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A tennis center owner in Santa Monica changed his entire business to capitalize on the pickleball surge in America. It was a 'huge risk' but his revenue numbers have doubled and his court has never been busier.

Kathleen Elkins   

A tennis center owner in Santa Monica changed his entire business to capitalize on the pickleball surge in America. It was a 'huge risk' but his revenue numbers have doubled and his court has never been busier.
  • Former collegiate coach Jon Neeter bought a tennis center in Santa Monica, CA for $40,000 in 2010.
  • He ran a successful tennis business for years, barely survived the pandemic, and then pivoted to pickleball.

You can find a little bit of everything on Wilshire Boulevard, one of Los Angeles' longest and most prominent streets: apartment towers and office buildings; trendy restaurants and fast food; theaters and museums.

Wilshire stretches 16 miles, from industrial Downtown LA to beachy Santa Monica — and on the Santa Monica side of the street, nestled between an urban park and an iPhone repair store, you'll find a single tennis court.

Up until August 2023, the court and adjoining pro shop operated, as one would expect, as a tennis business.

"A family in town ran a tennis business for many years there, since the 60s I believe," the current owner, Jon Neeter, told Insider.

When he purchased it in 2010, it wasn't in the greatest shape.

The business at the time amounted to "basically a ball machine, two ball carts, four ball tubes, and no client list whatsoever," said Neeter, a New Jersey native who coached collegiate tennis at Duke University before moving to California in 2005. But he knew it had potential because of its location.

"You have 45,000 cars driving by a day," he said, many of which get stopped at the traffic light outside of the shop.

Drivers and passengers caught at a red light, or pedestrians strolling on Wilshire, can see the pro shop from the street — but the court itself isn't discernible until you actually walk inside and see the sliding door at the back of the shop that opens up to a single, fenced-in court. Discovering it is like stumbling into a speakeasy.

Buying the business in 2010 for $40,000

After working as the head pro at the Palisades Tennis Center for a few years, Neeter transitioned to working for himself, coaching his own clients at public parks and backyard courts. That's what he was doing when the tennis shop on Wilshire was listed for sale.

It felt too good to pass up, considering the location. Plus, he liked the idea of his work being concentrated in one place, rather than scattered at various tennis courts all over LA.

"I didn't want to be a nomad forever," said Neeter.

He and his business partner at the time, Jon Arend, immediately reached out to the seller. Their vision was to run a high-performance tennis academy, which Neeter would take the lead on, in tandem with an indoor gym, which Arend, an athletic trainer, would run. They would call it Court Strength.

"We had a plan and they liked our plan," said Neeter, who assumes there were other interested buyers.

The duo bought the business for $40,000 and borrowed private money to do so, he said. They were purchasing just the business — not the property. That, they had to rent.

Neeter was hoping to lock in the longest lease possible, to give them time to create a profitable business, but the owner's eventual plan was to sell the property and would only agree to three years at a time.

Knowing that the property owner eventually wanted to sell the land to a developer, which would leave Neeter without a space to operate his business, felt "uncomfortable," he admitted. "I always felt, from the first lease we signed in 2010, that there was a ticking clock on the place." He expected to have the space for six to nine years max, "if I was lucky," said Neeter, who's still there 13 years later.

But he chose to think of it all as a bit of an experiment: If he could make this single court profitable, he figured he could replicate his business model elsewhere if and when he couldn't renew his lease.

Business pivots: From high-performance academy style to community-driven tennis

Neeter had already been running a business, in a sense, when he was doing private coaching, which required building a client list, buying and providing equipment, and figuring out a pricing model. Plus, he'd been immersed in tennis operations at the Palisades: "That's where I learned how to be very, very efficient with tennis courts in general."

Still, the early days of Court Strength was "way more work than I thought — and I knew it was going to be a lot of work," said Neeter.

One of the early challenges he faced was doing facility upgrades, like fixing the windscreens or installing new lights, while still keeping the court up and running.

He couldn't renovate when clients were on-court and, "it's not like we had a second court to shut down and do one at a time," he said. He ended up doing the renovations before opening and after closing, which made for late nights and early mornings.

"In the beginning, it was a lot of 10-, 11-hour days," said Neeter, who was also doing most of the on-court coaching. "I had a front desk person for certain hours, I outsourced things like racket stringing, and I would teach a lot of hours to the point where I ran myself into the ground."

He was taking a salary, "sort of," he said. "I drew money on the lessons that I taught." Besides that, "I wasn't taking a salary for many years."

Thanks to a lean operation, Neeter says he was able to pay back the private loan he took to buy the place by the end of year one.

His model of focusing on developing elite, high-performing junior players was working but, ultimately, it was too niche to sustain long-term.

Retaining top players is incredibly difficult, explained Neeter: "This is the most fickle part of the tennis world: Players come and go — and once one or two players go, then they all go somewhere else."

Around 2015, he decided to shift to all-around programming and community-driven tennis, rather than exclusively focusing on high-performance.

He changed the company name to the Santa Monica Tennis Center and, between 2015 and 2019, "the business became really efficient," he said. "There were days where the court would be busy from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at night, and if there was a half-hour to an hour empty, it was a bad day."

Barely surviving Covid and pivoting once again — this time, to pickleball

After years of being on "cruise control," said Neeter, 2019 tested, and almost broke, the small business owner.

