New Coke & 2014

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Today’s post courtesy of Antonio Mora . . .

In 1985, before all our junior players were born and when many of their parents were young enough to be junior players themselves, the Coca-Cola Company took what has been referred to as the greatest marketing risk in consumer goods history.  The company changed the formula for Coca-Cola, the world’s most popular soft drink, the first significant change in its formula in 99 years.

The development of what everyone ended up calling “New Coke” was a long and secret process that even had a code name, “Project Kansas.”  The company’s most senior executives launched the effort, hoping to find a new “champion” for the company and reverse years of decline in Coke’s market share.  By the early 1980s, Pepsi had become the best-selling soft drink among young Americans and Coke found itself suddenly in the unfamiliar position of not comfortably dominating the soft drink market.

“Project Kansas” and Coke executives chose to compete with Pepsi by drastically changing what was arguably the world’s greatest brand.  Their huge mistake?  They failed to consider their customers and Coke drinkers’ loyalty to the “real thing.”  The outcry from Coca-Cola’s customers and its bottlers was immediate and “New Coke” turned into a marketing disaster amid public protests and boycotts.  At first, Coke executives considered slightly “tweaking” the formula of their new drink, to make it more similar to traditional Coke.  Cooler heads prevailed and, only 79 days after “New Coke’s” debut, the company reintroduced the old formula and started selling it as “Coca-Cola Classic.”  It was the most spectacular about-face in American corporate history, bigger than Ford turning its back on the Edsel.  My old boss, Peter Jennings, interrupted regular programming on ABC to report the breaking news.  On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Democratic Senator David Pryor of Arkansas called Coke’s reversal a “meaningful moment in the history of America.”  Trust me, I’m not making this up.

It was certainly a meaningful moment in Coca-Cola’s history.  The company’s sales numbers soared, “New Coke” soon disappeared and “Coca-Cola Classic” went back to being plain “Coca-Cola.”  Within a few years, Pepsi became an also-ran in the soft drink wars, and today, both Coke and Diet Coke outsell Pepsi.

The parallels between “New Coke” and the USTA’s 2014 changes to the junior competitive schedule are pretty obvious.  Well-intentioned USTA executives launched the effort, trying to find a new “formula” to develop American champions and reverse years of decline in US tennis fortunes on the world stage.  The USTA’s effort may not have had a code name, but the process was long, a lot of hard work was involved, and it was secret.  Like Coca-Cola, the USTA didn’t fully consider the reaction of its customers and faces a huge public outcry.  As Coca-Cola executives did at first, USTA officials are considering just “tweaking” their new “formula,” instead of fully reconsidering their decision.  The big question, of course, is whether USTA officials will learn from the past, acknowledge the overwhelming opposition to their new “formula,” have the courage to stand up to internal pressure and reverse course, starting a new process that will be more inclusive of its customers’ wishes.

The Things That Really Matter


The following was emailed to me by Tom Walker.  . .

Changes were passed by a small number of misguided bureaucrats to the National Junior Tournament schedule. Unchallenged these will go into effect in 2014. Developmental coaches predict that these measures will negatively diminish junior tennis. Why are we so enlightened? What do we understand that they do not? Today, I was reminded in the briefest of moments why reversing this course is so imperative. Please indulge me and read on….

I was out on a marathon training run. Dusk was bleak and the temperature was a bone chilling 18 degrees. My course skirted by the local university. Wearily on mile twelve I fought with myself whether to push and continue onward. It was at that moment a simple yet extraordinary event occurred. Passing me in the opposite direction were two young college athletes. On my approach… one of two fist bumped the other and then unexpectedly reached up to offer me their hand as we passed. The gesture was a clear act of admiration and encouragement between athletes. It did not matter that I was easily 25 years their senior, nor that they did not know me. In that moment we shared a common bond. As our hands slapped in passing, I marveled at the unplanned and uplifting nature of this gesture. As the next six miles flew by I vividly recalled all the junior events I had coached at over the years. The lessons learned by so many athletes over time were once again brought into the sharpest of focus.

