The Future of Junior Tournament Tennis in America

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Image provided by USTA

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.

The Good Ol’ Days

Photo courtesy of www.fashion-era.com
Photo courtesy of www.fashion-era.com

 

We don’t have to go quite as far back as the image above to find the glory days of junior tennis in this country, but with all the mess surrounding the upcoming national clay and hard court tournament selections, it’s worth taking a look in the rearview mirror as a reminder of how things used to be only a few years ago. I believe we can restore the high quality – and, yes, FUN – of junior tennis in the US, but it’s going to take some major re-thinking and additional work on the part of our national governing body (USTA) as well as the other organizations connected to US tennis development (ITA for one). A great place to start would be to include parents of current junior and college players in the discussion and planning process.

Tournament director and tennis historian Robert Sasseville wrote a very thorough history for ParentingAces of our junior competitive system. You can click here to read the whole piece. Robert also posted the following [excerpted] Comment (it’s Comment #49 for those who want to read it in its entirety) on the Clay Courts Confusion article:

In the early 80′s all players to National Championships had to be endorsed by their home section, or they didn’t play. There were no Wild Cards. Players who failed to be endorsed, whether by choice or otherwise, such as injury, had no recourse but to wait until next year.

National Championship sectional quotas totaled 100. The final 28 players were selected from the remaining sectionally endorsed players, based on player record. The one provision was that each section’s ordered endorsement list was sacred and could not be altered. In other words, the remaining players had to be taken in the order in which they appeared on the sections’ endorsement list. That meant that if alternate #2 deserved to be admitted, but #1 did not, the tournament had to decide if it was better to take an undeserving player (alt #1) to admit a deserving one (alt #2), or just go to another section and not select anyone from that section. At least the tournament got to do the best it could to get the top 100 players in a draw of 128.

Only a head-to-head ranking system, like TRN’s, can give an accurate assessment of a player’s relative merit compared to others. Until such a ranking system is implemented, it is incumbent upon the USTA to offer LARGER draws, not smaller, and offer MORE opportunities, not fewer, to make sure that “the best” actually do get to play “the best”, even if that occurs one or two rounds later in the tournament.

It’s very interesting to look around the world and see how others are doing things in the junior tennis arena. Tennis Europe (click here to go to its website), the umbrella organization for pan-European junior tennis, for example, has set up an incredible system of 300+ competitive events (compare this to the 10 or so national events per age group we have in the US) in over 100 countries for 3 age divisions: U12, U14, and U16. The idea for the oldest age group of juniors (U18) is that they’ll graduate from Tennis Europe events into the junior or pro ITF circuit, a natural progression in the development process for those who are ready. Every tournament has a qualifying draw, consolation draw, and some hospitality is provided at each event. As Geoff Grant reminded me, Europe has roughly twice the population of the US and tennis is a more popular sport, but they are running 20 times the number of national events and they are running them well. With 90% of the world’s top players coming from their system, maybe we should take note. Tennis Europe is not hung up on points chasers, but they are obsessive about providing opportunity to junior tennis players.

The key, in my opinion, to creating future US champions AND growing the game in this country is ensuring a quality junior competition structure while preserving the integrity of the college tennis system and making it a viable goal in and of itself as well as a pathway to the professional circuit. There are many blueprints from which our governing body can borrow if they are in fact committed to doing what’s best for the players and what’s best for the game.

 

More Slashing of Opportunities

slashing swordIn case you haven’t heard (!), USTA changed the national junior competition schedule, effective January 1, 2014.  A big reason for the change, according to USTA, is to drive competition back to the sections instead of having so many big national tournaments requiring travel all over the country.

Those opposed to the changes, including Yours Truly, kept asking USTA what it was doing to ensure the sections would step up and fill in the gaps.  We never got a clear answer.

And, now, that which we feared – that sections would not take on that task but would actually slash competitive opportunities instead – has come to fruition.

I found out this week that the Southern California section is taking a big step in that direction (click here to read the information posted on its website which includes a link to a Comment form where you can share your opinion before the plan is finalized).  Traditionally, all SoCal “designated” tournaments (comparable to our Bullfrogs in the Southern section) have had open draws.  That is, any player who signed up got to play.  And many of the age groups wound up with 128 or 256 draws played over two consecutive weekends.  However, beginning January 1, 2014, Southern Cal will limit its designated draws to either 96 or 64 players (I’m still not clear on how they’ll make that decision for each event), in essence eliminating the opportunity to compete at that level for hundreds of juniors.

