Around the World in 50 Courts – So, Now You Want to Build One, Do You?

Dear Friend,

Though I don’t know you and I might even be dead, I consider you a friend simply because you are thinking enough about building a court tennis court to have found your way to this letter.

I address it to you not to your project nor to anyone else, because you, the person with the checklist of things that need doing, are the key to success.

Your Wellbeing

Your well-being for the duration of your venture is the single most important driver of a successful court building effort. If you lose heart, all will be lost.

An important caveat: everything that follows should be read as “A” way to achieve your goal not “THE” way. We have far too few data points to suggest rules or general principles. All we have is examples and even those are skewed.

There is folklore about successful court building projects, but nearly none about those that failed or the reasons they failed. Surely, that information would also be useful because the reasons for failure would point out pitfalls and mistakes to be avoided.

For every project that ends successfully, there are many that began but did not complete the course. Why not? We don’t really know.

Here are two thoughts before you begin:

  • If you have a notion to build a court tennis court, it is possible that, if you lie down for a bit, the notion will pass. Breathing exercises can be most helpful.
  • If the notion has not passed, consider valuing your time at about 5% or 10% of what it would command in the open market. Then use the money from that hourly rate to buy yourself a nice house near an existing court. You will come out far ahead.

Well don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’m not sure what motivates people to build courts, but whatever it is, you had better have a lot of it.

If you do, you will come to value the process and your contribution to the continuation of something good. You will also have left the campsite better than you found it and you will have made some wonderful friends and challenged yourself along the way.

Getting Started

You are now a volunteer real estate developer, and you will soon realize there is a reason that developers are often quite highly paid. They take a great deal of risk. They need many skills, and they face many obstacles. Stumbling at any fence means the end of the race.

Best to build a team to help you, even if they are not as motivated as you are. Having people to share ideas with is good because it sharpens your thinking and reduces your loneliness.

I am dimly aware of the practice of primal screaming to let off steam but have never tried it. If you do, please let me know how it goes or add it to your version of this letter.

Build some time into your budget to get around and play in other courts at least in your nearby geography. Meet the people who play there get to know them. Ask questions. You will learn a lot and it will be one of the most pleasing parts of the process.

The Site

In my two projects, that always came first. In countries like England where the game is rather well-known, you will find many who have heard of it. That is a leg up. If the game is generally well known in your area, but the site owners with whom you are talking don’t know about it, that could be a red flag. You might be in an unsuitable catchment area.

This does not apply to the United States where the game is not at all well-known. It is possible that land or building owners will be attracted by other courts that you can show them.

If you are working with a site owner and come to an agreement, build in far more time than you think to complete the project. I had one project take more than 10 years and I would personally be cautious about a time budget of less than five.

A court tennis court is easily and accurately described as the size of a lawn tennis court from fence to fence. That is just for the court. Anything else you’d like to build is extra. One challenge is height. Three stories are about the least you’ll need and if you can get to four, that will be better.

That makes urban environments a challenge. I “back-of-the-envelope” calculated the real estate value of New York’s two courts located on Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets. To be sure, an extremely high-end real estate market.

Four thousand five hundred square feet times two (courts) times four (stories) is 36,000 square feet. At prevailing office rents in the area, and assuming good usage of both courts 360 days per year, the court fee came to about $175 per hour. That might work for polo or for the occasional round of golf at Pebble Beach, but it is far more than most people pay for daily or weekly recreation, especially if they are taking up a new game.

The words “return on investment” or its acronym “ROI” will not be in your vocabulary for long. You will, however, be able to cover the running costs including hiring a professional if the court is well occupied.

Capital Markets

The capital cost of a court tennis court will not support a bankable loan. It is possible that patient enthusiasts will lend money for the project, but they will not be getting market returns for either their risk or their patience.

Nor will equity ownership provide market returns, though the owner might well enjoy the cachet of owning a court.

