Your Serve: Junior Class
A longtime tennis writer says with just a little marketing nudge, the USTA can make the US Open Junior Championships a true ‘event.’
Tennis insiders know that some of the most exciting singles matches of the US Open’s second weekend happen on the side courts — in the junior finals. Unfortunately, those insiders are about the only people who know.
This isn’t by necessity, but because the spectator market has been largely untapped for this event. The scene is almost sad in a way: two courts with great tennis surrounded by mostly empty seats. The scene is saved simply by the nature of unspoiled competition and the energy and excitement of youth.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Just a little marketing nudge could build a crowd, which would benefit everyone involved: the players, the tournament, the USTA and the local sports fans who don’t know what they’re missing.
Currently, the boys’ and girls’ finals are played simultaneously, which halves the potential audience. Instead, play them back-to-back on the new Court 17. It’s a great venue — it has an atmosphere not of a “side court” but of a small stadium.
Then advertise it a bit. The USTA has the means to market to the core demographic practically for free. During the preceding 13 days of play, mention the junior finals on the Arthur Ashe Stadium scoreboard at changeovers; put an ad or article in the program; push the event on USOpen.org. Plug the list of big players who are former junior champs: Andy Murray, Lindsay Davenport, Andy Roddick, Magdalena Maleeva, Marcelo Rios, Natalia Zvereva, Stefan Edberg and Jennifer Capriati, to name more than a few. Sell it as, “See the stars before they’re stars.” People will watch this — it’s why they watch minor-league baseball and hockey, too.
Yes, recent history has shown that most Ashe ticketholders don’t come to the NTC five hours before the men’s final to watch juniors play. That’s fine. They’re not the target audience anyway.
Instead, woo the locals. Savvy New York City sports fans will watch just about any good game if you just let them know where it’s being played. The same people who come to the US Open Qualifying tournament could also be drawn into the junior finals (so advertise there, too).
Make it a bring-your-child event and notify local tennis clubs and youth sports leagues. What parents wouldn’t love the opportunity to have their sons or daughters see the best young athletes in the world? It would be exciting, educational and (who could frown on this result?) help instill a love of tennis.
Even offer free admission, then let the fans stay around to watch the men’s final on the big screens while eating dinner in the food court.
Or charge $5 or $10 (except for kids — they watch for free) to add perceived value. Use the profits to help pay the finalists’ expenses for maybe having to stay in New York City an extra night, or donate the funds to USTA Serves or the Grand Slam Development Fund.
This all is, of course, not as easy as it sounds. Lew Brewer, the director of Junior Competition for USTA Player Development, notes that the scheduling ramifications can be complex. Potential problems ripple through the schedule from days before the final to the hours following, when players are trying to leave the city after the tennis is done.
But Brewer also agrees that the junior finals could be an event with a more special feel. “In the ideal world, we would play the boys’ final and the girls’ final back-to-back on the same day in a bigger space,” he says. “It would be a lovely experience, and I think it would draw fan attraction and increase the number of people who watch the match. The problem is that you would change the match inventory that’s available for the tournament as a whole. But I never rule anything out. I always say, ‘Let’s talk about it every year. Let’s never say never.’ “
That tenacity is great. Let’s amplify it and say “2012.” The USTA can figure this out. After all, this is the same organization that pioneered tie-breaks, equal prize money and video replays. They can certainly hurdle the obstacles to making the junior finals extraordinary. If for no other reason, do it for the kids. Maximize the excitement for their final match.
There’s a lot to love about this event, and it’s time to share that with the fans.
Chris Nicholson is a tennis writer based in New York City and author of the book Photographing Tennis (PhotographingTennis.com).
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About the Author
Chris Nicholson is a contributing editor of RSI magazine.