scholarships. Before jumping into this project, Noyce and his club officials put a great deal of time and research into it, just as he had done in initially forming the club. They brought people in and interviewed them to gather information and input, gauge interest, and get direction. Once they compiled all this information from the interviews they designed their approach and came back to many of the people they first interviewed. Noyce said they surprised themselves – people were saying “yes” to them. Over the next decade the club would help raise well over two million dollars for the endowed scholarships and a new tennis facility.

Noyce is quick to point out this support base for his program and any other was not about winning. Although he enjoyed a highly successful career at Minnesota, winning wasn’t part of the equation of gaining a loyal booster following for him. Noyce feels booster clubs are about being part of something fun and about liking the coaches, players and what they stand for.

The University of Minnesota athletic department hit hard times last year and planned to drop three sports – needless to say tennis was not one of them, because of the enormous success of the Baseline Club. By having a strong base of support through a booster club, a varsity tennis team can also put itself in a much better position to avoid program cuts. A college or university President or Athletic Director will be less likely to cut a program that is self-sufficient and supported by the community.

Noyce is still very active in the college tennis community. He is currently chairing the USTA Collegiate Tennis Committee, which was formed this past summer and is working hard to help college tennis.

A common theme in the “Building Your Program” series is giving something to get something. Giving your time to a campus recreation program can help you get campus support. Giving you time to community endeavors can help you gain community support and a positive image. Giving time for projects within your Athletic Department can help you gain support and respect from your co-workers and superiors. Giving your boosters something makes them more interested in giving back to you.

So what can you give your boosters? It's essential that you produce some type of regular correspondence with them. A newsletter seems to be the most effective way of doing a few things at once: giving your boosters something, keeping them informed, and making them feel special.

At San Diego State, Coaches Gene Carswell and Peter Mattera have the benefit of supporter (and former player) John Martin, who produces the Aztec Tennis Reporter. SDSU alum Martin, who spent 26 years at ABC News and is now a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, creates and publishes this newsletter four to six times a year. Thanks to Martin's efforts the Aztec Tennis Reporter now has more than 1,500 readers in 37 states and 25 foreign countries (including nearly 200 SDSU players from 1942 on). A past issue carried an article titled "Who Reads Aztec Tennis Reporter?" which noted the mailing list includes 114 San Diego area high school tennis coaches, 108 SDSU Athletic Department employees, local and national tennis journalists and even the likes of Wimbledon champions John McEnroe, Alex Olmedo, Tony Trabert, Karen Hantz Sussman, and Billie Jean King. That same issue asked for help in searching for another 152 past SDSU men's and women's team members to add to the mailing list. If you meet Martin, there's a good chance you'll have an Aztec Tennis Reporter in your mailbox in the near future.

Each four-page black-and-white issue typically includes features and updates on the SDSU men's and women's teams, updates and articles on past Aztec players (the latest issue has an update on 1997-2000 Aztec Alex Waske, who qualified for Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and upset Carlos Moya at the Japan Open), letters from readers, tennis book reviews, and articles on happenings in the tennis world. It even has an entertainment reporter, Tom Penner, an Aztec player in the 1980s who writes screenplays, teaches tennis, and reviews tennis movies for the newsletter.
Click here(www.aztectennisreporter.com) to see the web version of the most recent issue.

Another noteworthy mailing list is at Stanford. Although they don’t have a formal booster club, Stanford’s Dick Gould has built up a mailing list of over 3,000 supporters for his men’s program over the years.

Another effective method of communicating with boosters for coaches in recent years has been Online and through e-mail. E-mail is becoming more and more popular because, while a printed newsletter is great, it can also take some time to design. Coaches have enough things to do without worrying about becoming graphic artists. E-mail is a quick and easy way to keep those close to your program in the loop. Many coaches have taken to sending out an e-mail after matches to a booster list, with in-depth details that don’t make the next morning’s newspaper (and/or also having this e-mail list part of their sports information contact’s distribution list).

Popular and effective ideas for giving back to boosters can be through acknowledgement in your match programs, team media guides, school Web site, a display board at your facility and public address announcements during matches, special seating areas at matches and team apparel (warm-ups, t-shirts, rackets, caps, etc.). Some programs have even designated a booster as honorary coach for a particular match. The annual team banquet (or periodical team barbeques and parties) can also be a great avenue to show your appreciation for your boosters (some programs have the Booster Club President emcee the ceremony). Alumni/Booster tournaments and round robins are another good idea for giving back. All these things can make your booster club members feel different - and they should because they are in your corner, they are some of your biggest supporters.

Many of these perks can be given in the levels of membership you offer. One level can offer recognition in the team media guide, an invitation to a team party and subscription to your newsletter. The next level can offer all of these things, plus team apparel. The next level can offer all the things previously mentioned, plus special seating at home matches and participation in a tennis patrons tournament. As you can see, there can be several levels of membership and several things you can offer in return.

Many coaches also feel that personal phone calls and an occasional handwritten note can go a long way in building a strong relationship with your boosters. Some coaches will send personal invitations to matches. Others will have players make phone calls. California has a Thank-A-Thon each season where the coaches have the team members gather together one evening to make thank-you calls to all their boosters who have contributed to the program. People often respond favorably when this kind of personal touch is added.

This personal touch can be extended to match day as well. Greg Patton says it’s important for coaches and players to try and acknowledge those who come out to the match to support you. He recommends walking around to thank them for coming out or just chatting for a moment. And Patton wasn’t doing this for 20 or so people, he was drawing up to 1,000 fans for some matches and this personal touch worked well for his programs.

Everyone wants to know as much as possible about something they are putting time, interest and financial support into. Coaches need to let boosters know what they are supporting and how they are making a difference. One letter to boosters opens with the coach letting readers know what her plans and goals are for her program’s performance on the court, in the classroom and in the community that season. She then highlights some of the things fans can specifically look forward to during the season (a strong home schedule, various promotions, a tournament they are hosting, etc.). She closes by briefly letting them know some of the fundraising goals she has to help improve her program (i.e. new scoreboard, general facility improvements, Spring Break trip, etc.). And, of course, she is always sure to thank her boosters.

This area also falls into what Jerry Noyce says about people joining booster clubs - because they like the coaches, players and what they stand for. Greg Patton says the main appeal to boosters is your players. The first thing he did before even starting booster clubs at UCI and Boise State was invite people to meet his players at a barbeque or a clinic. He found the people who wanted to become involved with his programs came because they liked the players and they liked the idea of supporting young people.

Boosters don’t always have to contribute to your program in monetary ways. Most contribute by giving their time. Aside from showing their support at home matches, they help you with the tasks that seem to take up more and more hours – making scorecards, calling people to come out to matches, supply food for the matches, etc. One coach said he has a group of about 10 boosters that do close to 90 percent of the little things that help make his program go.

There are two primary ways for a coach to approach a booster club. One way is to essentially act as President and run it yourself. Another way, especially for long-running clubs, is to have the officers run it (which can lighten a coach’s work load).

One of the most innovative college coaches of the last 20 years was Greg Patton at UC-Irvine and Boise State. A group of people Patton reached out to for support was the retirement community; people no longer working, but still very active and looking for something to devote time to.

“When I came to Irvine I was in my early twenties, had no family there and really knew no one,” recalled Patton. “When I started to look for support I was looking for people who had a passion for tennis. Some of my most caring and loyal fans came from the retirement community. They essentially became my extended family.”

There are people out there that can help your program. It’s not always easy to find them and often takes a great deal of time and effort. But when you establish a connection with a diverse support base, the support for your program will grow.