Essentially, these two statements lead you to philanthropy. A loan that is not repaid becomes a gift. An ownership interest with little, if any, rate of return is similar. I have been in many conversations that used the terms debt or equity, but I have had the most success with philanthropy.

Fund Raising Entities

The U. K. has the concept of “Gift Aid” and the Tennis & Rackets Association has wisely recharacterized itself as a qualified charity. If your project is in the U.K., an early conversation with the T&RA is an important step.

In the United States, we have tax-deductible gifts to charities, but these bring restrictions on the operation of athletic facilities. Otherwise, every public gym would be financed that way.

Fortunately, the 1976 United States Olympic team got trounced by the Russians and that led to congressional debate about how to avoid the loss of international prestige.

We did not go the way of state funded sports. Instead, we compromised by adding a section to our tax law that permits every sport in which there is international amateur competition to establish training facilities financed with tax deductible contributions.

Note: the Olympics now allow professionals, but the tax law has never been changed.

Court tennis is international and there is much amateur competition so the United States Court Tennis Preservation Foundation, formed by Dick Boenning and the US Court Tennis Association was easily re-characterized under the relevant section, and it has become the vehicle of choice for court building in the U.S.

When we applied for recognition under the law, a Treasury Department examiner called me to ask a few specific questions. One related to the useful life of a court. I replied, “well, Hampton Court was built in 1530, but I am pretty sure Falkland Palace is a bit older.” I thought I detected a whispered naughty word as he moved on to his next question.

France has a scheme for funding projects characterized as part of the “patrimoine” or patrimony of the country. “Jeu de paume” as the game is called in France, easily qualifies. After all the groundwork for the new constitution of the country was set in a Versailles tennis court a few weeks before the storming of the Bastille.

I know nothing of the laws in Australia (or any other country), but the Australia Real Tennis Association (ARTA) will be most useful in that country. EU countries might have similar schemes some of which could even include government grants.

Backing Your Project

In whichever country your project is to be located, the relevant entity through which you will be raising funds is likely to have other funds committed to various other purposes. Understandably, those entities will be reluctant to put those funds at risk for a speculative development project.

The solution is relatively easy but not well understood, even by the entities themselves.

Any commitment to a third-party should offer recourse only to a segregated fund earmarked for your project. All contributions to your project should be deposited in that fund and the third-party should clearly understand that the conduit entity to which the contributions are made is not committing its general funds to this specific project.

Such entities might wisely create starter funding for projects to help you get going as that will be the hardest money to raise. As yet, this idea is nascent but, in my view, is worthy of encouragement.

Fundraising

In my experience, you – the developer – will be responsible for your own fundraising as few people like asking others for money.

Though fundraising is nothing more (or less) than sales, for some reason, a few people really enjoy it. You might get lucky and recruit some people to your team who are willing to do it, but you should probably plan to do much of it yourself. As the leader, donors will want to hear from you.

Some countries have longer philanthropic traditions and others, but the skills and techniques are well known.

The first step is to craft the story of your project. Your target audience is likely to be other players and they will already know the game. They will be interested in what your project will add to it. There is also a sense of pride in being involved with new courts. Players like knowing the game is expanding.

Visuals, including at least preliminary architectural sketches of your project, will be appealing.

Donors will also wonder whom your project will attract to add to the 12,000 players who now play the game. They will prefer projects in places that seem like where they live as these seem most likely to produce people like themselves who are prospects to become their friends. I have no guidance for a project in the Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan, which by now is pretty much all of it.

The traditional fundraising pyramid should guide you. This is geared to $1 million. You had better plan on at least three, maybe close to four.

 

Half of your project budget will come from your top one to three donors and another quarter will come from the next 10.

The pyramid will tell you how many prospects you need at each level to give you a good probability of success.

Some funds might be raised overseas but those donors will ask how your own country is showing its support and those outside your geographic area will be interested in the amount 0f local support you are able to achieve.

None of these questions are especially surprising. Just put yourself in the position of someone being asked to help and imagine the questions you would ask.

