The Fairfield County Platform Tennis League

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by Peter Keiser

The Fairfield County Platform Tennis League unveiled its new logo on Saturday, September 27, 2014 at the league’s Captains’ Breakfast. You couldn’t pick a better time for a retrospective of the organization – how it came about, the way it has moved forward and the potential challenges it faces as it greets the future.

Central to the FCPTL has been its board, presently an eight member administrative group that oversees the activities of a weekend league numbering 100 teams, 7 divisions and 1,000 players. It also sponsors an end- of- season, day- long paddle extravaganza, The Paul Fowler Invitational Tournament that includes 224 participants playing at 14 area venues. It is billed as the “Best Single Day of Paddle” and is reputed to be the largest one – day paddle tournament in the country though there might be some local bias influencing that call!

It wasn’t always so. The seeds for the FCPTL’s growth, however, were sown in its inception and a good way to mark that fortuitous time is through the logo adopted at the league’s founding in 1999-2000. Charlie Scott, the Commissioner of the Sunday or B League contributed the emblem that would become the FCPTL symbol for the next 15 years.

Scott, along with Jim Reilly, Paul Fowler and Jim Arrix could be considered founding fathers as they formed the original FCPTL Board. Reilly, as Commissioner of the A or Saturday League, presided over a fixture of Fairfield County competitive interclub play.

Image-(19)[1]Formerly known as the Tri-Town League (Darien, Rowayton, New Canaan), Reilly had helped expand it with the addition of multiple clubs from Greenwich. As the popularity of the sport grew and more teams wanted in, space for Saturday League play vanished. Furthermore the Saturday league had a history and tradition of highly skilled players who knew how to play the game. A Sunday or B League, established in the 1980s, would accommodate those whose knowledge and talent weren’t as sophisticated including tennis players who wanted to play a racquet sport outside in the winter and others who were learning the game from scratch.

At the end of the 1999 season, Scott, Reilly, Fowler and then Arrix began meeting to consider formation of an organization that would include both Saturday and Sunday leagues under one umbrella. At the time, the two leagues ran fourteen- week schedules that included winter holidays. Also, there were eight teams per club, and two, separate 32-team draw, end of season tournaments.

What would become the first FCPTL Board looked to change the schedule to 10-weeks given the reality of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year vacations, pare teams from eight lines to four, and consolidate the two separate end of season tournaments into a single day of paddle.

In the fall of 1999, the newly formed board held a meeting among all the team captains – the first Captains Breakfast- to discuss some changes that would occur with the coming of the new FCPTL. The most radical change at the time was to reduce the eight line teams to four lines. “We had the Captains Breakfast because we had to explain the change in alignment to a four team [line] format,” recalls Fowler. “To most people the reaction is ‘you’re rocking my world.’”

It was not an easy change to make. For example, an eight- line team that played Sunday would have lines 1-4 play at 8:30 AM and lines 5-8 play at 10:30. Players would come early and stay late to root their teams on. This format, with a very few exceptions, increased both inter- and intra- team camaraderie, a vital element at the game’s very core.

But now instead you had these highly mobile, four line independent entities whizzing all over the place maneuvering in space like the English privateers against the Spanish Armada. The old way of doing things and the bonds it created were under attack. What was going on here? What was going to happen?

Expansion! And it has happened. And it’s a good thing. And it’s a good thing because it’s been and continues to be done the right way. It means that the personal bonds existing under the old regime still remain and flourish while the changes, tweaks, and adjustments the league has endorsed and executed really have helped “to get everybody out playing paddle.”

Reflecting back on several decisions you can trace the Board’s intent.

… Smaller team size has helped to increase league membership and made for more efficient court usage especially at a time when court space is becoming an issue.
…. First year teams, no matter how good, must start at the lowest level and work their way up. It’s the only fair way.
… The top three finishers in a division move up, while the bottom three drop down.
…Tightened rules put the clamps on double dipping i.e. one player playing twice the same day, maybe even four times in one weekend!
… An expanded Board means that you can have one Director for each Division level.
… The continuing, successful efforts of Frank McGarey and Scott Smith to bring the league into the IT age by developing a workable and effective website.

There are two things at work here. One is the aforementioned promotion and accessibility of the game. The other is what drives the Board’s quest for “growing the league.” Fowler, who served for ten years as the board’s first president, puts it this way when he talks about FCPTL activities and focus:

“Listen, this ought to be about fun, about people getting out to play paddle. Before the FCPTL Board, I was the paddle chair at the New Canaan Field Club. I saw so many people just enjoying the game and all the good times and good feelings that went with it. I thought: ‘if we can do this with 40 people, why can’t we do it with 400, 1,000?’”

“To be about fun?” What a concept! About having fun- it’s a cliché, an overworked phrase that’s used up its relevance; an alive but sickly measurement of death and decay like mushrooms growing on a rotten stump. But when it comes to paddle and Fowler, “to be about fun” is no cliché. “I was having so much fun with our group, I wanted other people to have it, too. I wanted them to feel welcomed into the sport, to make it easy for them to join in. With the FCPTL you can hop on a website to find out what’s going on. We have the Captains Breakfast to welcome back the old captains and welcome in the new.”

