The Great Tennis Divide
Parent: “I’m calling to get information on your tennis lessons. I have a 6 year old daughter. How much are they?”
Coach: “First, has she ever played before?”
Parent: “No. But she did some gymnastics.”
Coach: “That’s a very good place to start. That means she’s athletic. And don’t worry, most of our players are playing tennis for the first time. In fact, many of our players had never heard of tennis until their parents signed them up. So she’ll fit right in. We start on Monday and the cost is $XX.”
Parent: “Thank you. We’ll see you Monday.”
(Later that evening, after the child has come home from school, the parent approaches the child about playing tennis.)
Parent: “I saw they’re offering tennis lessons at the rec center. Do you want to play?”
Child: “I don’t know.”
Parent: “I spoke to the instructor today and he told me there would be other children there who are new to the game, too, so you should fit right in.”
Child shrugs their shoulders.
Parent: “Well, I’m going to sign you up to see if you like it. We’ve got to find a way to get you out of the house. If you don’t like it we can always try something else.Ok?”
Child: “I guess so.”
I imagine this conversation taking place on a regular basis because no matter how many calls I get asking about “tennis lessons”, 1 out of 5 actually show up for practice. But why would they decide not to play? Was it something WE did? How could it be? They never showed up to see what we’re all about. And seeing as they know so little about the game, why won’t they entertain the idea of playing tennis? I can only assume that tennis doesn’t interest them. At all.
My childhood was spent playing baseball, football, and basketball. In college I tried intramural ice hockey. I’ve coached baseball and hockey. I even dabbled in lacrosse back when I worked at a sporting goods store in Ohio. Along the way I’ve attended a great many sporting events such as high school football (I was in the marching band), Minor League baseball, Blue Jackets’ hockey, as well as the Western & Southern Tennis Open in Cincinnati. Now, I know tennis people don’t like to compare tennis to other sports because they believe it is unlike every other sport. But that could not be further from the truth. “What do you mean” you might be saying? “What does the Miami Open have in common with the Miami Heat or the Cincinnati Bengals”? Spectators. (Or rather the lack of spectators.) And from a spectator’s point-of-view the in-game experience of a tennis match pales in comparison to an Ohio State Buckeyes football game.
In an article written back in 2008, the USTA claims to have “made a financial commitment to growing and developing tennis in the U.S.” But when you read it carefully it states that while 30 million people played tennis that year, the USTA only has 740,000 members. Wait a minute: the governing body of tennis, that sanctions leagues and tournaments, has a membership of 2.4% of all participation?!? And how do we know the 30 million number is accurate? Where did that number come from? Because when you look at the television ratings for the 2014 U.S. Open, 30 million sounds veeery suspect.
If these numbers are to be believed, there is a fundamental disconnect between those who play tennis and those who watch tennis. What could be the cause of such a sizable disparity? Why would someone choose to play tennis but not watch it on television or attend a match in person? Why have so many tennis tournaments been relegated to the desolate wasteland of ESPN3? And why does it look like tennis stadiums are empty when I see them on TV? Shouldn’t people who play a game be inspired to watch the game they play? Maybe to get a few pointers? Learn something new? Or simply enjoy a night out on the town? Or invite some friends over for a viewing party?
Did you know: according to USTA Florida president, Bob Pfaender, a meager 10% of High School tennis players play one (1) tennis tournament per year, leaving 90% who play for the Team, exclusively. Why is there no interest in tennis tournaments? And on the club level, the greatest participation at most tennis clubs are in the Leagues and Socials. Drive by the tennis club in the morning and you’ll find it full of seniors and stay-at-home moms, but in the afternoon the courts are empty. And if you’re looking for something fun to do, stop by on a Friday or Saturday evening for the “pizza and wine” social (I made up the name, but you get the point). So you could say that 90% of country club members also play in groups. Why are so few people entering tennis tournaments? Seeing as tournaments are all that’s being shown on television, shouldn’t it inspire more people to play more tournaments? A better question would be “Why are we constantly being fed singles tournaments when 90+% of all participants play tennis in groups or teams?” There is a fundamental disconnect between the tennis fan and how tennis is marketed.
