Why does the USTA need a National Campus?
For years the USTA has partnered with tennis facilities to use their many resources to fund programming for both recreational and competitive tennis. But in January of this year, they USTA launched their very own, state-of-the-art National Campus to raise the the level of American tennis? The $60 million facility holds 100 courts of every type of playing surface as well as programming for touring pros, aspiring juniors, adult leagues, and beginner programs. It sounds like a good idea, on paper, but why would the USTA get into the coaching business by offering its own tennis programming? Why would the USTA build a facility they could rent for $15 per hour? Why would the USTA spend so much money on what they are calling a “public” facility? What’s really happening at the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona? Why would the USTA feel the need to compete with the thousands of Coaches across the country currently running tennis programs? Is this something they plan to do in other parts of the country? If the idea is to make tennis more accessible to people living in Central Florida… what about Central Kansas? Or Central Ohio?
They’re Building a New Walmart!
The purpose of a governing body is to oversee operations, or to “draw up the rules that govern the actions and conduct of a body such as school, university, or sport”. The actual work of delivering the product is done by individuals in various parts of the country while the governing body makes sure administrators are compliant to the rules established by the governing body. You have to trust those who have committed to doing the job to actually DO THE JOB. But what happens when the bosses come down to the factory floor and start doing the job in place of the workers? Or rather when they go across the street and take business from the factory? What happens to smaller businesses when Walmart comes to town?
By the USTA building a facility to perform the duties already being carried out by others in the Central
Florida community, have they undercut those businesses and doomed them to failure? What happens to the “National Training Center” in Boca Raton when resources are diverted away from their facility and absorbed by the National Campus outside Orlando? Unless the overall ”pie” gets bigger, the USTA would have to cherry-pick the best players from each facility and bring them in to fill their courts and make back the money they’ve spent on their own facility. Otherwise, the USTA would have to find NEW players to fill their courts, and believe me, starting from scratch is a steep hill to climb. Considering tennis’ core player demographic is aging and playing less often, is a new, 100-court, country club outside of Orlando a good investment? Only time will tell.
So What Happens To Us?
So let’s say that the USTA is successful in recruiting the best players from the Orlando area, maybe even the rest of the country, to train at their facility… what happens to the facilities the players have left behind? What happens to their programming? What happens to their membership? What happens to their revenue? How will people look at ‘Facility A’ after the best players have left for the USTA National Campus? How does it feel to be one of those left behind, knowing you’re not good enough to play at the National Campus? What does that do to morale?
Now let’s look at it another way: why would someone leave their Home courts to play in an unfamiliar setting? Why would someone leave their friends and family to play/train at the National Campus? Does the USTA have the “secret sauce” needed for you to reach the next level? What do they have that my club doesn’t? One of the things that bonds an individual to something is their level of enjoyment. It can be hard to quantify, but familiarity is a very real thing. Players often go to the same tennis program at the same place and time for years because humans are creatures of habit. When we find something we like, we hold onto it. We all have our favorite restaurants, hangouts, our favorite room in the house, or our favorite TV show. When we make friends we want to see them as often as we can because we like them and we know how hard it can be to make new ones. Leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar is a hurdle every business has to overcome. Why would the USTA choose to put people in unfamiliar surroundings?
Palm Springs Feels Like Home
The USTA National Campus is a world-class, state-of-the-art, high tech facility with 100 courts consisting of every playing surface. It is a marvel of engineering and a monument to the game of tennis. No other facility can boast of having the amenities (restaurants, locker rooms, pro shop) of the National Campus. It is in a class by itself. But I would rather play on the public courts of Palm Springs, FL than on the Team USA courts of Lake Nona. Why? Because Palm Springs feels like Home.
Given everything the USTA has put into the construction of the National Campus, there’s one thing it
does not have: it doesn’t feel like Home. The USTA National Campus feels sterile and impersonal. And since none of my friends made the trip to Lake Nona, playing in Lake Nona means I am playing by myself. I wonder how many people would give up the comforts and familiarity of Home for the privilege of playing in, what amounts to be, unfamiliar surroundings.
I hear this when I speak to College tennis teams because they feel the same way. Many of them would rather play at Home on their Home courts in front of their Home fans instead of a neutral site because they were told “it’s special to play here”. When the Ohio State Buckeyes play in Columbus, OH the majority of spectators are Ohio State fans. The same can be said of FAU in Boca Raton, or Texas Tech in Lubbock. There’s a reason why we refer to it as “Home Field Advantage”; playing in familiar surroundings keeps you relaxed and allows you to play your best. And as a fan, playing at Home means I don’t have to spend a lot of time or money on traveling to support the team. As much of an honor as it is to play at the National Campus, most players would rather play at Home in front of their fans. It’s a win-win situation.