Magic or inspirational moments occur in the blink of an eye. As a son of a teacher I grew to understanding this. Such things are unscripted. Regrettably, those that seek to change our current tennis system fail to understand this. Their actions will reduce the environment that these moments live within. If more developmental coaches had been part of the process a different direction would have been pursued.

Youth tournaments are not really about who won and who lost. They are instead opportunities for players, coaches and parents to spend time learning and growing from each other. Competition of course …but also to lift one another beyond what the individual is singularly capable of. Whether on the courts, or simply spending time together the ability to inspire or learn is ever present. The size and level of the event increases the number of players who these gifts are bestowed upon.

Our decision makers are disturbingly unaware of these occurrences. They are neither teachers nor developers. The desire to share a common interest or bond is unmistakably the same force that drives millions of people each year to attend conventions. The powers that be have forgotten this. So has the national coach that bemoans an extra day away. Each no longer sees extra matches or obtainable goals as instruments of inspiration. Rather, they view them as a waste of time and money. Such is a selfish and narcissistic attitude and not a value I teach my athletes. Such attitudes have the power to destroy USA junior tennis. It is incumbent upon us to always extend a hand up. Players must be taught to appreciate assistance by freely willing to offer it.

Those that voted on these changes simply did not understand sharing and transmittal of hopes and dreams. The misguided desire to reduce these occurrences destroys the light and joy of youth involved in tennis. Why is it so hard to find the real value the players receive from these gatherings? Doesn’t the bureaucrat enjoy their time together at the US Open? Yes, unfortunately there is a financial cost in all things. While not everyone can afford each and every national junior tennis tournament, our goal must still be to allow as many as possible to share these wonderful moments…eliminating them serves no one.

In closing, I submit that we use the remaining time this year to develop and revamp the junior system. The 2014 changes should never be implemented! They were put together with a faulty premise by a group that was not representative of the junior tennis community. Simply putting events back will not fix the overall problems. Please contact your tennis representatives to demand that a new council is formed to undertake these issues correctly and together.

Tom Walker
Kalamazoo, Michigan

I Dream of Genie

Since my home-base of Atlanta is the next stop on the USTA Listening Meeting Tour this coming Sunday, I figured I’d better brush up on my junior competition history.  Who better to contact than veteran junior tournament director, Robert Sasseville?  You’ll recognize his name as one of the folks who met with USTA in Chicago in the Fall to discuss pushing the pause button on the 2014 junior comp changes.  Robert has been around the junior tennis world for several decades and is always very gracious about sharing his knowledge and experience.  Here is what I learned from Robert (the info below is a reprint of a document that Robert composed and emailed to me last week) . . .

The year was 1862 and the American Civil War had just begun.  Abraham Lincoln was desperately trying to keep Britain and France from recognizing the Confederate States as an independent nation.  France was concerned that the closed southern ports would cut off the supply of cotton to their booming textile industry.

In those days “King Cotton” was used in reference to the southern states.

Today, while cotton t-shirts are still a staple souvenir item at tournaments, synthetic moisture management fabrics have taken over the performance apparel industry.  Just look at any sports apparel catalog.  Aside from Under Armour’s Charged Cotton (moisture management cotton), it’s hard to find a cotton item other than t-shirts or an occasional sock.

However, unless it is determined that polyester is carcinogenic, the days of “Cotton is King” are gone.

It’s virtually impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

The world, as we know it, has changed radically in the past 30-40 years.

The completion of the Interstate Highway system, first envisioned by President Dwight Eisenhower as escape routes from major population centers in case of nuclear attack, made cross-country automobile travel possible, and actually desired.

Air travel, once available only to businessmen and people of means, has become affordable and a travel option available to everyday citizens.  The days of business suits and five-course in-flight meals have given way to tennis shoes, t-shirts, and pretzels.

Since 1975 the numbers of domestic flights have increased four-fold, while the average cost adjusted for inflation has dropped.

Air travel is the “new” mass transit.

It’s virtually impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Thirty years ago Nationally titled play was  limited to the 4 National Championships.  The Easter Bowl was a fifth event that had the prestige of a National Championship without the restrictions imposed on national events by USTA.

