Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a very interesting session of USTA’s annual Tennis Development Workshop being held in Atlanta. The session was titled “The Future of Junior Tournament Tennis in America” and was led by Bill Mountford, USTA’s Director of Junior Tournaments. The format was more of a roundtable discussion with short breakout sessions between Bill’s presentation of information regarding the current state of the junior tournament landscape. About 50% of those in the room had run junior tournaments, so it was interesting to hear their take on things. Here are a few things that I noted during the 70-minute session . . .
- When Bill asked the current tournament directors (TDs) why they run tournaments, their answers included providing accessibility to tennis to their community, tournaments are a revenue-builder for the club, they have a passion for tennis and want to share it with others, they want to be the one controlling the quality of junior competition, filling a need in their community, providing a fun environment for juniors to enjoy tennis.
- When Bill asked the others in the room why they don’t run tournaments, their answers included it’s too time consuming, it’s cost-ineffective, and they don’t want to deal with the parents.
Next, Bill presented some statistics and the results of a survey that was sent to parents earlier this year. Here are some interesting points that came to light:
- In 2013 97,999 juniors played 1 tournament but the attrition rate was alarming. Out of those kids, 38% didn’t play another tournament that year, another 58% dropped out after 2 tournaments, yet another 64% dropped out after 4 tournaments, and 71% dropped out after 5 tournaments, leaving only 23,128 who played 6 or more tournaments that year. That same year, only 2068 US juniors played 20 or more tournaments.
- Of the 1.8 million kids who play tennis more than once per week, half are ages 11 and under and half are ages 12-18.
- In 2013, 2147 TDs ran at least one tournament that year.
- For 2014 YTD (January-October), we have 6.1% fewer juniors playing tournaments along with 1.3% fewer tournaments being held.
- From January-October 2013, there were a total of 22,313 tournaments held across all 17 USTA sections; in 2014, that number dropped to 22,021. Nine of the USTA sections had fewer tournaments in 2014 than 2013 while 8 sections had a higher number of tournaments.
- The only age group that showed in increase in the number of tournament oportunities was the U10 which increased 3.99% from 2013 to 2014. All other age groups saw a decrease in opportunity.
- In YTD 2014, we have 129,348 total junior tournament players. In that same period in 2013, we had 137.697 (a 6.1% decrease as stated above).
- The survey results showed that for those juniors who participated in only one tournament, the most important thing to them was to have fun, and the least important thing was the availability of ranking points.
- Not surprisingly, the TDs rated the quality of tournaments higher than the participants did.
- Survey results showed that for those juniors who play 12 or more tournaments a year, they found the tournament structure to be too confusing, and sportsmanship was rated as the worst aspect of their most recent tournament experience.
- Regarding officiating at junior tournaments, the survey showed availability of officials to be poor while the friendliness of the officials who are present was rated as high.
Bill then asked the room several questions and left each table to come up with answers/suggestions.
The first question was: “What do parents want from a junior tournament experience?” Answers included (1) well-organized events where the wellness of the child is the main priority; (2) Consistent officiating; (3) Good viewing areas; (4) Consistency in the pathway from section to section; and (5) TDs to use email to update participants on any changes.
The next question was: “What makes a great tournament?” Answers included (1) Communication from the start about sportsmanship expectations; (2) A back-up plan in case of bad weather; (3) Consistency in match scoring meaning that each round of the tournament uses the same scoring format; (4) Good communication from the TD to the participating families; (5) Good budgeting; (6) Affordability; (7) Educated officials; (8) Off-court activities for participants; (9) Food/refreshments available on site; (10) Timely updates to the tournament website; and (11) Timely updates to the online and on-site draws.
The third question was: “How do we recruit more TDs?” Answers included (1) Sell tournaments to prospective TDs as a money maker for their facility; (2) Sell tournaments to prospective TDs as great exposure for their facility; (3) Have the local USTA office (also known as a Community Tennis Association or CTA) incentivize TDs by underwriting some of the costs of running tournaments; (4) Empower assistant TDs to learn how to run tournaments efficiently; (5) Established a tiered structure of sanctioning fees wherein entry-level tournaments cost less to run than larger national events; and (6) Make the tournament software easier to use and clean up the glitches.
The final question was: “What should we do about ratings and rankings?” Overwhelmingly, the room felt that ratings-based play was the way to go, maybe combining 2 age groups together per rating range. One problem that was mentioned with this method, however, was the historical occurrence of “ducking” when a highly-ranked played didn’t want to face an equally- or higher-ranked opponent for fear of dropping in the rankings with a loss.
Luckily for me, I was sitting at the table with Andrew Walker who is the new manager of the USTA Officiating Department. He is in charge of officials from the most entry-level junior tournaments all the way up to the US Open. He assured me that the training for officials is being overhauled and improved though he wasn’t sure when that would take effect. I shared with him that ParentingAces readers overwhelmingly supported having more and better-trained officials at our kid’s events, and that our recent poll showed that parents are willing to pay a little more in fees to that end. I will be sending Andrew your comments and the poll results so he has a better feel of what’s needed in the junior tournament arena.
Overall, I was encouraged by what I heard in the room. I had a chance to speak privately with Bill Mountford for a few minutes after the session, and he assured me that USTA is taking a very close look at the junior competition and ranking structure. He wasn’t sure when the 2015 calendar would be completed and online, but you know I’ll post the link as soon as I have any further information.