The reasons SCTA gives for the reduction in draw size have to do with weather delays (it rains, on average, 16 days a year in Southern California), lack of enough large facilities, and difficulty in completing the large draws over two weekends – all valid reasons. However, the fact that these reductions come at the very same time as the reduction in national play opportunities under the 2014 changes seems short-sighted.  Isn’t this the time that sections should be increasing opportunities to compensate for what’s happening at the national level?

Interesting to note is the fact that a member of the 2013-2014 National Junior Competition & Sportsmanship Committee (the one responsible for passing the new 2014 national schedule) also chairs the committee in the SoCal section responsible for these designated tournament draw reductions.  She obviously understands that the sections are supposed to be picking up the slack left by the national reductions; however, instead of making sure her section added competitive opportunities for its players, she pushed through this major slashing of opportunities in her own backyard.  I just don’t get it!

To put things in perspective, at this year’s Southern California Anaheim Designated, 166 boys and 105 girls would not have gotten to play if the SCTA had limited the tournament to a 64 draw.  And the Boys 16s are going to be hit the hardest since that is typically the group with the largest number of players. The 16s is usually the first age group where college coaches are watching players to scout out future recruits. What will these reductions do to the chances for the kids “on the bubble” in terms of being seen by these coaches?

Let’s also consider the issue of players who are trying to prepare for aging up to the next division.  I’ve been told that the SoCal section is trying to figure out how to accommodate juniors who are in that situation, but, for now, there is nothing on the SCTA website to indicate there will be spots in the draws for these players.  I hope that changes before the smaller draws take effect.

“If You Don’t Like Us, Find A Way To Get Rid Of Us!”

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“If you don’t like us, find a way to get rid of us!”  That was Patrick McEnroe’s response to a parent’s question regarding the 2014 Junior Competition Changes at last summer’s Girls 12 Nationals in Atlanta, and it was really the beginning of my extensive coverage of the new calendar that USTA was planning to implement beginning January 1, 2014.

Now that the calendar changes have been finalized and approved at the National Board level, I figured I should do a sort-of recap of the process around the changes and how they came to be . . .

