Your Serve: Rallying Back
The USTA’s director of collegiate tennis says that after years of trying to stay in the match, varsity tennis is bouncing back.
By Virgil Christian
In the 1980s, interest in college tennis was at its peak. Varsity teams proliferated. Matches, which could last four or five hours, were exciting. Student-athletes, aspiring to continue in the pros, saw the gap between college tennis and the tours as something they could easily cross.
Times have changed. As spectator viewing habits changed and attention spans became shorter, the uncertainty of varsity college match times, as well as cold weather, led to smaller crowds. Many matches were played during work hours on weekdays. Attendance plunged; gate receipts and merchandising were non-existent. Matches received no broadcast attention, as other sports raced by and were easier to fit into established broadcast windows.
On top of that, school budgets stagnated or tightened. Many traditionally non-revenue-generating varsity sports such as tennis programs were dropped. College tennis was becoming irrelevant, both to fans and to many school administrations. Tennis coaches — already some of the lowest-paid coaches on campus — saw this depressed climate affecting their livelihoods. At many schools, athletic directors were cut out of the decision-making — a monumental error.
A number of well-intended initiatives popped up, but their focus was on coaches and players, not on the fans, changing marketplace or administration. If college tennis is to be relevant like other varsity sports, the marketplace needs to provide the answers, and this industry needs to listen.
Thankfully, an evolution is now occurring, which started in 2015 with the USTA having designed an expanded “college pathway” in coordination with the changing demographics of the sport. The USTA asked hard questions: What is our product? What exactly is college tennis? How should a varsity match look? We knew that to have a product to “sell,” we needed to agree on the answers.
As of 2016, the format being used at the NCAA Team Championships is now three doubles matches, played simultaneously, with no-ad scoring. The first team to six games wins. After a five-minute break, six singles matches are played, with best two-of-three sets and no-ad scoring. Matches move along quickly; in Division I, those matches now average 2 hours and 38 minutes.
By speeding up play and ensuring a manageable time format for players and fans alike, those fans are beginning to come back to college matches, and we’re also engaging new fans. Tennis is being broadcast digitally and on cable. Our sport is now legitimately competing with other sports, as it should.
The varsity tennis match is an exciting event — one that may have the most potential for growth on campus. This format change has made a very real difference — and this is only the beginning.
We may have just saved a match point, but there’s still a lot of exciting play ahead.
Virgil Christian, the USTA’s senior director of collegiate tennis and market/facility development, was a two-year captain of the Penn State men’s team. Former head coach at UPenn, he is the visionary behind the 100-court USTA National Campus in Orlando.
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