The spirit of inclusion that Fowler saw and actively pursued serves the Board well as it has transitioned forward. Succeeding Fowler was Scott Smith who for five years provided a steadying, purposeful hand to the league’s rapid expansion. He also focused on maintaining, upgrading and explaining the FCPTL website making it easier for the captains to run their teams. Then, this past summer, Smith stepped down and Steve Larson of the Middlesex Country Club was nominated to replace him.

“I became a Board member eleven years ago. I came in as a soldier. I came in to help, not with a whole lot of goals,” Larson says. “I got interested in paddle because I thought it was a great sport for somebody with quick hands and some athletic ability. I didn’t grow up with racquet sports. I played baseball, but what I found out was that I could play and compete with somebody who was an established racquets person; actually, beat somebody who had grown up with racquets.”

“Right now,” he continues, “the objective of the league is to grow the sport in Fairfield County. At the same time, we as aboard need to act as overseer, as a ward of this great thing that has been created. We want to do it no harm. Often we ask ourselves if we are inventing problems.”

Larson also takes the lead in stressing equal competition with the goal being to generate parity. The whole system of teams moving up or dropping down ensures competition. The league has to help keep it healthy and “in the spirit of paddle.”

Whether it’s attending to the needs of entry level Division 7, the league’s largest or taking on the question of whether or not paddle professionals should be allowed to play in the FCPTL, Larson and his Board members perform a balancing act between and among a multitude of constituencies.

When it comes to the current hot topic of whether or not to allow pros to play in the league, Larson is clear. “There is tension between the two camps (those who want pros to participate and those who do not). It is a balancing act. We allow pros to play in a limited way because we feel it raises the quality and profile of the league.”

It’s the kind of subject that Board members approach with candor and good faith. “It’s a group of good guys,” says Larson. “Nobody is shy and there are lots of varying opinions. But we order pizza, have our meeting and always play paddle.”

There are seven other board members – Tom Kratky, Tom Dickson, Scott Hapgood, Paul Harding, Richard Durst, Ron Gayda and Greg Brasher. Two of them – Gayda and Brasher- have quite different backgrounds when it comes to paddle and represent a spectrum of experience that speaks to the Board’s human resources.

Ron Gayda spent several years at the Stamford Italian Center before he came to the Wilton YMCA where he emerged as a kind of Major Domo of the 160-player Men’s League. He is not a racquets man but has parlayed his own physical abilities into a competitive skill set through clinics, specialized instruction and hour upon hour of court time. It is rumored that he sleeps in the Wilton Y paddle hut.

“I do have a passion for the sport and I like the fun, competitive environment that surrounds it,” he says. ”I believe the Board enhances the paddle experience. I’ve been on it for five or six years and I wanted to join partly because of the deep respect I have for Paul Fowler standing up in front of people and talking paddle issues at the Captains Breakfasts.”

“So far I think some of my favorite personal accomplishments are: growing the number of teams – we added sixteen new teams this year raising the number to 100; as treasurer, helping to put the FCPTL in a much more solid financial situation; and building our Board membership.”

“I like the people I work with and the common goals we have. And it’s a good feeling to know that there isn’t any question we all work hard to do the best we can do for our membership.”

Greg Brasher is a racquets guy who left paddle and then came back. “I remember my parents playing with wooden racquets. I didn’t appreciate it at the time. They made me play it. In those early days, I remember it was mandatory to play paddle on Thanksgiving.”

Brasher quit paddle for some time until he started to drift back to the town courts in Rowayton. There he would play informal matches then hangout and enjoy some beer with his friends. He re-entered the paddle fold in plenty of time to celebrate his father and Duke Felt’s winning of the 1996 55-and over National Men’s Doubles Championship out in Chicago.

“My Dad passed away three or four years after that tournament. But I remember seeing him at home just after he got back from Chicago, sitting in a chair, a cigar in one hand, a drink in the other, the happiest man you ever saw.”

Brasher joined the Board in 2009. “I joined because I wanted to meet other paddle people, do some social networking and do something for an organization I thought was doing good things. I also really wanted to design a new logo.”

When he joined the Board, Brasher’s new logo offerings weren’t approved.

“Four years later, Kurt Geisler, a professional designer approached me with an offer to take the lead in developing a logo. After sixth months, several rounds of tries and lots of feedback, a new logo was born.”

The new logo, according to Brasher, depicts a change in the game itself. “The game has changed. My Dad was known as a very, very calm player. Sometimes he would even play with his hand in his pocket. The pros today rip the ball, spin it and smash it. The logo player is really blasting the ball with his forehand.”

Speaking of pros, Brasher knows how much energy he and his Board mates expend discussing whether it should be a league for “weekend warriors” or should pros be allowed to play. “We have heated conversations about this among ourselves but we can do that,” he says. “Generally, I’m in favor of letting them play.”

When it comes to the inner workings of the league and the down and dirty business of keeping rules enforced sensibly and listening to and arbitrating complaints, Brasher feels the Board has done a good job. “We’ve done a really good job of it, I think,” he says You have eight Board members spending 30 hours among us on these things. We don’t just spend some time on them and move on. But our goal always is to have people settle it on court, not in court.”

The FCPTL has a new logo and in that way has suddenly turned a page. Though the change has occurred in the blink of an eye, it is important to slow things down and look back at how far the league has come as reminder and inspiration of how far it can go.