Give Me $60 Million And See What I Do With It!
Which brings me to my last point: did the USTA build a facility of their own because they were dissatisfied with the efforts of every other coach in America? Did the absence of an American man in the #1 position for so many years discourage the USTA on the efforts of coaches across the country? Is the USTA bringing in, not only the best players, but the best coaches for greater control over American representation on the international tour? Did the USTA just deliver a virtual ‘backhand’ to every other tennis program in America for not producing better tennis talent? Why would the USTA put $60 million of membership money into their own campus when that money could have gone to the thousands of tennis programs across America that need new tennis balls, nets, and coaches? Was this move an indicator of something even more problematic within the sport of tennis? Would that money have been better spent here (USTA) than there (locally)?
The sport of tennis has been choked into submission by the USTA’s strict adherence to tennis tournaments. Tournaments are sterile and impersonal, much like the USTA National Campus. If players wish to compete at the next level they must leave home to train and travel with the 3 or 4 other players on their level. But what about the fans, friends, and families back home? Tennis has seen a steady decline in popularity for the past 30 years. But a shift from individual tournaments to the Home Town Team will inject life back into this dying sport. There are literally hundreds of NCAA Division 1 College
tennis teams all across America with talented players playing for their respective communities. They play for the entire school body; students, faculty, and the surrounding community, not just themselves. They wear the uniform with pride, they play with pride, and they embrace the fact that they are not out there by themselves. To many College players, and even professional players, their College days are the best days of their lives. Why would the USTA endeavor to take that away from them by bringing them to the National Campus to play?
…Because Life Is A Team Sport
Social interaction is the bedrock of any society. Whenever an individual is taken away from familiar surroundings there is an adjustment period that many never recover from. Has the USTA overlooked the basic human needs of safety and social acceptance in some misguided attempt to produce world-class tennis talent? And what does it mean to be really good at tennis? Can it pay your bills? Put food on the table? For some, yes. Unfortunately, for the overwhelming majority, playing tennis may pay for college, and that’s it. But does it need to be more than that? And is the time-tested tactic of tennis tournaments the optimal vehicle for delivering players to empty tennis courts? Would America be better served by abandoning tournaments and adopting the Tennis Team, exclusively? I say ‘yes’. Is there anyone else who agrees with me?
There is a problem plaguing tennis and it stems from the persistent use of the ‘tournament’ as our chosen method of delivery: the exclusivity of tennis has led to America turning its back on the game.
Americans are missing from upper levels of professional tennis.
American television ratings are minuscule compared to other sports.
Public tennis courts are empty.
And College tennis teams consist of rosters that are 50% foreign-born players… if they still have a team! If the sport doesn’t adapt, it could go away, completely. What are we going to do?!?
Keep in mind: I am only speaking of the American cultural landscape; because this is where I live.
Team Sports = Community
A look at the top 10 most popular sports in America illustrates something very interesting: the Top 5 sports are Team Sports, while the bottom 5 are individual sports.
Individual sports such as wrestling, gymnastics, and track realized this and made the switch to implementing their own teams. Gymnasiums and studios across the country have formed wrestling and gymnastic schools dedicated to training athletes together. And when the school enters a competition… everyone competes together. Participants wear matching uniforms to represent the gym where they train, parents buy matching t-shirts to support their son/daughter’s team, they even travel in a van wrapped in the logo of the school. They have, in essence, created their own Community that every student is now a part of.
Humans are social beings, requiring the company of others to bring out the best in themselves. We seek out people that we have something in common with to avoid being alone. On the other hand, tennis players are taken away from the group to train and compete individually. This kind of isolation leads to separation not only physically, but emotionally and socially. Tennis players have become society’s outcasts. And as a result… so has the sport. This is the reason why so many students are unaware of their school’s tennis team, along with the other problems identified above.
We Have A Choice
People choose to participate in the things that make them happy. They’ll even watch others having a good time if it makes them happy. The same cannot be said for tennis. Unfortunately, children are often forced into tennis lessons because their parents want them to play. This leads to children choosing to play something other than tennis. And with this kind of exposure to tennis, society chooses not to watch it, either.