Covid brought us Zoom and that has proven to be quite an effective fund-raising tool, but face-to-face conversations or group events are likely to prove important as well.

Draw comfort from my father’s advice to me in my first project: “in court tennis the money is always there,” but you will have to work for it. Caveat: the budget for the court he restored in Newport in 1980 was about 10% of what a built-from-scratch court would cost today.

Catchment Area

This is a British phrase that I have found useful.

Draw a circle around your site with a radius equal to the number of miles you think people will drive to play at your court. Better still the amount of time you think they will spend in their cars to get there. Traffic patterns might make your catchment area look like a blob rather than a circle.

See who lives there. Court tennis is not cheap, so you will likely need to be in an upscale community. Are there enough people who can afford to play who live near enough to fill your court?

Unfortunately, that is often where the analysis stops, and I think it is a mistake.

Court tennis is a difficult game to play, and it is easy to overestimate the athletic skills of a given population.

Both golf and tennis have fallen victim to good demographics in a proposed catchment area, only to discover that too many potential players lack the skills to enjoy the game and drift away when they stop having fun.

I am not sure how to measure the percentage of those who can afford to pay to determine if there are enough with the skills to play but I’d still try to be aware of it. I’d probably just want to be sure they were enough vibrant communities of people nearby who played other similar games.

Planning Permission

American court builders will barely be aware of this concept, but it looms large in England and France and perhaps, to a slightly lesser degree, in Australia.

Can you build your court where you want to? (Or must because choices are not always on offer.)

Since my only experience is in the United States, all I can suggest is that you provide for it in your time budget.

Host Venues

Schools: in recent years, the best host venues in England have been schools. They usually have available land and a steady supply of student players.

Of course, the students will provide no revenue to contribute to running costs, but they will usually only need the use of the court during sports hours in the afternoons. The rest of the time will be available for use by paying club members and, when the school is out of session, all the hours will be available.

A critical hurdle is to show that a potential school has a rival against which to compete. The Thames Valley has long since jumped that fence, but that catchment area is already quite well served.

In the United States, there are plenty of schools located near existing clubs, but I am unaware of any long-term relationships in which high school students have used existing courts in the afternoons. Besides, those arrangements would not build courts though they might provide rivals in answer to the logical question from the head of a school, “against whom would we play?” (No reputable school head would end a sentence with a preposition.)

If you are looking at schools as a potential venue, I would be most appreciative if you would choose one that was coeducational. Fortunately, there are now very few that are not.

Colleges: I have long thought the key factor to getting people interested in court tennis is not athletic skill. Important though that is, I lean to curiosity as the trait to seek.

College students are curious but the colleges themselves are going through a seemingly endless period of political correctness. No court builder should oppose diversity in his player pool, but the idea will not easily be sold to college administrators. It has proved challenging to shed the unfortunate “game of kings” image.

That said hosting groups from nearby colleges, helping them to create teams and offering them up as competitors for other colleges can be fruitful. This was successful among a few Ivy League colleges in the 1960s. But those are ideas for after your court gets built.

Real estate developments: real estate developers will hit a brick wall at the revenue per square foot from court tennis. It will get worse when they consider the cubic feet necessitated by the height requirement. It is hard to see how a court can fit into the financial requirements of an up market urban project.

Suburban projects might be easier, but it seems likely that a court tennis court will need to be sold to a developer as an amenity. It will bring cachet to a project but there is a downside to providing cachet to those who need it.

Unused tennis courts: the United States built far too many tennis courts during the 1970s and 1980s, and some are still available to be re-purposed. This is one of the cheapest alternatives as buildings and amenities such as changing rooms and parking will be available at no cost.

This was successful for the first Prince’s Court in Washington, but we were not aware of the tax advantages available to “pay-to-play” sports club owners. The ownership of our host venue changed several times doing the quarter century we were there, and few of the owners were much interested in helping to promote the game.

Existing clubs: downtown clubs will face the same challenges as real estate developers. The size of the court will make it expensive.

