Rising to the Challenge?
In an effort to reach Alan Schwartz’s 30 by 2010 goal, the USTA — and the industry — is pushing ahead with some key initiatives.
lt has been one year since USTA President Alan Schwartz issued his challenge to the tennis industry to create — and retain — 30 million tennis players in the U.S. by 2010. In order to achieve this 25 percent increase over the next seven years, the USTA immediately implemented a fact-finding mission in the form of a “Blue Ribbon” commission to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of the USTA’s various committees and initiatives. Since that time, the USTA and its allied tennis organizations have refined efforts and implemented new ones, all with a single goal in mind: growing the game.
Here’s a look at what worked and what needs work on a handful of major initiatives, and a look ahead to programs designed to shape the game in 2004 and beyond.
Our Survey Says …
Since the tennis boom of the 1970s — when an estimated 34 million tennis players were driving tennis equipment and apparel sales and tennis-court construction nationwide — participation numbers have fluctuated. According to Keith Storey, vice president of Sports Marketing Surveys USA in Jupiter, Fla., the number dropped as low as 13 million in 1985, before rebounding to its current 24 million.
To understand — and prevent — this variability, the USTA began commissioning U.S. tennis participation surveys in 1988. The latest participation studies have been commissioned jointly by the USTA and the Tennis Industry Association and conducted by Sports Marketing Surveys USA and Taylor Research & Consulting Group Inc. of Portsmouth, N.H. The 2002 and 2003 studies were the most comprehensive efforts to date, each involving telephone interviews over a two-month period with an estimated 70,000 individuals in 25,500 households. According to Storey, the surveys collected data from all 17 USTA sections, throughout the 50 states plus the Caribbean and British Columbia.
Storey says the 2002 statistics signaled the tennis industry had its work cut out for it. Tennis participation has remained flat, with about 5 million players taking up the sport and the same number leaving. There is hope, however, in the consistent retention of about 75 percent of players involved in organized tennis. In contrast, only about 18 percent of those who play on their own stick with the sport. (The 2003 survey results were not available at press time.)
“All you need in order to start playing is a racquet and ball, but it’s also easy to drop out [when you’re not part of an organized group],” Storey says. “No other sporting organization implements grassroots programs to such an extent, but it’s still quite a challenge for the USTA.”
Tennis in the Parks
If there was a lesson to be learned from the inaugural Tennis in the Parks season in 2003, says Kathy Spangler, director of national partnerships for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), it was to create more grants.
Of the 270 park and recreation departments that applied, 50 were selected last year to receive $5,000 grants to hire teaching professionals certified by either the Professional Tennis Registry or U.S. Professional Tennis Association. The program, a joint venture between the NRPA and USTA, was designed to increase tennis participation by enhancing the quality of instruction. According to Spangler, an estimated 70 percent of tennis is played on public courts.
“We got a sense of a greater need, so we’re working to expand the scope of the grant program to reach many more sites,” says Spangler, noting that the program is being modified this year to provide award amounts that can be less than $5,000 (with a maximum of $5,000) to fund instruction, marketing efforts and other program components.
“The USTA is a great partner in recognizing the value of park and recreation facilities in tennis, and we’re pleased they’re willing to support them,” Spangler adds. “Our goal is not just to give money away, but to build a sustainable practice and add value to what park and recreation departments already offer.”
U.S. Open Series
While USTA Community Tennis will continue to emphasize programs like Tennis in the Parks and USA Tennis, the division will join the USTA Professional Tennis business unit in driving an aggressive marketing campaign to promote tennis’ social and health benefits to casual fans and non-players in 2004.
According to Arlen Kantarian, USTA chief executive of Professional Tennis, a national advertising promotion via non-tennis media will be complemented with a new television contract with CBS. In addition to its coverage of the U.S. Open, Kantarian says, CBS will also televise the summer hard-court tournaments leading up to America’s Grand Slam.
This new “U.S. Open Series” could ultimately include approximately eight tournaments (some brand-new co-ed events) by 2005, with additional television outlets providing early-round and supplemental coverage. A slew of tennis-playing celebrity endorsements also is expected to generate interest at the grassroots level, he says.