To remedy this situation tennis must become a greater part of the Community. It must become the sport embraced by society as a whole. And the only way to do that is to promote tennis as a game that is played/watched IN community with other people; meaning we have to embrace the Team as our primary means of distribution. Tennis is NOT a game that you or I play, it is a game that we play Together. But more importantly, it is a game that we WATCH together.
Every major metropolitan city in America has at least one sports franchise: from baseball to football to soccer to hockey. They build stadiums, sell tickets and jerseys, and hire people to work on Game Day. The team is embraced by the Community as evidenced by the campaign to bring a team in, and the outcry when a team leaves. The team is as much a member of the Community as City Hall.
If tennis is to remain a part of American culture it must embrace the Team philosophy from beginning to end; from recreational to professional. Otherwise it will be lost and forgotten, on the outside looking in on the overcrowded marketplace of activities.
The Men’s and Women’s NCAA Div. 2 Tennis Championships are taking place at the Sanlando Tennis Center in Altamonte Springs, Fl. Thursday May 11 would feature the semifinals for the Men and determine the semifinals for the Women. Representing the best NCAA Div. 2 tennis teams in America are:
Women’s Tennis Semifinals
Men’s Tennis Semifinals
These are the final 8 teams to battle it out for the right to call themselves “Champion”.
But what does that mean to you? Well, unless you attended one of these schools or live nearby, not much. But for the students, faculty, alumni, and surrounding community, it means everything. See, the local sports franchise is a Community asset. It is something for the People to be proud of.
For example, when I’m away from home, and someone asks me “where are you from?”, and I tell them “Columbus, Ohio”, images pass through their mind as to current events from my home town. And as a former resident, I can be proud of my home town because Columbus is home of THE Ohio State Buckeyes; and they’re awesome! Did I play a sport for the Buckeyes? No. But I lived there most of my life. I went to school there. My whole family and all of my friends are Buckeyes fans. And they’re awesome!
So for those of you in Boca Raton Florida, Honolulu Hawai’i, Miami Shores Florida, Savannah Georgia, Columbus Georgia, Pensacola Florida, and Bolivar Missouri hold your heads high because your tennis teams are awesome!
Why would Indiana Pacer, Paul George, take a picture of himself on vacation wearing his OWN jersey?
Why would John Wall, who plays for the Washington Wizards in the NBA, be criticized for wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey to watch the Cowboys against the Washington Redskins… in Washington, D.C.?
Why would a grown man be seen walking around town in a jersey with another man’s name on it?
Why is that kid wearing her softball uniform as she walks through the Wal-Mart?
Jersey sales are an indicator of an athlete’s popularity. In the NBA, Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson are the Top 5 jerseys sold on NBAstore.com. How many of these names sound familiar? Ezekiel Elliott, Tom Brady, Odell Beckham, Jr., Cam Newton, and Rob Gronkowski lead the NFL in jersey sales according to NFLshop.com. How many of THESE names sound familiar? In addition to listing the Top 5 player jerseys sales, overall, NFLshop.com also lists the Top 5 selling jerseys by position: QB, RB, WR, TE, and Def. That’s a minimum of 25 jerseys being sold on the NFLshop.com website. Can you name the Top 25 players on the ATP tour? Or on the WTA tour? I didn’t think so. How about the Top 5? Maybe. Jersey sales are an indicator of an athlete’s popularity. But tennis doesn’t sell jerseys.
The jersey also has tremendous psychological significance. It not only represents a personal accomplishment; the ability of the individual to overcome adversity and to pass the test of “tryouts”. In terms of jersey sales, it represents a player’s overall popularity. But more importantly, the jersey represents acceptance by the group. When an Ohio State Buckeye fan sees another fan in an Ohio State jersey, there’s an instant bond between the two of them. They have something in common. They’re on the same team. But when they see someone in a Michigan Wolverines jersey, their eyes glow red. Just kidding. It’s ‘scarlet’.
There are billions of people on the planet. Each of us is unique in some way, but we all have one thing in common: a desire to be noticed. We need attention. For some, the desire leads to a loving, caring, long-term relationship full of family and friends. For others, that desire leads to jumping out of a hot air balloon at 25,000 feet without a parachute hoping to land in a net 100′ square (what?!?). But for many of us the desire to be noticed leads us to tryout for the football or volleyball team. And we stick with our sport for a very long time because we like the people on our team. And they like us, too. Sport is something we have in common, and a friendship grows out of that.