Country clubs are more like schools in that they usually have land and always have existing athletes who might try something new. Never underestimate the value of an existing pool of potential players who know their way to the club and are already used to paying its monthly bills. Plus, they are more likely to have the necessary skills, or they would not have chosen to join a country club in the first place.

The challenge will be club politics, which can be legendary. Various constituencies will have their own priorities and few of these will be court tennis. In assessing a club as a potential host, be alert for smugness and try to avoid it.

Clubs also tend to require long lead times for projects to get to the top of the priority list. Hurlingham for example, has been discussing the addition of court tennis off and on for about 150 years. It is still short of step one toward getting anything done.

Private property: If you get lucky, you might find a person who has a house with sufficient land to consider adding a private court. This might solve your funding problem, but you will still need players to use it and the owner will need people to play with. That can be a delicate balance as there is a need for a professional who will have to be paid. On the other hand, we are in an era of great fortunes along the lines of Jay Gould or Jock Whitney, both of whom had private courts that were shared with others.

Skills Needed

Your core team will need a leader with the skills to motivate others through adversity. It is possible you will not experience adversity, but unlikely. If you are a one-man-band, doing it all yourself, there are moments when you will have to pick yourself up after a setback and point yourself in the right direction again.

You will need a lawyer, preferably one who is donating his time, because paying for the work required is likely to cost in the low to mid six figures in the United States. I have no idea about the other countries.

You will need someone organized to keep track of the schedule, the to-do list, donors, donations, and all the other details.

You will need someone who knows the strategy and tactics of fundraising and he will need a software program to track thousands of contacts with hundreds of potential donors. This would be an excellent role for governing associations or, in the United States, the Court Tennis Preservation Foundation.

Increasingly, the skills of real estate development professionals are required to navigate the differing interests of the parties involved as those experienced in that field will be better able to develop solutions when interests conflict.

Obviously, architects will be required but these are often selected by the host venue, which seems appropriate to me.

Your donors will come primarily from within the game, so a broad familiarity with its governance and its leaders will prove helpful, at least for credibility.

The dimensions of the court should likely fit into what I think of as the envelope between Oxford, the smallest, and Fontainebleau, the largest. Nobody will tell you your court is illegal, but credibility with donors will be enhanced by staying near the norm. Obviously, this does not apply to the restoration of historic courts that might well differ in size.

When you open (doesn’t “when” sound more optimistic than ” If?”), you will need a professional, but you will also need one or two cheerleaders to build enthusiasm for the game and fill up your court.

Designing and Building

I have never counted the number of dimensions and angles in a court tennis court but there are many of them. Each has an impact on how players will seek advantage when playing in your court.

The pitch of the penthouse, for example, will determine whether the server is advantaged or the receiver. Historically, the serving end was better and thus the strategy to gain that advantage has evolved over centuries. You could probably devise a court in which it was more advantageous to be at the receiving end, but the game would differ.

The game has changed significantly over the last half century thanks to equipment, fitness, and tactical evolution. Colin Lumley and Chris Ronaldson suggest the ball now goes 50% faster than it did when they began around half a century ago.

Our philosophical approach in developing the second Washington court was to imagine players from each of the last four or five centuries coming to our court and saying, “oh yes, we used to play that game.”

There are several variations that enhance the activity for both players and spectators. If you think it boring to watch the receiver dump shots into the galleries, make them a bit smaller and reduce the advantage of that tactic.

I lacked the expertise to make those decisions, so I sought it out from knowledgeable professionals.

Resources

Others have devoted considerable effort to facilitating court building. Resources including plans and specifications are available. At present the T&RA is the best repository.

Courts can be built to different standards, but most players will not be able to tell the difference.

The so-called (but undefined) “championship court” will be significantly more expensive than a more serviceable alternative. Your choice will depend on your budget, but don’t overlook alternatives to what is perceived to be “the best.” Some of the most popular and best used courts in the world were not built to the most luxurious standards. On balance, I would far prefer to see a cheaper court than none at all.