The reason that there were only 4 Nationally titled events (Indoors, Clay Courts, Hard Courts, and The Nationals) was that there were no limits on results that could be counted for National ranking.  Any USTA sanctioned tournament match, regardless of location, could be submitted as part of a player’s record.  There was a National circuit which included major open events like the Florida Open, Midwest Open, Texas Open, etc., but since all matches counted for National ranking, there was no need to designate them as “national”.

For many, many years “ranking” had been an examination and evaluation of a year’s tournament results.  It was a manual project that basically compared a player’s results with those of a like age group and then ordered the players based on the players’ overall records.

Then along came the computer and its obvious superiority for handling massive amounts of data and comparing results in a purely clinical setting, free of human biases.

Programs were written and protocols adopted by USTA and its various sections to move rankings away from the “year-end” ranking committee concept to the computer-generated ranking model.

One major problem arose:  as the USTA moved to computer-generated rankings, it became obvious that capturing all tournament results for inclusion in rankings was a Herculean task for the Junior Competition staff, so what could be done?

Junior Competition decided that there needed to be hierarchy of tournaments, and only results from events near the top of the food chain should be included in “National” rankings.

USTA National Levels were born.

As time passed the number of events that met National Level 3, 4, 5 criteria increased.  This prompted Junior Competition to limit each section, regardless of its size, to 4 level 4 events and 8 level 5 events.

It’s virtually impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Until the expansion of National Championship draws to 192 and the implementation of the Optimum Schedule with multiple pathways to be admitted to USTA National Championships, one’s National ranking was a point of pride, as well as a vehicle to get on a manufacturer’s “free list” for equipment, footwear, and maybe even apparel.  Player selection for National Championships was based solely on the ordered sectional endorsement lists.  Once the 100 quota spots were filled, the 28 remaining spots had to be filled by players in the order in which they appeared on each section’s list.   National ranking was of no consequence for selection purposes.

Then the Optimum Schedule was implemented in the late 1990’s.  Rankings were transformed from being an evaluation report to being the heart and soul of the selection process for National Championships.   Approximately a quarter of the competitors were selected based on National ranking.  While some of those remaining vacancies selected by National ranking had to be sectionally endorsed, the top 16-40 players plus the 24 National Open qualifiers did not require sectional endorsement.

National Ranking now had a value. 

For the top players, it was a way to bypass sectional play.  For “beyond quota” players in strong sections, it was a way to ensure that they would be selected as “remaining vacancies”.

It’s virtually impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Now that National play had a value, the demand for “national” events rose, and then one more concept appeared that increased the demand exponentially.

The introduction and implementation of a Points Per Round Ranking System opened the flood gates…..  And that’s exactly what was envisioned and desired by its creators.

The STAR ranking system had some quirks.  Although mistakenly, the fear of taking a “bad loss” encouraged players to avoid play once they felt that they had secured their ranking.  The PPR system was simple, but more than that, there would be no penalty for losing.  Only winning generated reward, so the system encouraged more match play.

And more match play they got.

PPR rankings took the place of STAR head-to-head rankings.  Since rankings were used for admittance, and subsequently seeding as well, it became important for players to acquire as many points as they could and the points chase began.

While there currently seems to be negative focus on the “chase”, the “chase” only bears fruit if the player “wins” once he gets on the court.

As George Orwell said at the end of Animal Farm, “… some animals are more equal than others.”  The USTA has now decided that some play is more desirable than other play,  that play at some locations is better than play at other locations, and that the USTA via wild cards and special events has the responsibility to declare which players are more equal than others.

While the Town Hall listening tour may, or may not, attract every tennis family in the U.S., those that it has attracted have made it abundantly clear . . .

It’s virtually impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

3rd Listening Meeting at ITA Coaches Convention

ITA Coaches Convention handout

The link above is to the handout given to attendees at yesterday’s “listening” meeting at the ITA Coaches Convention in Naples, Florida.  The pages are reversed – my apologies for not being able to figure out how to edit them in Adobe – so be sure to scroll to Page 2 for the details.  NOTE: Lew Brewer just emailed me a cleaner version of the handout which I’ve linked to above.

