With parents worried that local schools are letting down their children, education companies are finding a niche offering academic enrichment programs outside the classroom.
Now, a local company is applying that same business model to physical education, which has taken some of the most severe cuts.
TGA, an El Segundo franchisor that was founded in 2003 and runs golf academies for children, is expanding into after-school tennis camps – often held on school grounds.
“Some schools don’t run P.E. programs because they can’t afford to keep instructors on. They have teachers make kids run, and that’s it,” said Michelle Rockholt, one of the company’s first franchisees in Torrance. “Schools and parents are looking for programs like ours to fill the gaps.”
TGA has had success with its golf academies, which offer weekly lessons that cost $13 to $20 an hour, depending on the franchise. The academies are aimed at children who have never played the sport and run up to 10 weeks. The classes are typically held at elementary and middle schools, though some franchises also use community centers and YMCAs. Schools typically offer their facilities for free or charge the franchisee a small fee.
Although sports camp might seem an odd concept to franchise, the company has attracted 50 franchisees across 23 states. The franchise fee varies depending on the size of the territory, but TGA estimates the average startup cost, including the fee and equipment, is $17,000. Franchisees pay 8 percent of their revenue as royalty to TGA. They have to hire their own instructors and get insurance.
Joshua Jacobs, founder and chief executive of TGA, said he wasn’t sure he wanted to expand into tennis camps. But he decided to do so after the United States Tennis Association, the sports’ governing body, agreed to work with him in developing a curriculum.
“We analyzed tennis to see if it would negatively impact our business,” said Jacobs. “We’re seeing golf numbers rise where tennis is offered and project tennis participation to be at or above golf.”
TGA has closely modeled its tennis franchises on its golf programs, also offered on school campuses.
With golf, children are taught all aspects of the game, from rules, to teeing off, to etiquette. They use junior-sized golf clubs and a synthetic soft golf ball that travels a short distance and doesn’t break windows. Putting is even taught on synthetic rugs.
With the tennis program, instructors set up junior-sized courts either on playgrounds or in gyms, and provide rackets and a special ball that doesn’t bounce as high or fast as regular balls.
Rockholt, who owns a franchise that serves an area from El Segundo to Long Beach, said she jumped at the chance to add tennis to her golf program, which enrolls 500 children each semester.
“As a franchise owner, the added revenue alone from tennis is worth it,” said Rockholt, who is charging her tennis students the same $18.50 per class she charges for golf. She expects that the tennis franchise will nearly match the size of her golf programs by the end of the year.
A main driver of the tennis program is parental fears that their children are too sedentary, preferring video games and fast food to activity. About 20 percent of Los Angeles Unified School District students were considered obese in 1999, a figure that rose to 26 percent in 2006, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
What’s more, in California, elementary students are required to participate in 20 minutes of physical fitness education daily – and middle and high school students 40 minutes – but districts have found it challenging to meet those rules.
The LAUSD has received several grants to run pilot programs for its own after-school tennis programs, but layoffs drove the ratio of students to gym teachers so high that a task force recently recommended the district institute a cap on physical fitness class size of 55 students per teacher. Other districts simply have teachers trained in math, science and English overseeing physical education part-time.
Seth Strongin, assistant director for L.A.-based City Project, an organization that advocates for improved access to physical activity and healthy recreation in underserved communities, said schools have little reason to promote fitness among students since no state funding is tied to it.
“The schools have incentives to show improvement in test scores but physical education is not tested,” he said. “Basically, there is a need for additional opportunities for physical activity and it’s most pronounced in underserved communities such as low income and ethnic communities.”
Steve Tanner, TGA chief operating officer, said the company started a foundation that looks for corporate donations to help pay for children who otherwise couldn’t afford the camps.
“The ultimate vision is to reach all kids regardless of their ability to pay through the foundation,” he said.
He was convinced to expand to tennis when the U.S.T.A. signed on.
“We have the business model to penetrate schools and make an impact in communities, but the support of the national body of tennis really helped us move forward quicker,” he said.
The U.S.T.A. has begun a push to increase youth participation in tennis, which has been sliding downward since the days when such stars as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors ruled the courts.
The association has not only launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign on the Nickelodeon cable network but developed the low-bouncing balls and standardized the dimensions for smaller courts. For example, courts for children 8 and under are a quarter the size of traditional court.
“They showed us outstanding results around golf,” said U.S.T.A. Chief Marketing Officer Sue Hunt, referring to TGA’s golf academies. “They have a great curriculum and approach that can be delivered to a school location.”
TGA won’t disclose revenue, but claims it’s profitable. It has grown from a two-man operation at its start to seven now, not including the outside consultants it uses to train franchisees and for other tasks. It offered tennis franchises to its 50 existing golf franchisees, and 15 bought the second franchise. It is now in the process of seeking new outside franchisees.
Still, the company’s approach to tennis instruction isn’t universally admired. Bill Niffley, a U.S.T.A. tournament director in Santa Monica, said tennis has traditionally been a sport – unlike Little League – in which young players learn using regular courts and balls.
“We want to protect children from failure, but tennis is a tough sport,” said Niffley. “The greatest players in the world didn’t start on small courts with foam balls. They didn’t transition from smaller courts.”
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.