Fair Winds and a Following Sea

Well, my unknown friend, I hope this has been helpful to you. At least you have been warned.

If I am still alive when you find this letter, I will be happy to help you, but it will have to be in an advisory capacity.

I wish you well and I can assure you that you will be pleased to have completed your project though you might not have loved every step along the way.

 

 

16 Responses to “Around the World in 50 Courts – So, Now You Want to Build One, Do You?”

james burke, August 25, 2021 at 6:49 pm said:

As per usual, you have adroitly covered all of the bases, or rather all of the court. Should I win the Mega Lottery I will most certainly ask that you be installed as the Advisor-In-Chief with full authority in all design and related matters of the court I will build with my new nine figure estate.

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Haven Pell, August 26, 2021 at 8:46 am said:

Jimmy, please keep buying those lottery tickets. I’d look forward to the role.

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Peter W. Bragdon, August 25, 2021 at 6:58 pm said:

Haven!
It is reassuring that you have your priorities in order to take the time to ward off growing pressure to build court tennis opportunities in the USA and elsewhere!
With affection and respect- Pete

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John A. Murphy, August 25, 2021 at 8:23 pm said:

Thought provoking treatise. Helpful guidance. Thank you, Haven, for sharing. I hope you essay inspires at least one of the brilliant and ambitious lovers of court tennis in our midst.

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Haven Pell, August 26, 2021 at 8:43 am said:

All we can do is try to make it easier for them.

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Walter Deane, August 25, 2021 at 8:39 pm said:

Fantastic column. I hope you will be able to incorporate it in the USTA and the T&RA Annual reports…

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Haven Pell, August 26, 2021 at 8:36 am said:

That’s a good idea. It will also be a starting place for a USCTA project to bring together more of the world’s experience.

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Hakan N Lonaeus, August 25, 2021 at 9:34 pm said:

How do we take over the Fiinish church in Sweden, right next to the Royal Palace, that used to be a court tennis court at the end of the 1700s? It used to be called “lilla bollhuset” i.e. the little ball house, as different to the large ball house, next doors, that was mostly used as a theater and balllet house in those days.

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Haven Pell, August 26, 2021 at 8:34 am said:

Hakan, embark on the task. There is also a fabulous cathedral in St. Jean de Luz that would make the best stadium court I have ever seen. Go for it.

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Tim Harper, August 26, 2021 at 3:58 am said:

Haven
Many thanks for those cautionary tales. I have built many courts over the years but all in my mind.
Hakan- always difficult taking over a church but, if you do, the thing is to change the name – ? Best Bollhuset.
Tim Harper

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Haven Pell, August 26, 2021 at 8:29 am said:

Some of the greatest courts never made it beyond the mind. If you’re come up with good ideas, publicize them. Others might find them helpful.

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james walton, August 26, 2021 at 5:02 am said:

Excellent summary, old bean. If I may add something, I think that if you want a good baseload of keen players [say 150], and not just a few locals and a string of visitors, the distance from any new court to an existing court or courts should be taken into account when considering whether or not to build. For example, if they’d managed to build a new court in Edinburgh, it is not too far to Jesmond Dene. But a court in Antigua is gping to be a spelndid folly, for which one hopes the owners have deep pockets. I have chosen two extremes, but the point remains. I believe that the players need to swim in a wider gene pool

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Haven Pell, August 26, 2021 at 8:27 am said:

James, thank you. There are at least two futures for this story. It will be a chapter in the book to be published next fall and it will be a contribution to a new courts initiative of the USCTA (with many more technical attachments). You thoughts will be added to the edit that will create those.

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tim harper, August 26, 2021 at 11:49 am said:

Jalandhar
On further thoughts it could be called :‘God’s Bolhuset’ which may please the church who relinquished it.
Tim

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Haven Pell, August 26, 2021 at 2:36 pm said:

all suggested versions of the name create the possibility of snickering.

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