But how do you know who to be friends with? Look at your jersey. What starts as an obligation to work together for the good of the team can blossom into lasting friendships where players spend time together away from the playing field, at a birthday party, going to the movies, or on a trip to Walt Disney World. The more time people spend together, the more their friendship grows. But the same is true when teammates split up.
LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 to play for the Miami Heat. The “decision” was met with mixed reactions. In Miami they welcomed him with open arms, believing they now had what they needed to bring a title to Miami. And while the Cavaliers’ fans felt the same way about their chances of winning with LeBron on the roster, losing him was equally devastating. There was outrage coming from every corner of
Cleveland, from the fans to the front office. Even the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, wrote a letter expressing his disappointment. Cavaliers fans were seen burning ‘LeBron James’ jerseys. It was a very dark time. LeBron would go on to win 2 titles for the Miami Heat and return to Cleveland in 2014 and the reaction was very much the same, but in reverse: Cavaliers fans were excited to have him back, while Heat fans were devastated, vowing to hate him for the rest of their lives.
Why the visceral reaction to someone coming or going? Why did one person’s “decision” affect so many people to the point of lashing out and destroying property? Because LeBron James was a part of their Team. It’s really very simple: if you can help us, we like you. If you can not help us, we hate you. It’s not about you, it’s about ‘Us’. This is true not only for really good players, but for the not-so-good players, too. Like when a player is under-performing, the fans ‘boo’ him and take to social media calling for the player to be traded because he’s hurting the team. The same reaction is not witnessed in tennis when a player is playing poorly. Why don’t tennis fans ‘boo’ the bad tennis players?
Professional tennis players do not represent the fans. But rather they play only for themselves. And as a result, tennis fans are much less animated when a player wins/loses a match. Of course, the USTA/ATP/WTA will show snippets of crowd reactions that make tennis appear to be as exciting as a soccer match, but that’s all stock footage, and isn’t necessarily tied to any one player. How do we know this? Tennis players don’t wear jerseys so you never really know who the fans are cheering for. Sports fans wear their hearts on their jersey. I guess tennis fans wear their hearts… in their chest?
That is why, when All American Team Tennis takes its players on field trips, we go to see college tennis teams: because they play on a team! We know who to cheer for. They are playing for all of us. And since I can’t be out there, they’re playing for me, too. And as a show of support for what they do for me, I wear their jersey. And if I can’t find one, I make my own because…
We’re on the same team.
The state of Florida has a number of very good tennis teams to pay attention to including the Gators, Hurricanes, Seminoles, Seahawks, Owls, and Sailfish. But we have a number of great players playing for the Buckeyes, Hurricanes, Sailfish, and Seminoles of Palm Springs, too. And you can find the jersey of your favorite player’s team at franchiseteamtennis.com. So take in a match. And remember to wear your jersey to the game.
Warning: The views and opinions expressed in the following blog post are exclusively those of Coach Ken and are the reason why All American Team Tennis is a Youth Sports League and not a series of tournaments. Reader discretion is advised.
One of my players entered a “tournament” here in West Palm Beach. All things considered, it went well. He played some points, he won some, he lost some, they gave him a water bottle, it was fine. No big deal. But I took from the event a few observations. Let me start by saying that attending a USTA tournament reminds me of why I don’t like USTA tournaments. Having played baseball and football as a child, and ice hockey in my 20’s, what I saw was very disappointing. It failed to capture not only my attention, but that of the players. And the tiny dictator, uh, I mean Tournament Director telling the parents to be quiet and reading off a list of rules the players have to follow, really put a damper on things. There has to be more to tennis than tournaments.
This was a Level 9 tournament for players 10 and under*. We won’t go into why there are 9 levels of tournaments when every level is essentially the same. With many of the same players playing in multiple levels of tournament! That’s beside the point. But, with this being a Level 9 event, the director brought teenage volunteers to monitor the courts to help the players who are new to the game. That was a good idea, but the execution needs work. The monitors need to be trained or at least have some playing experience in order to do the best job possible. But the kid monitoring my players match had NOT been trained and it showed. First, he asked another monitor how many games they would be playing. Then, during the warmup, he kept feeding balls to my player preventing the other player from hitting any serves. There must have been 15+ balls on the court. Then, instead of instructing the players to retrieve tennis balls, themselves, he went around the court picking up balls while trying to watch them play. That doesn’t work very well and, needless to say, he missed a couple of points.
