Your Serve: Can We Create Another ‘Boom’ — for the Next Generation?
By Chuck Gill
I am lucky! I began teaching tennis in the 1970s, when there was a “perfect storm” for our sport. Women were starting to become more involved in sports, Title IX was taking hold, and the most watched sporting event was about to take place: Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs. Millions of people flocked to the tennis courts. If you could play a bit, and had some good people skills, you could land a position as a tennis instructor. Certifications were becoming more relevant.
Fast-forward to 2014: While the US Open remains incredibly popular, actual participation is somewhat flat. Many players from the tennis boom are now over age 60, so while they remain an active base, they are (sadly for the teaching pro) “aging” out of the game.
At a recent USTA meeting, many of us were hit with some sobering stats:
- The average age of a USTA league player in the over-55 divisions: 62
- The average age of a USTA league player in the over-18 divisions: 46
- Average age of a USPTA member: 48
- Total number of under-18 kids in the U.S. who play a tournament per year: 99,000
- Total number of under-18 kids in the U.S. who play six or more tournaments per year: 23,000
- Total number of adult players who play age-group tournaments: 13,075
- There are 250% more tournament-playing adults in the over-60 divisions than in the under-40 divisions.
Our sport has done an adequate job of providing recreational play opportunities for adult players and we have also done a reasonably good job of providing a competitive pathway for junior players. But we fail miserably in providing enough recreational play opportunities for young people. This is not a USTA problem, or a manufacturers problem, or a TIA problem, or a teaching pro problem. It is our problem. It impacts everyone.
There is some good news. The industry has never been more aligned to work together and come up with solutions. We need to get more people, especially young people, playing tennis, and focus on providing a viable pathway for them to get in the game and stay in the game. Here are a few ways to attract, grow and maintain participation:
10 and Under
Children like to be with friends, and while the higher levels may embrace competition, the vast majority like to play and value activity and action. Organize a Play Day, where the emphasis is on playing, not winning. Keep it simple with a timed format. Many pros are running Play Days to supplement existing lesson programs. Another benefit is that it makes the transition to tournament play smoother for both kids and their parents. As kids become more competitive, their first tournament formats should be non-elimination and shorter. De-emphasizing results and focusing on developing skills and learning tactics will keep more of them in the game.
Ages 11 to 17
At this point there is a disconnect between beginning players and developing quality players. For years our pathway has been geared to get kids into the competitive pipeline as early as possible and gain rankings. We need to have a pathway for kids to learn, compete and develop into champions, but we should not forget the kids that may simply aspire to play middle or high school tennis. There should be formats for these kids to decide if tennis is their “sport of a lifetime.” Play/tournament formats should be shorter until the kids and parents develop the commitment to do more. This is a perfect time for JTT or a format that will encourage fun competition.
Ages 18 to 30
This generation has high social values, greatly enjoy free time, and are tech savvy, but many have shorter attention spans. They connect though social media. Make play opportunities convenient and engaging, and promote them on the mediums they are used to. Kudos to “Tennis on Campus” connecting the dots between high school players and those who would not make college varsity teams. Again, formats need to fit the needs of busy young people. Entry-level events should focus on social aspects. Offer flex leagues. Promote on Facebook and offer online signups.
Increasing the number of active players will increase the pool of talent in the U.S. Most importantly, having a larger base of young players will help assure jobs and careers for the next generation of teaching professionals.
Chuck Gill has been in the tennis industry for 35 years. Currently, he is the director of sports at the Ibis Golf and Country Club and is the first vice president of the USPTA. He also serves on the USTA Florida Section board and the USTA National 10 and Under Tennis Committee, as well as the Professional Advisory Staff of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
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