  • Some time in 2011: Jon Vegosen, then president of USTA, charged his Junior Competition Committee (JCC) to devise a new national tournament schedule.  Please note that the JCC was chaired by Tim Russell, a former tennis parent who was currently a music professor at Arizona State University, and his assistant chair was Andrea Norman who had very limited experience with junior tennis.  The JCC created the new calendar, some of which was to go into effect January 1, 2013, and some of which was to go into effect January 1, 2014Tom Walker found out about the changes and organized several meetings as well as wrote several opinion pieces that were published on various websites.  The news spread at junior tournaments, and parents were terrified that the rumors were true – who in their right mind would want these changes, especially after investing years and thousands of dollars in a system only to have it changed mid-stream and, for some, right when their children were trying to get into college?  Harsh warnings were issued to people within USTA to keep all information about the changes under wraps until after the March vote.  A woman in the Midwest Section was purportedly fired because she was stirring the pot about the changes.  Sean Hannity published an op-ed on his website that was seen by millions of his readers; he offered personally to fund a survey of the USTA membership to gauge support of or opposition to the changes.  Tim Russell responded to Mr. Hannity’s article with a 17-page memorandum [Note: the link to the memo that was posted on USTA’s website seems to have been deleted] that was hung on tennis club bulletin boards all across the country.
  • March 2012: At the USTA Annual Meeting, the 17 USTA sections approved the new Junior Competition Calendar with a vote of 16-1.  The Southern Section was the only one opposed.
  • Late Summer 2012:  Patrick McEnroe and other USTA staff members traveled to the various National Championships across the US to “hold court” with parents and coaches on the new calendar. These meetings were basically a disaster for USTA and really got parents riled up anew over the changes.  USTA’s stated goals of saving families money and reducing missed school days were proven to be completely bogus – the new system is going to be far more expensive for most families.  And, the new system pretty much guarantees the need to homeschool in order to play at the national level.  Immediately following this “tour,” an online petition was launched by a tennis parent to oppose the changes, and it eventually garnered close to 1000 signatures.
  • September 2012: After getting bombarded at tournaments by parents and players who were against the changes, Sean Hannity (national talk show host with 2 nationally-ranked children), Steve Bellamy (founder of The Tennis Channel with 4 nationally-ranked children), Robert Sasseville (one of the US’s longest-working tournament directors), Kevin Kempin (CEO of Head with 3 nationally-ranked children), and Antonio Mora (broadcast journalist with 1 nationally-ranked child) met with USTA leadership in Northern California and then again in Chicago to discuss their concerns about the calendar changes.  The “Fab Five” were able to get the leadership to agree to a pause for 2013 as well as to hold a “listening tour” across the country with parents and coaches.
  • November 2012:  The “listening tour” kicked off in Reston, VA.  Turnout was extremely low due to the late notice of the meeting.  The meetings clearly demonstrated that virtually no one who was part of the junior tennis world and who understood the changes were in favor them.  With little to no publicity, USTA announced the creation of the LetUsKnow@usta.com email address for folks who were unable to attend one of the “listening meetings” to express their feelings about the changes.  I published the first of many controversial blog posts on the changes, and ParentingAces’ readership began to increase dramatically.  USTA began issuing public statements regarding the changes via its website which were emailed to various media outlets including ParentingAces.  By now, every conversation at every tournament was focused around whether the pause for 2013 was going to be sustainable or whether USTA would forge ahead with the changes in 2014.  College coaches expressed concern about having the ability to see players outside the very top of the rankings.  Tennis pros and facilities were concerned about losing business as parents and players spoke of abandoning the game altogether. One parent went so far as to say, “We just spent nearly $400 thousand on our daughter’s tennis over 5 years, and right as she is about ready to be in a position to be seen by coaches, she won’t be able to play in any of the tournaments where coaches go.”
  • December 2012:  Robert Sasseville created two spreadsheets comparing the tournament opportunities under the pre-2012, current, and proposed calendars which I published on this blog.  That post garnered many comments, some of which were posted under aliases that were USTA volunteers and/or staff members.  The USTA PR machine went to work again, getting an article published on The Examiner about the changes and the listening tour.  Former professional player and current junior coach, Johan Kriek, spoke out against the changes in an interview on TennisNow.com.  The 2013-2014 JCC members were announced – Steve Bellamy and Kevin Kempin were among the new members.  TennisRecruiting.net announced its National Showcase Series of tournaments as an alternative to limited national play under the new USTA calendar.
  • January 2013:  The “listening tour” continued, and I had the opportunity to attend the one in Atlanta.  Tom Walker created a Facebook page to oppose the changes, which quickly gained over 3500 members.  As a point of comparison, USTA’s Junior Comp Facebook page had only 170 members after a full year.
  • February 2013:  The “listening tour” concluded in Grapevine, TX.  I had several phone and email exchanges with Bill Mountford who encouraged me to remain hopeful.  I worked with several other tennis parents and coaches to mount a campaign to contact local USTA leaders and board members in hopes of convincing them to vote down the changes at the March 2013 Annual Meeting.  At the Scottsdale listening meeting, USTA President Dave Haggerty acknowledged that about 90% of the tennis community was opposed to these changes.
  • March 2013:  Lew Brewer informed me that the JCC made some amendments to the junior comp changes at its committee meeting.  At the 2013 USTA Annual Meeting, those changes were approved but still needed Board approval.  Rumors started circulating that Jon Vegosen had made a deal with Dave Haggerty prior to his taking office as President that if any changes were going to be made, Dave had to insure that they didn’t scrap the entire plan and start from scratch with the calendar.
  • April 2013:  The USTA Board approved the modified junior competition calendar to go into effect January 1, 2014.

So, to summarize, here’s where we stand . . . we have a national junior competition schedule that:

1.  Was created by a music professor who didn’t spend any substantive time at junior tournaments and who was subsequently removed from his position;

2.  Was adjusted by Player Development which was then promptly removed from the process;

3.  Was passed by a Junior Competition Committee with only one active junior tennis parent out of the 20 members, and that one active parent was opposed to the schedule.  It is interesting to note that half of the 2011-2012 JCC members were removed when Dave Haggerty took office in 2013;

4.  Was passed by a Board comprised of voters, many of whom admitted after the fact that they were pressured to vote for it and that they really didn’t understand the implications of the changes at all.  Then, the changes were exposed to a 9-city “listening tour” after which USTA executives were told by Dave Haggerty’s own admission that over 90% of the tennis community were opposed to them;

5.  Was then put into the hands of a new Junior Comp Committee with only 2 parents (out of the 20 members) with kids currently competing at the national level, both of whom pushed heavily for a pause.  Please note that it was this new Committee which added back some of the competition opportunities in March 2013;

6.  Was pushed through via the most non-transparent process USTA could’ve possibly utilized.

Never once was the membership polled or asked for its opinion in a meaningful way.  Geoff Grant, a fellow tennis parent, offered to fund a study or any type of mechanism in order to “get it right” – USTA did not take him up on his offer.  And, even though the listening tour comments, Facebook posts, and (admitted by President Dave Haggerty, himself) the majority of consumers were against them, the changes with some opportunity added back were passed.

