When College Tennis Programs Are Cut

Image courtesy of www.starace.in
Image courtesy of www.starace.in

College tennis has been one of the things that sets the US apart on the international scene. We are the only country in the world that offers such an incredible opportunity to players once they have reached the end of their eligibility in the junior tennis realm. These young people can continue to develop their skills on the court while simultaneously developing their skills in the classroom, in many cases having that court and classroom time subsidized to at least some degree via athletic scholarship money. Many of the top professional players – admittedly, mostly on the men’s side of the game – credit their college playing experience with their success on tour, players like John McEnroe and his brother Patrick, Bob and Mike Bryan, James Blake, John Isner, and Stevie Johnson among others.

And it’s not just professional tennis that is positively impacted by the college version of the sport. Junior tennis is affected as well, maybe even more deeply. Imagine if college tennis scholarships weren’t there as a carrot to young players and their families. How many would continue to pursue the sport at a high level knowing that they may not have the skills or desire necessary to make it professionally and that their high-level competitive tennis experience would end after high school? Yes, there are Tennis On Campus programs around the country now, but in most cases they are more recreational in nature and cannot (and should not) take the place of tennis at the varsity level.

But we are seeing a very disturbing trend in the world of college tennis, one that needs to stop before there is no longer a such thing as NCAA tennis. According to a recent Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) study, “During the first decade of our research study (1970-1979), we have record of only 3 programs being dropped. In the next decade (1980-1989), the rate of elimination increased to 43 known programs dropped. In the next decade (1990-1999), the rate of program elimination tripled, with 137 known programs dropped. In the next decade (2000-2009) the U.S. Financial crisis played a role and increased the number of dropped programs to 204. In addition, more than 177 programs were dropped over two decades (1980- 2002), with precise years unknown. The trend of dropped programs, although continuing, appears to be slowing, with 40 programs known to have been dropped during the most recent decade.”

Granted, most of the cuts are happening at mid-major schools as opposed to Power 5 Conference members. Just in the last two weeks we’ve had news of two more universities (UMBC & Hartford) dropping both men’s and women’s tennis. Because these are smaller schools, they get little attention, but please understand that these are the programs where most of our juniors are going to wind up attending since the Power 5 schools mainly focus on Blue Chip and 5-star recruits.

We’ve all felt pretty helpless to do anything to stop the bleeding. Of course, the ITA has always encouraged those on its mailing list to send a form letter to university officials asking them to reconsider the cuts, but this form letter was innocuous at best, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know of a single case where the letter-writing campaign worked.

Thankfully, we now have new leadership at the ITA, one that has very strong roots in the college tennis world, and one that seems to be taking these latest program cuts personally. ITA COO, Erica Perkins Jasper:, whose previous position was Head Coach of the University of New Mexico Women’s Tennis Team, understands the impact these cuts can have. Upon hearing this week’s announcement of the cancellation of both the men’s and women’s tennis programs at University of Maryland Baltimore County (click here to read the full announcement) she stated in an email to me, “The ITA stands with Coach Rob Hubbard and the members of the UMBC tennis family in seeking reconsideration of the university’s decision with the ultimate reinstatement of the tennis programs. We encourage the UMBC tennis community to rally in support of their players and coaches.”

And rally they have! Take a look at this piece that aired on the local ABC affiliate in Baltimore this week:

 

Rob Hubbard is the Head Coach of both the men’s and women’s teams at UMBC. He has turned to social media to show his support for his players and to make sure other programs take notice of what is happening out there. “The turnout in support of our men’s and women’s tennis teams is phenomenal. This only confirms how lucky I am to coach these kids and just how truly special they are. ‪I couldn’t be prouder of these young men and women. I have been truly blessed and it has been an honor and a privilege to coach them.”

Unfortunately, it is very likely that Coach Rob’s teams won’t be the last cuts we hear about. ITA CEO Timothy Russell shared, “Sadly, the loss of college tennis programs is still a reality in today’s intercollegiate athletic environment.  The new leadership of the ITA is committed to addressing this trend.  The ITA has been speaking with college presidents, AD’s, conference commissioners, current players, alums, and fans in order to better understand how to raise the profile of college tennis, and make our sport more vibrant and relevant.  We plan on unveiling our new strategic plan for the ITA and college tennis towards the end of the first quarter of 2016. Hopefully, colleges and universities will remain committed to broad-based sports offerings including tennis. The ITA plans to work with our coaches to be proactive in assuring that their teams are integral members of their campuses and local communities and that cutting tennis teams will never be an option.”