But this one really got me: my player served the ball into the box and the other player returned it. But he returned it high so my player moved in to take it out of the air. My player missed the shot so the other player got the point, anyway, but the monitor then began to admonish my player saying that the ball has to bounce and that’s why the other player got the point. my player lost the point, so it really didn’t matter, but the monitor continued to explain that the ball has to bounce because you are “not allowed to take it out of the air”. Clearly this person has limited knowledge of the game because my player was simply going for a volley. My player argued the volley thing, but the monitor brought over another monitor to explain that he was right. Now my player is confused as to what to do. We hit almost nothing but volleys in practice and this person is telling him that volleys are not allowed?!? EVERY 8 year old is ill equipped to handle this situation. This would have been take care of if monitors were trained properly and/or tennis players had Coaches.
Which brings me to my next point: Coaches. Every player needs a coach. Not some of the time… ALL of the time. Have you ever heard the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees”? That means when you stand too close to a single tree, bringing your face close enough to the bark to see the ants climbing it, the tree blocks your view of the rest of the forest. The same applies to athletics and sport: participants can get so focused (tunnel vision) on what’s right in front of them (hitting the ball) they can’t see anything else that’s out there. But the coach can. The coach sits on the outside watching EVERYTHING that’s happening. He sees things that the player doesn’t and can instruct the player to focus on something else, if necessary.
But my biggest complaint is for the people holding on to the status quo. The attitude of people who blindly defend how tennis tournaments are conducted by saying “it has to be this way” or “the kids have to learn how to do this”. Why? Why does it have to be this way? Do I need to learn this if I’m playing soccer? Why are there no referees? Why is coaching not allowed? Why are the parents asked to watch from outside the fence? Why separate a child from their parent? Because it’s tennis?!? That’s not a good enough reason.
You’re gonna have to do better than that because we don’t have to play tennis. There are plenty of other options for people to play games or get exercise. In fact, there was a BOXING class in the grass just outside of the tennis courts. Why not take up boxing instead of tennis? Not only is it exercise, but you learn how to throw hands if you need to defend yourself. Listen, if I don’t LIKE what you’re doing, I’m not going to do it. So a greater emphasis must be placed on LIKING rather than learning.
That’s the bottom line.
But tennis has done very little to make the game appealing to a larger audience. It’s a simple game that places a tremendous amount of pressure and stress and innumerable restrictions on its participants. For example, you have to hit the ball over the net and keep it inside the lines. Do you know how many people can’t do that? Roughly 98% of America. It’s one of the reasons why more people don’t play. But instead of adapting the game to reach a broader audience, some people hold on to tradition and expect other people to change to accommodate a game they don’t have to play. It’s very bad for business.
To make that point, I was looking at the “tournament bracket for the event one of my players was supposed to play last weekend and I noticed something very troubling: in a bracket consisting of 16 spots, there were 13 players entered, and 6 of them were from outside Palm Beach County. I understand that not everyone is able to play every week at every location, but that is part of the problem: a lack of commitment from the players. Tennis players come and go as they please. And the fact that this event pulled 7 kids from Palm Beach County ages 10-12 is embarrassing when there are literally 10’s of thousands of children in middle schools in this area. Football, baseball, basketball, and soccer get hundreds of players every Saturday morning. Ice hockey and lacrosse do the same. And we pull 7?!? Once a month?!? Something has to change.
All American Team Tennis is the solution to all of tennis’ problems. Much of what we do can be found on your local college campus. First, every single one of us has a desire to be included, to feel like we’re not alone, to interact with other people. It’s how God made us. So All American Team Tennis is a team sport where players are placed on teams and given a uniform so they know where they belong. The uniform says “you’re with us.” The team says “you’re not alone.” Now you have someone to talk to.
Someone to hang out with. Someone to play with. Someone to travel with. Someone to invite to your birthday party. Someone to tell jokes to. Someone to talk to about your favorite tv show. And if you think none of those things are important when it comes to playing tennis, your head is in the wrong place. Because humans are social creatures, designed to desire the company of other people. And if we don’t get that social interaction we become very selfish and bitter and inconsiderate and rude and condescending. I know this from first-hand experience because I’ve crossed paths with them repeatedly over time. How does a person learn respect when their opinion is the only one that matters?