A particularly bad rainstorm in southern California destroyed the pro shop's roof, forcing Neeter to close doors in the summer of 2019. He could still offer lessons and clinics on-court, but retail, which had started to take off, was shut down temporarily as he went through the long and expensive process of rebuilding a roof.

It was "the most challenging, stressful year of my life," said Neeter. Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, that is.

After reopening the shop in the fall of 2019, "all of a sudden it was like, okay, now we can breathe," he said. "And then, 2020."

For months, zero revenue came in.

"Everything was very strict in Santa Monica," recalled Neeter of the early pandemic days. "They took down the tennis nets at the public courts. They closed off the basketball hoops, put wood on top of the rims, at the public parks. Nobody could do anything."

In July 2020, as shops and businesses started to reopen, he started emailing clients to get a feel for what they would be comfortable participating in tennis-wise.

"The group classes, which were our bread and butter, didn't get going right away," he said. "It was more private stuff, which is not as lucrative. So we were running in the red for a while. We had rent relief from the state but that was just delayed rent."

As for the PPP loans, they "weren't that helpful for us because we had a small staff and some independent contractors," added Neeter, who ended up taking an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), which, unlike a PPP loan, eventually has to be repaid.

That loan, however, is "what allowed us to continue," he said. "Otherwise, it wouldn't have worked."

Tennis did become more popular in the aftermath of Covid with it being a socially distanced sport, which was reflected in Neeter's retail numbers, but there was a moment when he doubted a comeback, he said: "I had lost a little bit of motivation in moving forward. Everything was uncertain, so why try so hard?"

Adding to the uncertainty of his business, in 2021, the property he leases sold to a developer.

"I was like, 'Okay, that's it. My lease is going to end and then I'm out,'" said Neeter. "What wound up happening due to construction complications in California and interest rates was, all these plans got delayed at least two years, if not three. It was great news for me. But now I still have to figure out what I'm going to do after this."

His initial plan of taking his business model to a new location didn't look like it was going to pan out when he realized, "I can't just move a tennis center," he said. "The land doesn't work in West LA."

As tennis was growing in popularity post-pandemic, so was another racket sport: pickleball, which is played on a smaller court with a smaller paddle and a wiffleball.

It had been around for years, gradually gaining traction, explained Neeter: "It was not this explosive growth at first. It was more like a crawl pace. It started to get some legs in 2017 but when the pandemic happened, that's when it really exploded because people could do it in their backyards and in their driveways, while everywhere else was closed. It gave people social outlets during a very difficult time."

He'd been paying attention to pickleball throughout the 2010s but didn't necessarily know what to do with it — or even have much of an interest in it at that time. After all, until 2019, his tennis center was a well-oiled machine.

In the fall of 2022, Neeter saw first-hand just how big the game was getting. A friend told him to meet him at Santa Monica's Memorial Park, which had become a pickleball mecca in Southern California.

"There were like 200 people on four tennis courts," he recalled. "I couldn't find him on these four tennis courts. I'd never seen anything like it and was like, 'Okay, I get it. This is a big thing.'"

Having run a tennis center for over a decade, bringing a different racket sport to his shop and court wouldn't be easy or cheap. It would mean potentially losing the customer base he'd spent years building a relationship with and finding new suppliers for his retail shop — all for a sport with an unknown future.

But Neeter felt like he had nothing to lose, considering the uncertainty of his lease. Plus, he was unsure about how he was going to replicate the Santa Monica Tennis Center anywhere else in LA.

In the fall of 2022, he decided to go all-in on pickleball. He started by simply ordering paddles and adding them to his retail shop.

Next, he asked the developer, his new landlord, if he could lease the space next door, which they'd also acquired. His original pro shop space was small, about 330 square feet, and not big enough in his opinion to build a comprehensive pickleball retail store, which he has since done.

"When people walk through the door we often get a 'whoa' or a 'wow,'" said Neeter, whose shop is now 2,000-square-feet. "The intent was to impress people like that from the get go."

He got the keys to the second space in November 2022 and hosted a grand opening in December. The turn-out was reaffirming in his decision to lean into pickleball.

"There were 50 people waiting outside the door for us to open," he recalled. "It was crazy."

Paddle sales have remained strong since opening day, which Neeter didn't necessarily expect: "Retail has done things I never thought it would. I knew it would be good but we're talking about having six-figure retail months."

What Neeter knew would increase revenue was the ability to have more people on court as a pickleball facility than a tennis facility. Four pickleball courts can easily fit on his one tennis court, which means he can have a lot more paying customers on court at the same time.

After running a tennis-pickleball hybrid shop for a while, Neeter officially rebranded to the Santa Monica Pickleball Center in August 2023. He's still able to provide tennis lessons and clinics offsite; he got a license from the city that lets him rent courts by the hour at public parks, "so we're still doing tennis on the outside," he explained.

His revenue numbers have never looked better.

"At this point of this year, we're two times the revenue of our best year ever — and there's still the holiday season to go with retail," said Neeter. Insider viewed his profit and loss statements from the past five years to verify his tremendous revenue growth. In 2023, he's already done well over $1 million in sales between retail and on-court services like lessons and clinics.

He wouldn't be where he is today without taking a chance on pickleball, "but at the same time, I didn't think it was that much of a risk," he added. "Because I just kind of resolved myself to: It's going to work. We're going to make it work because it has to work."

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