Good News and Bad News!
By Jim Reffkin

November 2002

The "good news" is a record 101 million people watched some part of the 2002 US Open on television, up 10% from last year. And with total attendance of 628,738 at Flushing Meadows this year, the US Open maintains the status as the highest-attended annual sporting event in the world.

The "bad news" is we may be increasing spectator interest, which we all agree is extremely important, but we must continue to maintain growth in participation at the recreation level. Incidentally, the International Tennis Federation describes a "recreation player" as anyone who does not compete for prize money as a full time professional.

And in our own Southwest section, there are mixed signs of good and bad news. On the positive side, USA Adult League tennis has increased our overall participation, but that is mostly thanks to senior and mixed doubles leagues - a fairly recent phenomenon. Junior tennis, on the other hand, appears strong at the higher levels but still struggling to establish an all important entry level league program.

The bad news is "USTA Adult Ranking" tournaments, once the backbone of tennis participation are dying a slow death, not only here in the Southwest, but everywhere in the country as well. Unfortunately, because of a lack of participation by our better players, Southwest age group rankings are not credible. And to make it worse, not only are the older age groups dwindling - injuries and golf - but the real depressing statistic is the young adults, ages eighteen to thirty-five, where participation is pathetic. This should send a clear message to our local tennis communities; we need to grow the entire NTRP market which eventually become our "age group" sanction tournament participants. Tournament directors everywhere are forever asked why the draws are so small, and yet we still continue to direct our section and local resources to these same unpopular events, failing to make them more popular.

We just don't get it! But the message is clear to almost everyone in the Tennis Industry, our future growth of the game will not be in the shrinking market share of traditional sanctioned tournaments, but in the attraction of the young adults and over fifty seniors. It is obvious that the time-poor lifestyle of young parents does not match what USTA ranking tournaments offer them in prolonged weekend events. And this can get worse, because if young parents are not participating, children are less likely to play the game as well.

Now if you are a club owner or manager, a teaching professional or coach, the statistics should get your attention and you should be asking - what are we doing about it? It's very simple, I suggest we enrich the menu of USTA sanctioned events by initiating attractive activities/programs that will increase play and bring in new participants. In other words, do not eliminate our traditional sanctioned events but add time definable, non-elimination tournaments that are competitive and can be offered in a half or one day time period. Current adult players are telling us "national not local ranking" is important, so lets initiate and promote a section ranking system where it's needed and wanted to support a variety of NTRP events, events that enrich our USTA menu. I think they call this "product development" in the business world.

Product development may happen, because Alan Schwartz, the incoming USTA President, is not only the owner of one Tennis Club, but many of them. This "good news" should mean his livelihood is based on promoting and growing the game - the same goal and mission statement of the United States Tennis Association. There is even more good news: Kurt Kamperman, the current director of the Tennis Industry Association and Jim Baugh, President of Wilson Sporting Goods, are both new to the National USTA Board and should have the same sense of urgency our new president will have. And you know what, these guys don't need surveys, they are responsive to why people play and what they do with their leisure time. The good news is, for the first time ever, we have career tennis industry people in charge of our USTA governing body.

However the bad news will come quickly when USTA National initiates innovative programs to increase participation and is confronted with the quicksand of section and district politics. Unfortunately, there is a labrynth of local and sectional committees (eg. sanction/scheduling and junior/adult/senior competition) that still believe that USTA ranking tournaments are the dominant venue in the growth of our game, and insist that national committees must gain the approval of their group before an event becomes sanctioned or promoted at their respective section or district.

However, we know change is difficult, and the good news is, it is beginning to happen. Our own Southwest section Board of Directors, after much discussion and an extremely close vote (Phoenix District was against the change) recently allowed section tournament directors to use what the International Tennis Federation and National USTA has encouraged for the last five years - innovative scoring formats and events that enrich the menu of sanctioned USTA events that ultimately will increase participation.

But this is only scratching the surface, the bad news is, it may not make any difference. Because, unless the Southwest USTA aggressively promotes and implements - with enthusiasm and conviction - the marketing of innovative national programs, nothing will change. If we are going to be successful, staff resources and financial incentives will be critical to educate tennis directors, club owners and teaching professionals. There will be hard work ahead, remember, our USA League program was an innovative change and it took relentless persistence from our paid staff and volunteers to make it successful.

And the last bit of "good news." Just think how confident our last two USTA National Presidents must feel. Judy Levering introduced a "National Plan for Growth" and Merv Heller wanted to bring "Tennis to the People." I am certain Alan Schwartz will continue both their presidential goals, add his, and take our great game even further in popularity. So lets roll up our sleeves, refocus and give our new USTA President our full support.

Editor's note: Jim Reffkin is Chairman of the National USTA Tennis Innovation Committee and welcomes comments and suggestions.