Sweat the Small(er) Stuff
For success at the grassroots game, let’s build up the ‘minor leagues’ of tennis.
By Kent Oswald
Within the last year, the American tennis community has celebrated two models for the sports’ promotion. One appears less expensive and seems to correlate with results. But it’s the other one that gets more attention.
In 2009, Midland, Mich., a city of 41,000-plus about 100 miles northwest of Detroit, was named America’s Best Tennis Town. An estimated 25 percent of the residents play tennis, and one would assume those 10,000 also take lessons and buy racquets, balls, string and tennis clothes.
One thing that undoubtedly helped bring about that critical mass of tennis interest in Midland was its hosting of the Dow Corning Tennis Classic for the last 22 years, just one of the 90 or so events around the country making up the USTA Pro Circuit. For each event, the USTA kicks in around $50,000 to tournaments’ coffers for prize money support, marketing help, umpires and some general training. In return, a “minor league” field (players all have world rankings below 70) provides the opportunity for American player development (although the fields are international) and fertilization of tennis interest at the grassroots — Midland draws about 15,000 fans per year to the Dow Corning event.
As a quick aside about the importance of grassroots interest as a remedy for what ails a game, consider minor-league baseball. Most dramatically, in 1994 the minor leagues kept fan interest in “the national pastime” from drifting when the major leagues went on strike. Minor-league ball currently claims more than 40 million tickets sold per year. Equally important, baseball fans nourish their relationship to their sport without having to pay major-league park prices or dependence on television coverage. Imagine such a foundation for fans and businesses in the world of tennis.
Admittedly, I have no scientific research linking Midland’s tourney to its open-armed embrace of recreational tennis. Nor can I say for sure that since the second runner-up in the America’s Best Tennis Town competition, Independence, Kan., is within an hour and a half drive of four Pro Circuit tournaments, that has anything to do with more than 200 kids in a town of less than 10,000 playing tennis in the summer. (The first runner-up, Ojai, Calif., supports the country’s oldest amateur tournament.)
But it certainly can’t hurt when it comes to getting kids and a whole community involved with tennis. At these smaller events, you can actually talk to pros who aren’t usually besieged by fans, or stand 20 feet from a match between some of the world’s best tennis players.
While minor-league tennis seems to offer a pretty good return on the dollar, in terms of policy and promotion it is the red-haired stepchild. Again, the Pro Circuit events are nationwide and throughout the year. Do you know when one is near you? How often have you been contacted about one or contacted someone to link up with professional tennis in your area?
Now consider how much you heard when the ATP decided to close the men’s tournament in Indianapolis, then the great cries of relief heard when that event was instead shifted to Atlanta.
This isn’t to denounce the intentions of the city’s advocates for taking on the tournament. It is probably also not worth the trouble to discuss whether it was a good use of membership dollars when the USTA swung its weight around so the U.S. could host one more tour event in addition to the three women’s, six men’s, four combined and one major tournaments already on the professional calendar.
However, Atlanta had a clay-court event from 1992 to 2001 and didn’t wave goodbye to it because folks supported it too much. Indianapolis has been without a title sponsor for the last couple of years, and attendance in 2009 fell about 16,000 from the year before, down just over 56,000 from its 1993 high. It is possible that within a few years the Atlanta Tennis Championships might be galvanizing tennis participation and business throughout the South in July. However that hasn’t been the way these things have been working recently.
Rather than always focusing on the big event, why can’t we in the tennis community focus on following a successful model, instead of throwing cash at dreams of “what hasn’t been for years”? (Not that the same argument couldn’t be made for much of the money the USTA is paying out supporting player development when most measurable success has come from outside “the system.”)
When everyone agrees we need to work on the grassroots of tennis, why can’t we build “minor-league” tennis across the country with major-league efforts from local fans, businesses and the media?
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.