The meeting was led by outgoing USTA president, Jon Vegosen, and incoming USTA staff liaison to the Junior Competition Committee, Bill Mountford.  Lew Brewer was also in attendance.  For more information on the meeting, please see today’s ZooTennis post by clicking here – Colette was there and gives a very thorough analysis.

One thing I still don’t understand is how USTA can say one of the goals of these 2014 changes is to push competition back into the sections while it makes NO PROVISIONS for the sections to add tournaments to their schedules.  Can someone at USTA please explain that one to me?  It’s a question I plan to ask at the “listening” meeting in Atlanta next month.

I urge everyone to attend one of the remaining “listening” meetings and/or to email LetUsKnow@usta.com with your thoughts regarding the 2014 Junior Competition changes.  If you need a refresher on the exact changes, please click on the 2014 Jr Comp Info tab above.

Quota Insanity

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More unintended consequences?  Thank you to Antonio Mora, Emmy-winning journalist and tennis parent, for sharing the following information with all of us:

In the boys’ 14s of the upcoming Winter Nationals, the boy ranked 211 in the country on the day entries closed, did not make the cut. But the player ranked 955 (!!!!) was selected, even though almost 90 higher-ranked players were excluded. In the girls’ 18s, the player ranked 333 didn’t get in, but #965 did. In the boys’ 16s, the player ranked 204 didn’t make the cut, but #442 did. Boys 18s, 288 out, 713 in. Girls’ 16s, 250 is out, 731 in.

How does this happen? Kids who aren’t highly ranked managed to squeeze in under their section’s quota. Under current rules, only sixty kids out of the 128 are accepted through quotas, but it still creates the huge injustice described above. Imagine what will happen if the 2014 changes go into effect and 112 kids are selected through sectional quotas. It will mean the USTA is doubling down, dramatically increasing the importance of the quotas that are creating the injustice, and extending the injustice beyond supernationals to regional tournaments as well. (The impact of the future doubling of the quotas will be very mildly softened by a strength component that’s being added into the quota calculations in 2014.)

Another irony is that the USTA is eliminating Winter Nationals in 2014. One of the arguments given to support that decision is that very-low-ranked kids are getting into the tournament. Talk about circular logic: the USTA creates the quotas that lead to low-ranked kids getting into a tournament, and then they kill the tournament because the low-ranked kids got in!

Having a minimal quota per section (two players) is understandable so all sections are represented. But why, if the USTA is truthful in saying that the 2014 changes are focused on “earned advancement” and on “the best playing the best,” would they take a clearly flawed quota system and make it worse in 2014?

Full disclosure: a few of the kids who weren’t initially selected will get in this year’s tournament if the USTA doesn’t give out all eight of its wild cards or as selected kids drop out. Also, my son didn’t make the first cut even though he would have done so comfortably if quotas and wild cards didn’t exist.

It’s Lisa again.  If you agree that USTA needs to re-think the 2014 changes to the junior competition schedule, please take the survey on the right side of this page, plan to attend one of the remaining listening meetings, and/or email your concerns to Letusknow@usta.com.  For a complete list of articles relating to the changes, click the 2014 Jr Comp Info tab above.

And, if you’re interested in an alternative, click here to see what TennisRecruiting.net is offering in 2013 – a National Showcase Series of tournaments that are open to any US resident and will count toward a player’s Tennis Recruiting rating (though will only count toward his/her USTA ranking if the player competes within his/her own section or district).  It’s a great start!

My Sit-Down with USTA’s Bill Mountford

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Earlier this week, I received an email from Bill Mountford, currently USTA’s Market Development Specialist and one of the guys present at the 2nd listening meeting in Rocky Hill, CT.  He was coming to town for the USPTA’s 10-and-under coaching workshop and wanted to meet me.  He said he had no proposed agenda for this meeting but simply wanted to sit down and chat.  I figured it would be a great opportunity to ask him some very pointed questions about the 2014 junior comp changes and where things were heading.  I was right.