In addition to better marketing of players, it will be important for tennis’ governing bodies to join efforts to present the sport as one cohesive package. “Tennis offers a combination of athleticism, celebrity and fashion that no other sport provides, and yet it is so under-marketed that it’s the only sport that doesn’t tie in its biggest event with the regular season that comes before it,” says Kantarian, noting that fan interest could also be piqued with a U.S. Open Series bonus pool or special impact on pro player seeding at the U.S. Open.
“A consistent television platform is the hallmark of success for any major sport,” Kantarian adds. “It’s about time tennis took its place among them.”
Tennis in the Rain
Aside from Pete Sampras’ retirement and Andy Roddick cradling his first Grand Slam trophy, the image fans might best recall from the 2003 U.S. Open is of dozens of ball kids on their hands and knees, drying the rain-soaked courts with towels. In all, three sessions were cancelled and two others were delayed by rain (with intermittent showers interrupting other sessions).
Although Wimbledon recently announced its plan to install a retractable roof over its Centre Court, Kantarian said a similar device at the U.S. Open would not be cost-effective. “The addition of a $40 million to $60 million roof does not make sense when you look at the history: only five cancelled sessions in 12 years,” he says.
While some industry experts believe the current use of power blowers and towels is the most effective method of drying the courts, alternatives are being investigated. As if the rain isn’t enough to contend with, it seems the tennis grounds slope so that the Grandstand and Armstrong courts are positioned near sea level. The result: moisture regeneration in times of extreme rain.
According to Kantarian, a task force of engineers and court and equipment manufacturers has been assembled to evaluate the effectiveness of lifted tarps with blowers running underneath, a customized Zamboni-type drying machine, and even a microwave heating system installed beneath the court. Engineering professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have also been consulted.
“We can already dry standing water in four to five minutes. It’s the remaining dampness that takes time to deal with,” Kantarian says. “Having 40 or 50 kids drying the court with towels and blowers may not look high-tech, but we may find it’s still the best way.”
Tennis Welcome Centers
The consumer marketing blitz around the Tennis Welcome Center program (www.TennisWelcomeCenter.com) is just about getting under way now, but the buzz in the industry indicates full agreement with Kurt Kamperman, USTA chief executive of Community Tennis, when he says the concept has “unlimited potential.”
The brainchild of Kamperman and TIA President Jim Baugh, Tennis Welcome Centers are intended to reverse the alarming research indicating that an estimated 71 million Americans have abandoned tennis after an unsatisfactory introduction to the sport (usually spent shagging balls with a fellow novice).
The inspiration behind the Tennis Welcome Center program, Kamperman says, is simple. “When you get right down to it, people just want to know where they can go to learn to play tennis quickly and be part of a group,” says Kamperman, noting that the USTA and TIA are about two-thirds of the way toward their goal of recruiting 3,000 clubs, public parks and other facilities to serve as designated Tennis Welcome Centers by the spring. (For more information, go to Partners.TennisWelcomeCenter.com.)
“Instead of splitting marketing dollars between programs like Play Tennis America and USA Tennis 1-2-3, the industry as a whole is coming together to sell the brand of tennis,” Kamperman adds. “We expect to see an immediate impact this year, and watch it grow in 2005, 2006 and so on.” And many industry insiders seem to share Kamperman’s optimism that the TWCs should help bring new and lapsed player back into the game.
According to Jolyn de Boer, executive director of the TIA, Tennis Welcome Centers will be promoted with fliers and banners at tennis events and sporting goods stores, booths at tournaments and trade shows, television exposure, and advertising affixed to 25 million tennis ball cans, 2.5 million low-priced racquets, and 1 million boxes of low- to mid-priced shoes. The social and physical benefits of the game will also be emphasized during USA Tennis Month in May.
“The next step will be supporting facilities in their retention efforts, but so far everything is on target,” de Boer says. “It’s exciting to see everyone pulling together to make this work for the good of the game.”
See all articles by Cynthia Cantrell
About the Author
Cynthia Cantrell is a contributing editor of RSI magazine.