Online Tennis sites fuilled with tips and strategies is the newest trend happening in Tennis.
Most of those seeking improvement will book court time for a session with their local pro. Yet, a small but growing number of players are heading online, for broadcast quality video instruction packaged in highly structured courses devoted to tennis technique, strategy and fitness.
The primary benefits of online learning are the same for tennis instruction as for academic disciplines. For the instructor it provides the ability to reach an audience far beyond their local market and present a unified system or progression of learning. And students get to consume dozens of hours of content repeatedly on any computer or mobile device at a fraction of the cost of the equivalent number of private lessons.
While online instruction may seem like a direct threat to traditional on-court lessons, many in the industry view it as a complement to, rather than a replacement for in-person sessions with a local pro. “The more information that’s out there for both students and instructors, the better,” says Fred Viancos, Director of Professional Development at the USPTA, a national certification body for tennis instructors.
Here’s an inside look at the experiences of three entrepreneurs who decided to leave job security behind and offer virtual tennis lessons to students from around the world. Their business models involve paid subscriptions, with access to regular webcasts and video analysis, and/or upfront purchases of video-based courses covering specific topics. And the lessons they’ve learned in making their businesses profitable can be helpful to any budding entrepreneur.
Ask any current or former club pro and they’ll tell you that standing on your feet for six to eight hours a day, five days a week, hitting thousands of balls to students is a physical grind. And back in 1998, approaching his 50th birthday, Brent Abel who’d been teaching tennis non-stop since high school, decided there must be a better – and less taxing – approach to tennis instruction. His answer was webtennis.com.
In the late nineties, launching a commercial web site was far from the seamless endeavor it is today. Abel recalls spending many late nights and weekends after work teaching himself enough HTML to be able to use Microsoft MSFT -0.42% editor Front Page. He wasn’t the first to launch a tennis instruction site. “There were some other sites running,” he says, “but my niche was that I was an actual teaching pro, not a business guy.” Indeed Abel’s teaching and playing credentials continue to serve him well in attracting online students. In addition to a 40 year teaching career at clubs in California, Florida and France, he’s long been a top competitor in amateur tournaments, winning the National 60s Hardcourt Singles Championship in 2009.
For the first several years, Abel was running his site while holding down his day job as the Head Pro and Tennis Director at San Francisco’s California Tennis Club. When he resigned that position to run webtennis.com full-time, it took him two years to attain a comparable income level. Yet running the site offered quality of life benefits such as more flexible working hours which allowed him to spend more time on court working on his own game, not an insignificant benefit for such an avid competitor.
For students, Abel sees a big advantage in online instruction. Over the years he’s observed that there are a lot of people teaching tennis professionally without a formal system or methodology. “You may get a lot of clichés or generic advice like, ‘Take the racket back’. But most instructors don’t have a system and so they try to teach recreational players to play like the pros, which isn’t really possible.” Abel feels that having a structured approach not only lets potential students know in advance what he teaches, but just as importantly, what he does not teach. “I’m very clear on my site about the style of tennis I teach. It’s called the ‘All-Court Forcing Game’. It’s the same concept I use in my own matches, so I know it works. But,” he adds, “if you’re set on copying Andy Roddick’s Western Forehand and rallying from the baseline, I’m not really your guy so I don’t want to waste your time.”
Abel finds that his biggest challenge as an online instructor is the same as when he was giving on-court lessons: motivating students to go out on the court and put in the hours needed to make a technique or strategy adjustment second nature. This is compounded by the fact that the learning curve is full of ups and downs, rather than a straight line. Drawing on his decades of experience teaching these exact techniques in person, once a student signs up for a course, Abel employs an automated email system to provide timely messages of encouragement and advice to guide students throughout the many stages of the learning process. “I’ve taught long enough to know what the issues and frustrations are for players as they go through this. With an automated email system I can reach out to each one of them in a way that wouldn’t be practical otherwise.” He finds a bit of a personal touch in a virtual relationship goes a long way.
A student-athlete on the tennis team at Ferris State University, Ian Westermann graduated with a degree in business marketing. After college he landed a job as a teaching pro on the staff of the famed Congressional Country Club just outside Washington, D.C. which counts former presidents as founding members, has a six figure initiation fee and is an annual stop on the PGA tour.
Westermann would spend his daily commutes to Congressional listening to podcasts on a range of topics and soon became convinced that there was an opportunity for a tennis podcast focused exclusively on instructional tips and techniques. So in 2008 he started the Essential Tennis Podcast, which today is the second-ranked tennis podcast on iTunes. A companion website developed to include user forums, Q&A sessions and eventually video-based courses, which began to generate the bulk of Essential Tennis’ revenue.