The main point that came out of our 2 1/2+ hour conversation is that many of the parents and coaches who came to the first two listening meetings seemed either uninformed or confused over exactly what the 2014 junior competition changes entail.  Some came into the meetings not even knowing that these changes had been proposed and approved.  So, those of us who ARE familiar with the changes need to do a much better job of talking to our fellow tennis parents and coaches about exactly what the changes are and how they will impact our junior players.  To that end, I am working with a group to put together a one-sheeter that very clearly lays out the changes along with their intended and unintended consequences.  Once that document is ready for public consumption, I will post it here in hopes that all of you reading my blog will share it early and often!

Another major point is the need for those attending the listening meetings to understand the purpose of the listening meetings.  According to Bill, the meetings are not designed as Q&A sessions where parents and coaches ask questions and USTA folks give answers defending the changes. They are designed as an opportunity for the stakeholders in junior tennis – players, parents, and coaches – to tell USTA exactly what works and what doesn’t work in the 2014 schedule and to give specific personal examples as evidence.  For example, regarding the elimination of Winter Nationals in December, perhaps you could tell USTA that because of your child’s school schedule and obligations, traveling to national events during the school year is not an option for you.  But, Winter Nationals is the one national tournament your child is able to play (not counting the summer tourneys) because she is on break from school.  It is her opportunity to gauge how her hard work on and off the courts during the Fall is paying off.  By eliminating that event, USTA is making it so she will only have the Summer national events to play IF the new quota system even allows her a spot in the shrunken draws.

Bill asked me to remind you that if you are unable to attend one of the listening meetings, USTA has set up an email address, Letusknow@usta.com, for you to voice your concerns.  He assured me that he is personally reading every single email that comes in and has even called several folks for clarification on their messages.  Your email won’t fall on deaf ears.  Please take the time to write, keeping in mind the need to be very specific and to include personal stories to underline your concerns. Refer to USTA’s document outlining the changes (the link is at the end of this post) in your email so Bill knows that you’ve read the changes and understand them.

Toward the end of our time together, I asked Bill what the status is, moving forward, on the 2014 changes.  He told me that the USTA Board will be voting in December (probably this weekend) on the pause put forth by the current Junior Comp Committee relative to the 2013 national junior tournament schedule – to change the draw sizes for the Boys’ and Girls’ 18s & 16s USTA National Clay Courts and the USTA National Championships (hard courts) from 128 to 192, reversing the reduction in draw size previously approved by the USTA Executive Committee on March 19, 2012.  Basically, votes will be counted concerning the short-term pause that was agreed upon at the October meeting in Chicago with Steve Bellamy, Antonio Mora, Robert Sasseville, Sean Hannity, and Kevin Kempin. Bill went on to say that at the Annual Meeting in March 2013, USTA leadership will likely review any proposed refinements/changes to the approved 2014 national junior tournament schedule and any feedback from the listening sessions, after which a vote will be taken on how to proceed in 2014;  mid- or long-term changes to the 2014 schedule could be voted upon at that time.

You may wonder why USTA is continuing to hold listening meetings even after the December vote takes place.  It’s because USTA needs to hear from all of us about what tweaks and refinements we want to see to the already-approved changes to the 2014 schedule before its Annual Meeting in March.

Shortly after our meeting, I received a follow-up email from Bill that included the names and affiliations of the members of the 2013-14 Junior Competition & Sportsmanship Committee – included on that list are Steve Bellamy and Kevin Kempin, among others (see complete list below).  Please look carefully at the names and make note of any members from your Section. Reach out to them and express your concerns.  It is crucial that they hear from you now so they can go into the new year and their first meetings understanding the level of discontent with the 2014 changes.

I want to publicly thank Bill for reaching out to me and being so candid.  I left our meeting feeling confident that USTA finally understands the need to communicate more effectively with its stakeholders and to be more transparent in its procedures.  In this age of social media, one misstep can lead to a PR nightmare, as it has with these 2014 changes.  Based on what Bill told me, I feel much better about where things are headed.  There are several members on the new committee who are parents and who understand what’s at stake here.  I trust they’ll do the right thing by our kids.