See, in other sports, superstars still have to FIT IN with the group. Even in individual sports like wrestling, gymnastics, and karate. Their desire to be better than everyone else is balanced by what’s best for the TEAM. Not so in tennis. I do WHAT I want, WHEN I want, HOW I Want, and if I don’t WANT to, I ain’t doing it because MY results are the only results that matter. I’m out here by myself, me against the world, so what happens to you does not matter to me because we’re not CONNECTED in any way. And that seed of selfishness gets watered every time they play. So players become very unsympathetic, inconsiderate, unable to relate to other people, yet very demanding in their interactions with others because they are the only person that matters. That’s cold!
Next, Game Day is every Saturday. That requires a commitment on the part of every player because the team is counting on them. Accountability is not required in individual sports, but makes for a much better member of society. An understanding that you are not alone, and that your actions affect those around you leads to greater maturity. That’s what it means to be a Team Player.
Third, we put a referee on every court, similar to what you’ll find at colleges like Miami and Ohio State (GO BUCKS!), and I train them personally. Relying on the players to conduct their own matches is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. And those who defend it are missing a few synapses. Every type of competition should have someone watching the participants to make sure the game is played according to the rules. I don’t care if it’s tennis, football, or Nathan’s 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, there should be a referee. In the heat of the moment, when the stakes are so high, players can not be trusted to make the right call. There’s an inherent bias to officiating your own match that leads to players making calls in their favor. That’s called cheating. So we make sure to have someone that I’ve trained, personally, on every court. It’s the right thing to do.
Not only does every match need a referee, but every player needs a coach. Period. So we invite our parents to act as coaches during practice and on Game Day. We don’t relegate them to the outer limits, or the vast wasteland beyond the fences where they are forced to watch their child play through the wind screen**. But we invite them to come inside and set up a
chair to view the matches along the sidelines. They can talk to their kids, they can cheer for them, on the changeovers the parents can give their kids a bottle of water or grapes. It’s a much better experience for everyone. And because the players are on a team they don’t have to spend their changeover alone. Kids enjoy talking to each other. Surprising, isn’t it. Coaches keep players on the right track because they can see the entire forest, not just the trees.
Never underestimate the value of community. Community creates emotional stability by lending perspective to any situation because when you realize you’re not alone things are not as bad as they seem. And when you win, having someone to share it with makes it even more memorable.
Tennis doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. In fact, it can be a very memorable one. All American Team Tennis is unlike your typical junior tennis program. We’re different.. on purpose. Teams, uniforms, Game Day, coaches, parents, field trips, community, camaraderie, a support system, and that’s only the beginning. We haven’t even talked about the marketability of team sports! There’s room for everyone on the team. Including you. So join us next season and see what all the noise is about.
I would love to know your thoughts. Send me an an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas.
*The USTA decided it would be a good idea to implement a series of tournaments for players under the age of 10, as a way of introducing children to tennis competition. The switch to shorter courts and low-compression balls is necessary to make the game easier for children to play. We do this, too. Unfortunately, they continue to use tournaments as their primary vehicle of transport. As my mechanic would say “Well, there’s your problem!”
**And can anyone tell me why we have wind screens, anyway? They block your view more than they block the wind. If it’s purely cosmetic, and you just want to put your logo on the fence, why not get a chain link with smaller holes and paint it? It’ll last longer than nylon. Or put up sections of screen with your logo on it. Maybe along the back but not the sides. I’m just sayin’.
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.
“Ohio State is going to dominate the 2016 NFL draft. “
“His team could have as many as five players taken in the first round next year, with underclassmen such as Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliott leading the way.”
“Here’s an early look at the NFL talent who will be lighting it up for Ohio State this fall.”
These are lines from an article posted on the Bleacher Report website from May 5, 2015. The article goes on to give a breakdown of each player and his contribution to the Buckeyes for the coming season. Every day journalists across the country reach out to their numerous sources to gather information for reporting on their chosen team and its players. Television, websites, newspapers, even smartphone apps are flooded with valuable information concerning the players from your favorite team/sport.
But not tennis. Why?
College tennis rosters are full of players that any coach would give their non-dominant arm to work with. Players that have spent most of their lives training, traveling, and testing themselves against the best competition in their given region, both here and around the world. These are players that, if we were to play them ourselves, would make any one of us look like a clumsy, 5-year-old, uncoordinated, special needs child. And they all come together, at the same time, to go to college. So what happens to them after what many believe were ‘the best years of their life’?
