what's the problem

Every few months, it seems, we hear of another proposed tweak to our college tennis format, whether it’s a new scoring system, a recruiting contact rule, or an eligibility change. Lately, these proposals have been met with an outcry via social media, and, luckily, so far, those crying loudest have come out on top. But how long and how loudly can we cry before The Powers That Be become inured to our outrage?

I understand that coaches – and athletic directors (ADs) – are concerned about budgets and having enough money to keep their teams going, but is bastardizing the sport really the solution?

And if we bastardize the sport at the collegiate level, doesn’t that eliminate any chance of college tennis being a stepping stone for the pro tour as it has traditionally been for players like John Isner, Bob & Mike Bryan, Maria Sanchez, or Lisa Raymond?

As former college player and current coach and businessman, Sol Schwartz, says, “The athletic directors and school presidents have no real attachment to these tennis programs. The only parties that do are the players, past and present, and their families. The surrounding communities only in a very few circumstances even remotely care about these teams.”

Therein lies the problem . . . how do we get the surrounding communities and the potential fan-bases they contain interested?

I read Marc Lucero’s article on TennisRecruiting.net regarding this issue and suggested that maybe coaches could network and share information regarding boosting attendance at dual matches.  It turns out, as Coach Erica Perkins of University of New Mexico informed me, the ITA already has a system of webinars set up specifically for this purpose. It’s up to the individual coaches to carve time out of their busy schedules in order to take advantage of the learning and sharing opportunities, but the opportunities are there for the taking. And they’re free. Which means they fit into every single coach’s budget.

Photographer Bill Kallenberg, who travels to dozens of college dual matches every year, shares that “many colleges have special promotions to draw crowds. Last year LSU had crawfish boils to draw 800 when UGA came to play. TCU and Texas A&M hosted special ‘get out to the match’ gimmicks. Others did other things as well. The best way to draw a crowd is to offer a great competitive product with high level opposition and rivalry and let the players do their job on court.”

I tend to agree with Bill. There’s nothing quite like a good rivalry battling it out on the tennis court. And, here’s the thing for those who complain about college matches lasting too long: if you don’t want to stay for the entire match, then take a break and come back later. That’s where I think the schools can do a better job – have alternative activities for the fans – like t-shirt giveaways or shot-making contests or mini-tennis courts set up – during dual match play for those needing a break from the action. Have student emcees call the matches and create some excitement over the PA system. Have fraternities and sororities “adopt” a court and be responsible for providing a cheering section for that court for the duration of the match. Tap into the university’s business and marketing programs and use that brain trust to find ways to better market college tennis to the student body and community at large. This isn’t rocket science, people!

One question that gets asked on a regular basis is what role should USTA play in college tennis? For many junior players and their families, college tennis is the end-goal, something to strive for, the thing that keeps them engaged in the sport. So, isn’t it in USTA’s best interest to do whatever it can to preserve as many college tennis programs as possible? To ensure that as many American juniors as possible have the opportunity to play at the collegiate level? And to promote college tennis matches relentlessly? As Coach Wayne Bryan preaches, “Champions take it in through their eyes and not their ears. You have to see it before you can dream it, and you must be passionate about it before you can achieve it. Attending one motivational tennis event – like an exciting and raucous and well-played college match – is better than 30 days of practice. Juniors return to the practice court more fired up for tennis than ever and somehow magically improved.”

As Sol Schwartz reminds us, though, we need to understand that the USTA has absolutely zero power in regards to what the NCAA does.  That being said, Sol feels they (USTA) should absolutely have people in the highest positions in the associations screaming at the top of their lungs in protest of the cuts and scoring and format changes. He asks a very pertinent question: Why does the USTA basically ignore NCAA college tennis as a whole in this country? They promote 10 and under initiatives. They promote adult leagues. They promote inner city programs. According to Sol, “They have this fixation with finding the next great American champions. That is great. Out of all the youth tennis players supposedly being brought into the game, how many will likely become that champion? Then you need to ask yourself, how many of them when they hit 18 years old could potentially play college tennis? If they need a roadmap of a place to at least start to help college tennis survive, then how about start by taking some of that US Open money and get behind marketing college tennis as a great long range goal for a junior player to strive towards? How about taking some of that money and teaming up with the university programs and start marketing these programs and their matches in their communities? Make people want to go see these teams play.”

Well, now USTA has gotten involved by creating an advisory panel made up entirely of non-tennis folks. And the panel has proposed some pretty controversial tweaks such as playing all six singles matches first (still 2 out of 3 tiebreak sets) followed immediately by the doubles which would only be played if no decisive winner is determined via the singles and would be decided by 10-point super tiebreakers. The stated purpose of these changes? To decrease the overall time of each dual match to make them more fan- and tv-friendly.

But here’s the thing. USTA has a program – Tennis On Campus – that competes, sort of, with NCAA tennis. TOC is a great program for those players who don’t want the commitment of a full-time college tennis team or who might not be quite good enough to be recruited. It gives those kids a way to keep playing tennis and to play for their school, which is a wonderful thing. However, for every NCAA tennis program eliminated, an opening is created for USTA to start another TOC chapter and for that TOC program to be the only option for students who want to play tennis for their school. Bottom line is that it positively impacts USTA’s bottom line.

Does college tennis really need television in order to survive? Is there some enormous television contract on the horizon that none of us have heard about yet that will save college tennis? I’ve asked that question in the Twitterverse and, so far, the answer is no.

Which brings me back to my initial question: is changing the traditional format of our scoring system going to save college tennis? If not, and if there are other solutions to the attendance “problem”, then let’s explore those first and leave the integrity of our sport intact.