After a couple of years of managing the website and podcast channel while still putting in 70+ hours a week at his day job, Westermann reached a point where it was financially viable to devote himself to Essential Tennis full-time. While leaving a steady job had risks, the challenge of building something of his own appealed to Westermann’s entrepreneurial instincts. “I always had a general interest in business,” he says. “I was the kid who ran a lemonade stand and sold cookies on the sidewalk.”
In an everything-is-free Internet culture it can be a challenge to get people to actually pay for instructional video content. But the 32 year-old Westermann doesn’t buy the notion that YouTube means you can’t attract a paying audience. “My value lies in providing a curated selection of content that is developed around a system of instruction that has been proven to work,” he says. But getting site visitors to pull out their credit cards and subscribe to a course does require some form of enticement. “YouTube has thousands of videos on how to hit a forehand,” Westermann notes. “So I have to show potential students that mine are better. That means offering some content for free.” This goes against the notion that if you give away content, customers won’t pay you. “But it’s impossible to give away too much up front,” Westermann believes. “Ultimately, what I offer paying subscribers is a logical progression of instruction that you can’t get from random videos on YouTube.”
With the ability to support himself and his family solely from his site, Westermann doesn’t soft pedal the amount of work that goes into it. Late nights and early mornings come with the territory. And patience is a must. “There’s no fast track for this kind of business,” Westermann advises. “It’s a long-term commitment to build the trust of your audience.” Even with a one-person operation like Essential Tennis, continued success requires constantly setting goals. “After a year of doing this full-time,” Westermann says, “I was on solid financial ground, paying my bills and reaching a wider audience than I ever could as a teaching pro, all while working from home. I had met my initial goals.” He soon realized though that simply maintaining the status quo was not providing the same amount of motivation that had carried him through to that point. So a fresh set of goals was needed. Among these is to grow the online community that has built up around his subscribers and forum members to foster local meetups where users can get together on the court and put Westermann’s instruction in action with like-minded players.
Will Hamilton was only a few years out of college, with a political science degree when he received a phone call offering a staff position with the U.S. House Budget Committee. While many of his classmates would have surely jumped at the chance to work inside the Beltway, this former college tennis player turned part-time coach, had second thoughts about joining the world of politics. “I remember calling them back to say, ‘Thanks, but I’m going to start a tennis website in my parents’ basement instead.’ And there was a long silence on the other end of the line.”
That tennis website was fuzzyyellowballs.com. Hamilton, now 31, started it along with childhood friend and programmer Adam Sieminski and former pro player, Frank Salazar. Today it’s the most successful online learning platform in tennis. While Hamilton wouldn’t share annual revenue figures, he notes that two of his best selling instructional courses, featuring doubles Grand Slam record holders Bob and Mike Bryan and former world No. 1 Pat Rafter respectively, have grossed over $1 million in revenue.
And he’s seen first hand how success breeds more success. In fact, the reason Hamilton was able to work with the Bryan brothers in the first place was that their agent got wind of his site’s popularity – the YouTube channel has over 45 million hits – and wanted to explore potential business opportunities. This in turn, raised Fuzzy Yellow Balls’ profile in what is a close-knit professional tennis community. And Hamilton credits his access to the players everyone sees on TV as a huge selling point in attracting subscribers. “People see you on court with the top pros and it creates credibility,” he says.
But Hamilton learned early on in this venture not to confuse popularity with profitability. The latter always takes concentrated effort and strategic planning. “My initial plan – because I didn’t know any better – was to make money from ads on YouTube. But even with 45 million hits, YouTube is not a significant source of income for us,” Hamilton says. “It’s not a platform we have any control over so we approach it as content marketing. The goal, whether you’re using Facebook, YouTube or Twitter is to get that audience to your own site where you can monetize it.” Hamilton also adds that even in this social media age no one should overlook the power of email when it comes to generating paying subscribers. “We track all our email campaigns when we do a product launch,” he says. “If we send out 30,000 emails and generate $400,000 in sales, that’s an average value of just over $13 per email.”
Hamilton also uses email to compile user interest and feedback that drives plans for future content. “We don’t just pick our topics of instruction at random. They’re all based on our internal market research.” The payoff, he says is when they launch a new course and, “we hear back from students saying, ‘This is exactly what I wanted to learn.’ That’s not by accident.”
With a solid business model and demonstrated ability to make a profit, you might expect Hamilton to be on the lookout for buyers. But that’s not on his radar at the moment. “Entrepreneurship has been an adventure of personal growth. I’ve had to develop a wide range of skills, from public speaking and presentation to marketing and web development, while cultivating personal relationships within the tennis industry that have since become a big part of our success.” How will he know when it’s time to move on to another challenge? “When I feel like I’m not learning and growing as a person anymore, I’ll stop.”