Expanding Tennis' Reach
The new USTA president lays out his agenda to grow the sport and to advance the stature of tennis in the U.S.
The new year brings a great deal of personal excitement for me, having been granted the opportunity to lead the USTA for the next two years as its president and chairman of the board. I realize that the challenges of this position are many. But thanks to a heartening new era of cooperation between the many and varied entities within our sport, the USTA — and all of tennis — stands poised for a significant surge. As I step into my new role, tennis’s potential is evident.
Of course potential, in and of itself, is not enough. We know that we have a great sport that offers advantages unmatched by other athletic endeavors. Tennis is physically and mentally challenging. It is fun and promotes fitness. It is a family sport that can be played for a lifetime. We need to advance the stature of tennis in America to the level existing in other countries. We need to do it now.
The USTA’s mission is simply stated: To promote and develop the growth of tennis. But the formula for substantial growth and the sport’s long-term health is not so simple. Indeed, the growth of tennis in the U.S. has been disappointing. Despite several initiatives and considerable expenditures, we still are faced with statistics that show a decline in U.S. tennis participation over the past 15 years and a rather serious decline over the past four years in the number of frequent players.
If this sport is to surge upward, we need to look inward. Everyone with a stake in the game needs to examine what we are doing. What’s working? What isn’t? What can be improved? What has been disproved? Initiatives are not unlike investments: Some pay great dividends, other fall flat. As a sport, we need to make changes where past approaches are not working and encourage and support those that are. That’s the best — the only — way to ensure that our efforts have impact.
One area particularly vital to the game’s growth and long-term health is public parks. For that reason, it is an area upon which the USTA plans to focus a good deal of attention and energy. Public parks are where I learned to play tennis, and where the majority of people in this country first pick up the game. Sadly, tennis facilities in many of our parks today are in disrepair and have little tennis activity. We need to change that.
We’ve established some great relationships with the leaders of the National Recreation and Park Association, and it’s been encouraging to see the strong support that tennis enjoys in that association. The USTA has created a new Tennis in the Public Parks Task Force, and we’ll be working closely with the NRPA, stepping up our efforts with grants to fund court repairs, tennis pros, and programs in public parks.
This parks effort will be partnered by tennis-loving volunteers at the local level calling upon their city’s park and recreation officials to ensure that tennis is getting its fair share of the recreation dollar. This local advocacy for our sport will be a key element to our strategy.
Once we get people playing, we’ve got to keep them playing — and keep them playing often. One of the best tools for producing frequent players are leagues, and we intend to make a major effort to grow league tennis through an improved marketing plan. The focus of that plan should not only be to promote significant growth in USTA types of leagues, but in all league play. Leagues help make tennis a regular part of people’s lives. More regular play translates into more frequent players.
Other avenues of pursuit in an effort to create more frequent players will be getting more people involved in tournament tennis and developing more of a presence for tennis on college campuses. We need to better drive home the myriad social, mental, physical benefits of the sport. To that end, we believe that “Cardio Tennis,” which combines tennis drills with a cardiovascular workout, will appeal to those who have limited time and want to enjoy tennis and still meet their aerobic and fitness goals.
Whatever the initiative, it’s important that we never lose sight of the fact that tennis should be fun. We need always ensure that the social aspect is a major player in all of our efforts. Fun equals frequency.
Most important, we must achieve better diversity throughout our sport. We must reach out and be more inclusive and spend the marketing dollars necessary to bring more multicultural participants into tennis. Penetrating the large, rapidly-growing Hispanic community has been a particular challenge. But this is a market of such potential — and such importance — that we must be aggressive in our pursuit.
Tennis is a game that grows from its grassroots upward. Many of us recognize that the marketing of tennis at the section and local level cries out for major improvement. We will be devising new approaches and providing increased funding to achieve better results. We have recently had some great national marketing but need to buttress that with strong local marketing to be truly effective.
As an association, the USTA is always open to new and better ways to expand our reach and get more people playing tennis. I am heartened by the unprecedented spirit of cooperation with the teaching pros and other industry partners that the sport today enjoys and feel fortunate to be assuming my new role at a time of such harmony. Working together, I sincerely believe that we can elevate the stature of tennis in the U.S. and fulfill the promise of our potential.
See all articles by Franklin Johnson
About the Author
Franklin Johnson has been on the USTA board of directors for eight years, and is currently president. He was a managing partner of the accounting firm Price Waterhouse.