USTA 2013-2014 Junior Competition & Sportsmanship Committee Members

Committee ChairAndreaNormanNorthern California
CoordinatorMitchelAlpertMiddle States
CoordinatorEllenEhlersSouthern California
ED LiaisonMaryBuschmannMissouri Valley
MemberMarthaArizaCaribbean
MemberSteveBellamySouthern California
MemberMarkBeyMidwest
MemberKatyBickhamIntermountain
MemberScottBoyerNorthern
MemberSallyGrabhamSouthwest
MemberKarlGregorNew England
MemberCindyHarkinsFlorida
MemberRobertIngersoleEastern
MemberKevinKempinIntermountain
MemberChuckKrieseMid-Atlantic
MemberPaulMacDonaldMidwest
MemberRickMeyersTexas
MemberGinaPileggiMiddle States
MemberMarkRileyMidwest
MemberJeffRothsteinEastern
MemberRolandThornqvistFlorida
Vice ChairPeterLebedevsSouthern

USTA’s document on 2014 Jr Comp Changes

Unintended Consequences

When I first started blogging a little over a year ago, it was with the intention of sharing my son’s and my experiences in junior tennis with those coming up behind us.  I had been so frustrated trying to navigate the tournament structure and ranking structure that I figured maybe I could save others from going through that same frustration.

For the first few months, I wrote about our personal journey and the roadblocks we encountered.  Some of my posts generated feedback from readers, but, mostly, I was writing from the heart thinking it might be nice for my son to one day go back and read how his tennis truly impacted his mom.  Some of my posts were how-tos and were more fact-based than feeling-based, but overall I tried to keep it personal because I felt that would be the most useful to other tennis parents.

Now, one year three weeks and five days after my first post, I find myself embroiled in a heated debate over the USTA’s changes to the 2014 junior competition schedule.  I’m getting emails and phone calls from people I had only read about or seen on tv.  I’m also getting emails and phone calls from people who are just like me . . . concerned parents looking out for their child’s best interests.  Some of the communication is very positive and encouraging, thanking me for speaking out and informing others, offering their experience in hopes of convincing USTA to put the changes on hold.  Some of the communication, though, is not so nice, filled with accusations and other negative words.

When I told one fellow tennis cohort about all the negative stuff and how it was impacting me, she said, “Get your armor on girl.  We are in a battle!”  That was never my intention.  I never wanted to engage in a fight.  I never wanted to see the soft underbelly of junior tennis.  I never wanted to get involved in the politics of junior tennis.  I never thought my little blog would be on USTA’s radar even.  But, I’ve now seen the little man behind the curtain, and I have learned a very valuable  lesson here (Tennis Life Lesson #387) – no matter how much thought you put into an action before you take it, there are bound to be unintended consequences.

I can’t help but think that USTA is learning the same Lesson #387 right now.  When it proposed the changes, I don’t think the USTA board or volunteers or staff had any idea they would generate this type of public outcry.  And, when the USTA Junior Competition Committee created the changes, I don’t think the members thought through the unintended consequences of reducing opportunities for our kids.  I don’t think they considered that many kids choose to learn the game of tennis because they want a chance to compete at the highest levels against their most accomplished peers.  I don’t think they considered that they shouldn’t cut national opportunities without putting policies into place to ensure that the sections would pick up the slack.  I don’t think they considered that eliminating a 128-draw event held when most kids are on Winter Break and replacing it with two 32-draw team events would leave out half, HALF!, of the juniors who want to play while they’re out of school.

Those are just a few of the outcomes of these changes.  There are more.  My hope is that USTA will do the right thing by its members, its constituents, us, and go back to the drawing board to see how the committee can make junior tennis more inclusive, not less.  More accessible, not less.  More transparent, not less.

If incoming president, Dave Haggerty, and his Board and his Junior Competition Committee (and affiliated staff) will commit to keep that pause button pushed until they can fully evaluate the unintended consequences of these changes, I think two very major intended consequences will emerge – growth in junior participation and growth in member trust and satisfaction.  Please, USTA, do the right thing here – the future of our sport depends on you.