When a top college prospect in football or basketball decides to go pro and declares for the draft, it sets a number of things in motion: agents, Pro Day, the Draft, visitations, contract negotiations, etc. Much of it taken care of by the player’s handlers so the player can focus on playing. In tennis, the player must be the CEO, CFO, HR, travel agent, administrative assistant, chief, cook, and bottle washer all at the same time. Once they leave college they are essentially on their own to navigate the treacherous waters of professional tournament tennis. And for what? A couple hundred dollars at the end of the week? It doesn’t seem worth it. In fact, a great many top college prospects burn out before ever realizing their dream of playing on the bigger stages. We can’t let this talent go to waste.
Tennis tournaments are a process of elimination designed to find out who’s #1. But how many #1’s can there be? You know the answer. But when the Denver Broncos, the Golden State Warriors, or the Kansas City Royals win a championship, how many #1’s are there? When the Vanderbilt women’s or the Virginia men’s tennis teams win the NCAA Championship all 11 players win the trophy. Unlike the Miami Open or US Open where only 1 player can take home the trophy, a greater number of people benefit from the success of the Team. And that number includes all of the fans, too.
A third of the top 25 college tennis rosters feature the names of players born outside the United States. And while some believe this to be problematic, the real story is the global nature of college tennis. When saddled with the responsibility of filling a roster of 10+ players, college coaches search far and wide for the best players available. Players who come up through the tournament ranks believing they might one day play professionally, are now filling college tennis rosters. In other sports they refer to college as a period of ‘maturity’. In tennis, college is the final destination. Washed up at 22?!? That is a very short-sighted view.
Follow me on this one: Imagine tennis as a Team Sport at the professional level, like it is in college.
It changes the entire tennis conversation from “who will be the next #1” to “my team just signed a prospect out of the Ohio State University to a 3-year contract worth $1.2 million. He could be a starter right away. How do they fit into the system Coach Ken has in place? And can the veterans on the team bring along the rookies to put the team over the top?” I’ve just given you more content for TV and radio than most tennis tournaments (mind blown). Imagine the growth of the tennis industry when we have more than 2-3 people to talk about; the talk shows, segments on ESPN, news crews covering the High School State Championship. Things really begin to open up.
So the next time you’re looking for world-class tennis, skip the tournament (you’re not missing anything) and visit your local university. Players who understand the value of the team are definitely worth cheering for. GO TEAM!
When was the last time you took your kids to a tennis match? Was it the
Delray Beach Open in February? Was it the Miami Open in March? Are you traveling to the US Open in August? For most people, tennis doesn’t rate high enough to set aside the time to take in a match. There are just too many other things to do. And given the infrequency of professional tennis tournaments coming to town, we’re just too busy to step away from our everyday lives to see the “Best in the World”.
But if you live in Boca Raton or Orlando or Coral Gables (or any other college town across America) you’re in luck! Because every January thru April the College tennis season kicks things into high gear! The great thing about College tennis (besides playing all of their Home games in one location) is that these players REALLY ARE the best in the world. Most college rosters are 50% international players meaning every team is loaded with the best college-age players making College tennis World Class tennis.
On Sunday February 14 All American Team Tennis traveled to Boca Raton to watch the Florida Atlantic University Owls host Army West Point. It would be a very tight match requiring all 7 points to be played (college tennis matches are Best of 7 so once a team wins 4 courts, the other matches stop playing) with Army West Point coming out on top, 4-3. There was a lot of yelling and cheering and shouting throughout with players AND spectators for both teams pumping up the players on the court. It was an experience much like a football or basketball game. The only thing missing was taligating!
And following the matches the Head Coach for the FAU Owls invited our players onto the court to meet the players where they would sign our jerseys and take pictures with us. Where else are you able to find this kind of accessibility?
Field Trips are a regular occurrence for All American Team Tennis as we take them EVERY season. We take our players to College tennis matches because College tennis players understand the value of playing on a team; the camaraderie, teamwork, friendships, and support all combine to make an overall enjoyable college tennis experience. In fact, our second of 3 field trips for Season 13 will be to Orlando to watch the UCF Knights host the Tulane Green Wave! At All American Team Tennis we endeavor to create memorable team tennis experiences… Because Life is a Team Sport.
How’s the view from where you sit?
I may be completely alone in this… but Junior Tennis Tournaments are a freaking nightmare! No Referees, No Coaches, Few Spectators, No Excitement, just two kids hitting a ball back-and-forth! And this is how we determine who can play in college or professionally?!? These players train in isolation, travel by themselves, and compete against the same people at every tournament. And don’t get me started on the cheating! I guess that is to be expected when you have NO REFEREES!!!
