A tennis insider says the industry needs to forget about comparisons to the past, embrace the fact that we’re a niche sport, and promote the wonderful assets of the game.
By James Martin
I received an unwelcome email in March. No, it wasn’t spam imploring me to purchase pills and potions. I wish. It was an email from the hub of the tennis industry’s public relations arm, the Tennis Industry Association. The subject line read: “Tennis Is Alive And Well!”
Just like that, in one fell swoop, the TIA undermined what was otherwise a positive message about growth in participation. By saying “alive and well,” it reinforced the image that tennis was, at one point, dying and is now crawling its way out of the grave like a zombie in a George A. Romero movie. Not exactly the kind of imagery that builds morale and gets people excited.
And while the TIA deserves criticism for this PR blast, the memo (or something like it) could have easily come from the USTA, or ATP, or any of the other alphabet soup of organizations that can’t get over The Article. You know the one. It was a Sports Illustrated cover story in 1994 that read the game its late rites. Has one piece ever had such a profoundly negative effect on a sport? The tennis industry has a serious inferiority complex, with an unhealthy dollop of self-loathing, as a result of this single piece of journalism.
It wasn’t all bad. The Article did help the industry realize that major problems existed, and served as a catalyst to get the game’s organizations working more closely together, relatively speaking.
But it’s been over a decade since The Article and no one, it seems, can get past it. Everyone’s complicit. Commentators on TV insist ad nausea that the sport is thriving and tout the huge crowds attending pro tournaments, often in the face of empty courtside seats. When is the last time you’ve watched a football game, a baseball game, a soccer game, or a hockey game for that matter, and heard the announcers obsess over the health of their industry? They don’t have time for such nonsense because they are too busy enjoying their respective sports. What a novel idea.
Tennis writers and bloggers are equally preoccupied with the state of the industry. Over the years, as a writer and editor, I’ve also been caught up in the hype and found myself drinking the Kool-Aid and stewing over The Article. And the governing bodies continually throw out PR with dubious statistics to illustrate the sport’s growth, though if you actually spend time crunching the numbers you often see a smoke-and-mirrors campaign.
So, please, tennis industry—stop. Stop with the specious stats. Stop with the self-flagellations. Stop, most of all, insisting that the sport is healthy and on the rebound. This serves to reinforce the false but still widely held belief that tennis is dying or simply irrelevant.
When conducting its PR campaigns, the tennis industry should also steer clear of another favorite tactic, referencing the tennis boom and how the game is on its way back to the so-called glory days. Talk about setting yourself up to fail. Using the much-ballyhooed benchmark of 30 million tennis participants (I’d argue that number is grossly inflated and, as such, insignificant, but that’s another story) also sets people down a slippery slope. They first start to reminisce about Borg, Mac, Chrissie, and Martina. This inevitably leads them to the popular refrain that these days the game lacks “personalities” and is less cool.
Net result: The industry’s PR efforts, while very well-intentioned, leave you with a negative impression of the sport. This happens time and again.
Well, it’s time the industry change its message. Forget the boom. And please, forget The Article. We’re a niche sport and need to embrace that fact. From there, we can promote the wonderful assets of the game—from the teaching pros to the touring pros, and all the people who move the needle—and celebrate tennis with an enthusiastic and straight-shooting public relations approach.
And from there, we can really grow.
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