So, I have to ask USTA one more time:  If the overwhelming majority of your customers, the overwhelming majority of tennis pros, all industry dignitaries who have spoken out (Robert Landsdorp, Wayne Bryan, Jack Sharpe, among others), the brands themselves (Head, Inc. published a letter on its website, and Athletic DNA provided the video footage posted on the USTA-Stop 2014 National Junior Tennis Tournament Changes Facebook page), the college coaches who have commented – with all of the opposition, why would you go forward with these changes?

The only group of people who are in favor of them are the USTA folks themselves, most of whom are NOT parents of current national junior players.

The US tennis community has spoken.  We do not want any of these changes.  We want the 2010 system back in place.  We want experts – not volunteers – to make these decisions on behalf of our junior players, and we want them to make the decisions via a transparent process.

New Rules in GA for U10s & U12s

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Why, you might ask, is there a French magazine cover pictured at the top of this post?  Well, 2 reasons . . . first of all, because I want everyone to notice that it features French pro, Richard Gasquet, at the age of 9, playing tennis using a yellow ball.  Second of all, because in just a few weeks I’ll be at Roland Garros watching a couple of days of phenomenal tennis at the French Open and am pretty darn excited!  (P.S. Anyone who wants to hook me up with courtside seats, you know how to reach me!)

Some of you may have gotten wind of the changes happening across the country with 10-and-under tennis and the mandated use of the ROG balls in tournament play.  What you may not know is that ROG is now infiltrating the 12s, too.

The state of Georgia implemented a new competition structure for the 12-and-under crowd this year, and more changes are coming in 2014.  I spent some time on the phone with Rick Davison, USTA Georgia’s Director of Junior & Adult Competition, to find out what’s new, what’s coming, and the reason behind the changes.

As of today, all Georgia sanctioned 10-and-under tournaments use an orange ball on a 60 foot court.  For the 12s, in local Georgia sanctioned tournament levels 4 and 5 only, players use the Stage 1 green ball on a full-size court; at the higher level local tournaments, the 12s use a yellow ball.

What does that mean?  It means that a child who is under the age of 13 who wants to compete in a local tournament on a full-size court with yellow balls must play in the 14-and-under age division.  So, if your child is 9 years old (or 10 or 11 or 12), practicing each day with a yellow ball on a regular court because you and the coach feel the child is ready, and wants to compete under those same conditions, you must put him or her in the 14s in order to play a local event.

Take a close look at this photo:

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The player on the left is my son, age 11, playing at a local Georgia tournament in the 12-and-under division.  The player on the right is his opponent, also age 11.  Please note the physical size difference between the 2 boys.  Now, imagine that, in order to play with regular balls on a regular court, my son had to play in the 14s . . . and my son was already 11 in this picture!  He would’ve gotten crushed!

I asked Rick why Georgia decided to implement these new rules for the 12s.  He told me that the talented 12-and-under players have historically always played up in the 14s anyway at the local events, so this change won’t impact them.  The target audience for this change is the 10-and-under player who is transitioning from the orange ball.  Georgia felt that it would make an easier transition for the players if they have a stint with the green ball on the way to the yellow ball.  So far, Rick says, the Georgia kids are transitioning well in the Southern section, and the level of play in the 12s is getting better.

One other change that happened in the 10s this year was the shift to 4-game sets.  Rick says that he was initially opposed to this change but quickly realized that the parents were in favor due to the much longer rallies with the orange balls – matches that were 2 out of 3 6-game sets were lasting much too long.

For 2014, Georgia is making some additional changes in terms of the match and tournament format.  For the 10-and-unders only, since matches are the best of 3 4-game sets, tournament fees will be reduced and tournaments will most likely be compressed into one-day events.  Rick acknowledged the fact that parents are unhappy about traveling to a tournament, having to spend money on a hotel and restaurant meals, for their child to play these short sets.  Georgia’s answer is to shorten the tournament for these young players so parents can avoid most of the travel expenses.

