Soccer then tennis?
By Jim Reffkin

September 2003

Is the recent bad news about WUSA the first major sign of a "decline" in women's sports? Everyone, everywhere, is aware of the tremendous growth in women's athletics. But when the news that women's professional soccer went out of business - and so abruptly - it sent shock waves thru the industry. Sure, women's professional softball "kind've disappeared" and women's professional basketball seems to be hanging on.

So, if soccer is in the dumper, will women's tennis be next? Well, lets first consider how popular soccer is with young girls. Surpassing girls basketball and softball, soccer has become a bonanza for parents and promoters! The game is highly visible, time efficient, safe, comfortable for viewing, and inexpensive for the masses. Just think, a ball, some grass, easy entry for all skill levels, and it becomes a perfect opportunity to "grow a game." Plus, it didn't hurt to have the 1999 women's world cup televised globally and hosted in the United States. If you remember, a sudden death winning kick and Mia Hamm became a real "sports heroine" for soccer girls everywhere - a real US role-model that created soccer mania.

Could this possibly happen to women's professional tennis? We sure hope not, particularly now when the women's game is getting more attention than the men. But lets not rest on our recent laurels, there are two trouble spots on the horizon.

One huge problem is Fed Cup, the women's version of the Davis Cup. The International Tennis Federation, the global governing body of tennis, is responsible for both the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup. They both are struggling to maintain credibility. But thanks to the four "majors" ITF governs, they are not going to lose any sleep over the state of current viewer interest.

In my mind, if the Fed Cup was dependent upon its own success, based on the responsibility of their own bottom line, they would have been out of business long ago. However, thanks to ambitious efforts from the USTA - hiring Billie Jean King as coach - they are truly trying to turn things around. I hope its not too late.

But it may be, because this year's event is going to be a disaster. With the finals coming soon, the marquis players will not be showcased. Unfortunately, it looks like the Williams sisters will not be playing, Davenport is injured and Jennifer Capriati - well you know that whole story. And to make it worse, Henin and Clisters have also decided not to play for Belgium. This creates a Fed Cup final worthy of coverage by PAX, the same cable station that covered women's soccer, not exactly prime time network television.

The other black cloud that I hope the USTA is watching closely, is girls tennis. USTA Youth Competition and Training must stop the continuing decline of interest in competitive play in the older age groups. Please figure out why girls love soccer, softball and basketball these days? And please don't resign yourself to the usual "tennis is an individual sport." And obviously we know that title IX has increased participation at all levels of interscholastic sport.

Serving as a magnet for girls of all ages, soccer's team concept is a key ingredient in its popularity. On the down side, many tennis people believe that the independent competitive environment of endless singles tournaments is turning off our youth, particularly teen agers. Can't we create the environment that other girl's sports create? Ask any junior tournament director about the draws for the girls 18 and even 16 age groups. Pretty scary numbers when you think of how popular professional women's tennis is. Lets remember that the US Open women's final is live on CBS prime time Saturday night. With the current success of women's professional tennis, why can't we be doing better?

Look at it this way, if any portion of your business is doing poorly, you immediately make every effort to improve your product (product development) or eliminate it all together. Let's not accept the excuse that today there are too many opportunities for girls sports. The real answer is a sense of urgency. We must enrich our menu of events, we must create new programs, we must compete and attract more participation.

Do you have any ideas? Please e-mail me at jreffkin@aol.com

Jim Reffkin, USPTA Past President and USTA Innovation Committee member