I run a youth sports league called All American Team Tennis (you’ve probably heard of it). And much like the baseball and hockey teams I’ve coached over the years, our kids practice twice a week with Game Day on Saturday. And while I have my own set of goals for my players, I realize that they have their own personal goals, too. So my job is to meet them where they are in order to bring them along for the journey. So what are their goals? Observing the players during practice allows me to find out where their heads are at. I see how much they enjoy playing games like Caterpillar and Fruit Salad (ages 6-10) or King of the Court and Rodeo (ages 11+) versus drills like 2 forehands across the baseline. I also observe their interaction with me versus the other players. This has led to the conclusion that children would rather play games* with their friends* than run drills or compete on Game Day. Believe it or not, the majority of my players enjoy practice more than competition, which is strange because, apparently, they don’t see Caterpillar as competition. Hmmmm.
Given the thousands of hours spent by the USTA getting children to play, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to play professionally… wait a minute. I’m sorry. I’m only going to divert for a second. But shouldn’t professional athletes be getting paid to play, rather than paying to play? Isn’t that what it means to be a professional? Good job, tennis!
Anyway, given the time and effort we put into getting people to play tennis, and considering the results of said time and effort, why don’t we try something else? I have an idea: How about we spend more time and money encouraging people to watch tennis? Let’s create a product that engages the fan and adds to the in-game experience in order to fill our stadiums with people. Because an empty stadium looks bad on TV. Then when people are talking about tennis, more people will end up watching it, in person or on TV. And with more people watching it, you’ll see the participation numbers going up. I know what you’re thinking “I went to the Miami Tennis Open and had a great time. The atmosphere was electric!” Well, good for you. But if the experience was sooooo great, why do we get it only once a year? Why do I have to share tennis with the rest of the world? As a spectator, I want more tennis. Roland Garros is a great event, bit it’s in FRANCE! I’m in Florida. Do the math. And speaking of “electric”, there’s plenty of energy all around the tournament grounds, but what about in the stands? How’s the energy in the stadium? And why is the chair umpire always telling the fans to “be quiet”? Don’t you want the fans to make noise? Isn’t that what fans are there to do? Or are the players so sensitive they can’t handle a little noise from the people they’ve taken money from to watch them play?
When I attend a basketball/football/soccer/hockey game, the arena is noisy for 3 hours. And fans will do their best to become a part of the action on the court. Is it sportsmanlike to distract a player while shooting free throws? Who cares! It’s fun! And when I go to a baseball game, between innings, someone with a microphone comes out onto the field with a kid from the stands to play some silly game. What does that have to do with baseball? Who cares? It’s fun! Why doesn’t tennis do this? Why don’t we get fans to participate during the match like in baseball?
I remember attending a hockey game where prior to resurfacing the ice they brought out 2 pee wee hockey teams to play each other in front of the entire arena. Can you imagine the butterflies the kids must have felt playing in front of so many people? I guarantee it was an experience they will always remember. See, I’m talking about it today! But as long as we conduct these pointless one week tournaments, full of players we don’t know, and keep the spectators behind glass so as not to disturb the players’ concentration, the sport will continue to be ignored by 90+% of Americans. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is an alternative.
College tennis teams such as the Miami Hurricanes, the Ohio State Buckeyes, or the North Carolina Tarheels are full of players who dream of one day playing tennis professionally. They attended the tennis academies, traveled to all of the junior tournaments, and spent thousands of dollars doing it, much like every other player on the tour. The difference is their parents must have run out of money and could not afford the $200,000 a year to play tennis professionally (Professional? Really?) These players are just as strong, just as fast, just as smart as any player on the tour. Many of them even have professional rankings. Attending a College tennis match is much more exciting because you’re so close to the action, too. I mean, you stand beside the fence that borders the court! How cool is that!?! And following the matches the players are available for pictures and autographs. Try getting Sharapova’s autograph as she comes off the practice court. Her bodyguard will shove you to the ground!
We can bridge the gap between tennis and its fans by putting Team Tennis front-and-center. 90+% of America plays tennis on a team so it just makes sense to market the sport to them and their friends. College tennis is a Team sport full of world-class tennis talent so I encourage you to take in a match. There are more opportunities to do so as there has to be a college close to your home. In fact, I attended 9 matches between February and May this year. I saw the Miami Hurricanes, Central Florida Knights, Florida Atlantic Owls, Palm Beach Atlantic Sailfish, and Keiser Seahawks play this season. I even took some of my players with me (everyone loves a field trip) because they play on a team, too. Their season is 4 months long and they even have an NCAA Championship at the end (Men’s bracket. Women’s bracket). It’s everything professional sports are supposed to be. Now it’s tennis’ turn.
GO TEAM!Posted on: May 18, 2016coachken