Whew! Sorry about that. But seriously…
For centuries, tennis has been a country club sport; once residing in the palaces of the French aristocracy because the streets were unsafe thanks to the Black Plague. Today, it is the exclusive property of the gated communities, leaving much of America to play other sports like football, basketball, and soccer. The exclusivity of tennis leaves many people desperately searching for someone to play with. Unable to find a hitting partner, adults often turn to CrossFit and slow-pitch softball for exercise. At the same time, children, unfamiliar with the game, having never been exposed to it by their parents, are completely unaware that their school has a tennis team (True story. I heard it from 2 different students at two different Florida schools. FLORIDA!!!) What can be done to solve this problem? What can be done to bring tennis to prominence? Who is going to adjust tennis’ presentation making it more palatable and appealing to a much larger audience?
AATT REFEREES ARE CHANGING THE GAME OF TENNIS
Cheating ruins the experience for everyone involved. Take a look any youth sport and watch their reaction when they feel like the wrong call was made. Injustice is something we can all recognize, and Referees are assigned to making sure the game is played fairly. They keep the game moving forward, they make sure the players play by the rules, they protect the integrity of the game and make sure sportsmanship is the order of the day. In short, Referees make the game fun.
When Coach Ken first conceived the League back in 2008, the first order of business was to make sure every court had a Referee. it wasn’t easy because many people believed tennis tournaments were supposed to be messy. “The kids have to learn how to handle certain situations” they would say (and this from a lacrosse Referee!). Well, if that were true, without a Referee monitoring the match, who is there to teach what they’re supposed to learn? Do you think they’ll just miraculously pick it up through osmosis? The children may not be able to articulate it, but this is a major reason why more kids don’t enter tournaments: no one to make sure the game is played fairly. All they can say say is that it wasn’t any “fun”. Think of it this way: in baseball, who calls the balls and strikes? The pitcher or the batter? In basketball, who calls the fouls? The offensive player or the defender? In football, who measures the first down? The offense or defense? “Learning how to handle certain situations” in tennis usually becomes “learning how to cheat and get away with it.”
It is in the very nature of a competitor to win; to do what it takes to achieve the goal. Truly successful athletes possess a singular focus that only allows them to see what is immediately in front of them and/or to their benefit. Sportsmanship says something completely different: respect your opponent / respect the game. Remember: if I am going to win I have to beat you. That is, in and of itself, disrespectful. So it is the responsibility of the Referee to make sure players exhibit sportsmanship and respect to their opponents. Otherwise every game would end in a fist fight. It’s only natural. Unfortunately, in tennis, due to the shortage of Referees, many players would rather stop playing than to get into fights with their opponents.
Which brings me to my next point: WHY are the no Referees at junior tennis tournaments? The USTA is presenting a “New” pathway of tournament tennis for players 10 and Under. The goal is to increase participation (we’ll talk about gaining more fans another time). And while I applaud the sentiment (more players) I believe their methods to be disastrous. As I explained earlier, the lack of any authority being present at junior tennis tournaments leads to players taking advantage of less experienced players. The less experienced player then becomes frustrated at their perceived lack of talent. And while that may be true, it is also expected that this is going to happen, and that the player is now more likely to leave tennis and take up another sport, like volleyball. Greater emphasis must be placed on retaining players and that means more fun.
Where do children find the most fun? Among friends. If children are to continue playing tennis for more than 3 weeks they must be surrounded by other children. Which is why All American Team Tennis puts kids on teams with uniforms and a Referee on every court every Saturday morning. Here’s the hidden benefit of conducting the sport as a League rather than a tournament: More players per court means fewer courts to monitor!
Most tennis tournaments feature multiple age divisions (10-18), playing in multiple brackets, on multiple courts all at the same time. Given the going rate for a certified tennis official is upwards of $100 a day, on how many courts can a tournament afford to place an official? The answer is that tournaments are only required to provide 1 official per 6 courts. In contrast, All American Team Tennis teams can have up to 6 players on a team, play up to three courts at time, and recruits High School tennis players looking for community service (or $10 per game). It is a much more economical way of conducting tennis matches; and now every court has a Referee. This is just one of the may things we do differently to ensure players have the most fun.
There are other reasons why All American Team Tennis is the ‘Best Game In Town’ and we will be sure to cover them later. In the meantime, you can help KEEP kids on the tennis court by working as a Referee, yourself. For more information contact Coach Ken at email@example.com or call him at 561-578-9914. All American Team Tennis is different…on purpose… because Life is a Team Sport. GO TEAM!