In case you were wondering, Georgia isn’t the only place seeing these types of changes.  Texas has been under an even more-complicated system for the last year with more changes going into effect this month (click here to read the new rules).  The NorCal section recently introduced its Junior Development Pathway illustrating the progression of a young player from the red to the orange to the green and, finally, to the yellow ball.  Please note that in both Texas and NorCal, progression from one level to the next is absolutely mandated by the section itself – a player may not jump to the appropriate level based on their own personal development but rather must go through each painstaking step in order to move to the yellow ball in competition.  I’ve recently heard that the Midwest section is looking to adopt similar mandates for its 10s and 12s, too.  To hear more about what’s going on around the US, listen to the podcast of my radio show with Lawrence Roddick and others by clicking on this link: ParentingAces Radio Show

If your child is ready to move on, developmentally-speaking, be assured that alternative opportunities are popping up across the country.  Take a look at the events I have listed on our 10-and-Under Tourneys page above – I will continue to add to the list as more events are created so please check back regularly for updates.

I also want to direct you to the complaint that Ray Brown filed with the US Olympic Committee regarding the 10-and-under initiative.  You can click here to read the complaint and all subsequent responses on Ray’s website.

And for those who missed my recent Facebook post/Tweet, proof positive that kids younger than 13 can train and play with a yellow ball:

Pete Sampras Age 10

 

Tweet

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.

Notes From 9th and Final Listening Meeting in Texas

USTA Folks in Attendance:
  • Bill Mountford
  • Dave Haggerty
  • Lew Brewer, though he arrived a bit late and stayed mostly at the back of the room.

The following information is a conglomeration of several emails that I received after the meeting. If you were there and have something to add, please do so in the Comments below.

Sadly, attendance was rather small, but those in attendance seemed to be fully aware of the changes and were fully engaged in the discussion.

The initial issue that came up was in regards to why the USTA is reducing the number of national tournaments. The conversation started with traditional schooling and the desire to try and reduce the number of days players will miss. A few of the parents voiced their disagreement with the USTA focusing so much on this. These parents felt it was not as big of a deal as the USTA was making it – and that it should be the parents’ responsibility to manage this, not the USTA. Several USTA people disagreed and backed the new rule changes.

The conversation then turned to the draw sizes. It felt like quite a bit of the conversation revolved around this topic. A few of the parents focused on the decrease in opportunities for kids that don’t fall into the 32/64/128 draw sizes. There was a concern for the kids that will just miss the cut or would have otherwise been able to make it into a national tournament. Even if they weren’t the “high quality” players, the experience could be enough to motivate and incentivize these players to work harder and grow their game. In addition, a few parents mentioned that the kids that aren’t among the top 128 could potentially have fewer chances to be seen by college coaches. The USTA response was that these coaches would see them at the regional tournaments (of which the parents were skeptical). The USTA and coaches tried to focus the discussion on the quality of the draw for the players, saying smaller draws will drive stronger competition.

Dave Haggerty once again brought up that USTA is discussing a 64 player draw qualifier for the national tournaments that are reducing from 192 to 128. The thinking is that this would give the lower ranked kids a chance to play for a berth in the main draw and keep similarly ranked kids playing together. Of interest was how the USTA would deal with the qualifier and wild card issue. Suggestions were made to have 0 wildcards from the USTA and also having 7 to 8 wildcards allocated to the USTA with 8-9 spots coming out of the qualifier.

I saw the following posted on the USTA-Stop 2014 National Junior Tennis Tournament Changes Facebook page: There are a number of people who think that the 128 draw is ample for Level 1 tournaments. What those people usually don’t understand is that entry into those draws are not on a child’s National ranking but on sectional quota’s. So technically a kid from the Caribbean could be ranked 1400 in the US and get in a 128 draw while a kid who is ranked 50 in Southern California would not get it. Usually when people find that out, they have a greater understanding of why the 192 is more fair to the stronger sections. Additionally, these events have become showcases. There are many colleges who recruit kids at that level and the change from 128 to 192 has caused a tremendous amount of introductions of college coaches to US kids. Countless US kids are playing college tennis because of the move to 192.

There was emphasis placed on 12 and unders – having 128 draws and including 12s in the team competition in the winter. Foreign scholarships were addressed, and the USTA folks indicated they are talking with other sports to address this issue as they feel that making this a tennis only issue would not work with the NCAA. It was reiterated that the USTA has no jurisdiction in regards to this issue.

One parent shared with me that, overall, it was a civil meeting, with no fireworks – they just didn’t have enough parents show up. That being said, the vibe (in his opinion) was that the USTA attendees in the audience have already made up their mind to back the changes. It was obvious in their body language in reaction to parent and coaches comments, as well as under-the-breath comments and side bar conversations.

Overall, those in attendance believe Bill and Dave were engaged. Whether that leads to committee action remains to be seen.