RSF Tennis Club looks to increase sponsored memberships

The Rancho Santa Fe Tennis Club is preparing to request an increase for its sponsored membership program, potentially raising the number of non-Covenant resident members at the club from 25 to 50. At the Rancho Santa Fe Association board’s April 17 meeting, the board decided to table the consideration of the membership category extension until its May 10 meeting, requesting more detailed information from the RSF Tennis Club.

According to Rancho Santa Fe Tennis Club President Raj Tolani, the sponsored memberships have worked very well to this point and an increase is in the best interest of both the club and the community. He said a survey recently showed more than 50 percent of club membership view the program positively.

The sponsored membership category was first approved by the RSF Association board in February 2015, allowing non-residents to join as playing partners for members and pay a premium for the privilege of playing in the Covenant club. The category is limited to 25 members and the membership is only for a one-year term with the possibility of being renewed.

The sponsored memberships are an important part of the club’s operational plan, Tolani said. Tennis club members have stated that it’s different than golf, where players of different skill levels can play together; in tennis, it’s more enjoyable when players are evenly matched.

With the category, a member in good standing at the RSF Tennis Club can sponsor someone from outside the Covenant area and the member must be approved by the RSF Tennis Club board. The sponsored member pays an enrollment fee and more than double the monthly dues of regular Covenant resident members a year, for a total of $2,500 a year.

In June 2016, the previous RSF Association board split on renewing the category, leaving some sponsored members in limbo. When the new board was seated in July 2016, the category passed 5-1.

The RSF Association board has the right to terminate the memberships and if they are terminated, the members are entitled to remain a sponsored member for two full fiscal years following the notice of termination. The board now votes on the renewal of the program every three years.

“It is in the best interest of this Association to have a thriving, vital tennis club,” Director Mike Gallagher said in support of the increase.

He said bringing in these sponsored memberships has helped add to the vitality and financial viability of the club and seems to be well-received by a large majority of the resident members.

“There are more attributes to this kind of program than there are negatives as long as you take good care and make sure that the usage on your courts doesn’t get to the point where you have disgruntled regular members,” agreed Director Steve Dunn.

Dunn said he strongly supported the request to increase the sponsored membership category but stated his belief that the documentation to support the request and how it is being run by the club is “flimsy at best.”

He suggested that someone on the RSF Tennis Club board be responsible for ensuring there is better documentation and to clearly communicate to sponsored members what they get for their money and how the program operates.

Tolani said that Dunn was “absolutely right” that the program’s documentation could be improved moving forward.

According to Tolani, the club established a waiting list last year for the sponsored membership category that has grown to 10 members. The Association board took issue with the fact that those on the waiting list paid a non-refundable deposit of $2,500 and have been allowed to play tennis at the club in the meantime.

“You accepted $2,500 and allowed them to play for a year, that sounds like a membership to me,” Treasurer Janet Danola said.

Director Rick Sapp agreed that the RSF Tennis Club should’ve come before the board back in September to request a potential increase to the category as the waiting list technically amounts to 10 “off the books memberships.”

Tolani said the intention at the time was not to increase the category but to create the waiting list for when the previous year's 25 memberships expired and to create a trial time to see if the members fit.

RSF Association President Fred Wasserman requested that the RSF Tennis Club come back with a formal proposal for the sponsored membership increase at the May 10 meeting, and requested that the RSF Tennis Club address what it will do with those 10 members on the waiting list. The board was also interested to learn what percentage of the club would be sponsored memberships and if regular members perceived that there was a big enough differential between the fees charged to Covenant residents and non-Covenant residents.

Director Allen Finkelson noted he was part of the board that gave the sponsored memberships renewed “life” when it was at risk of dying in 2016. At the time he said the need for the memberships was sold more as the ability to increase competitive and compatible play for members rather than financial vitality.

The reasons for the expansion of the category now seems to be largely financial, he said, noting that the RSF Tennis Club has not raised its dues while the RSF Golf Club raises its dues every year and deals with the consequences of members dropping out as a result of higher fees without relying on going outside of the Covenant for members.

Finkelson said going outside the Covenant for membership can’t always be a solution.

“I”m not in support of expanding it at all,” Finkelson said. “I’ve come to this with an open mind but I’ve come to recognizing we’re supposed to be protecting our brand and I think this is just too much.”

Sapp agreed that at some point, letting outside residents join the Association's exclusive clubs disincentivizes people from making the investment of buying inside the Covenant.

“We’re here to provide recreational services for the members of the Association, not to create the world’s most profitable tennis club,” Sapp said.

Tolani asserted that his thoughts are in line with the Association’s goals: “My intention is to create the best recreational tennis for the Covenant members. To do that I need enough money and I need enough players.”

The May 10 meeting will be the board’s Annual Meeting, held at 5 p.m. at the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club.

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