I haven’t even mentioned the effect these cuts have on the players themselves. I can’t imagine the stress they feel, not only having to handle their studies and current responsibilities to their school but also having to reopen their recruiting to find a new home. It’s especially tough for the upperclassmen who may only have one or two years of eligibility left. Who’s going to take them?

I keep hoping USTA will take a stronger stance when word of these program cancellations gets out, but, so far, I’m not hearing much from our governing body. While it’s clear that USTA values college tennis as evidenced by its College Tennis FAQ, the existence of the National Collegiate Team, and coaching support offered to players, I just wish someone (Stephen Armitraj or Katrina Adams maybe?) would make some significant noise to help preserve this unique and very valuable asset of ours. At the very least, USTA ought to be alarmed over the fact that we have a university referencing the downward trend of the sport as rationale for cutting its teams. Growth of the sport is USTA’s responsibility and is at the core of its Mission Statement: To Promote and Develop the Growth of Tennis.

For the future of our sport, it is imperative that we stand up for college tennis and find a way to convince university presidents, athletic directors, and the NCAA to leave these teams off the chopping block. We all have to show our support by attending matches, getting involved by sending our junior players to summer tennis camps on campus, and working with the players in their various fundraising efforts. These players work incredibly hard to make their universities proud both on the court and in the classroom. We have to do whatever we can to ensure they continue to have the opportunities that only college tennis can provide. Please take the time to get to know your local college teams and to let them know you support them. Read Bobby Knight’s post on ZooTennis for more ideas.

To the college coaches who might be reading, now is the time to make the extra effort to show how your team contributes to the overall success of your school. Why not engage the marketing students to create campaigns to boost attendance at home matches? Why not engage the IT students to come up with ways to engage the community via social media and livestreaming? Why not engage local businesses by hosting pro-am events where your varsity players partner with business professionals (which, by the way, could lead to some pretty incredible internship opportunities)? Why not team up with your Tennis On Campus and Club Tennis players to help out on Match Day? Why not follow UMBC’s lead and invite other athletic teams on campus to become your biggest fans?

Don’t let another program be cut just because the Powers That Be don’t see the value in keeping varsity tennis alive. #SaveCollegeTennis

 

 

13 Comments on “When College Tennis Programs Are Cut”

  1. Let’s be clear … a huge majority (90+%?) of the programs that are cut are men’s programs. And they are cut because of Title 9.

  2. They’re cut because of Title IX? I suppose that could be extrapolated, but only if you also believe it’s OK to revert to the inequity of scholarship money to football, men’s basketball and baseball compared to all other sports.

    Sure, if you eliminate all women’s scholarships, then men’s tennis would last longer. However, tennis is still the most likely to be cut. UMBC cut men’s tennis, but kept men’s cross country, lacrosse, and swimming & diving. Also, if it’s all Title IX’s fault, why drop women’s tennis too?

    Hartford dropped men’s and women’s tennis and added women’s lacrosse. Why?

    Well…. because tennis is an expensive sport compared to others. The facilities are painfully costly on a per athlete basis, and exclusive to that sport. Lacrosse can use the same field as other sports. Equipment cost is also high. The initial cost to outfit a 10 player tennis team is upwards of $12K. And they burn through shoes, racquets, and string at a frightening rate, so the recurring costs are prohibitive for many institutions.

    Then there’s the diminishing fan base. Not a lot of support in the stands. Although, in fairness, I haven’t seen lots of fans at cross country events either, but their costs are limited to shoes, socks, and outfits. No special facilities needed.

    I have a daughter who did receive a full scholarship for tennis, so yeah, Title IX is my friend. I also have a son, who will be lucky to get a 25% ride. I did make the decision to put him in a different sport to reduce costs, and increase the potential for scholarship.

    If you have a son in tennis, I would say your time is better spent writing your representatives and asking why we are dedicating taxpayer resources to foreign athletes. I have no problem with foreigners attending our universities. I would just prefer that they pay full, out-of-state tuition, and reserve scholarship dollars for home-grown athletes.

  3. Most of the expense college tennis is not the equipment (most college programs get free shoes, rackets, and string), I am not sure that tennis fascinates are very expensive on a per athelete basis?

    The biggest costs for college tennis are: coaches salary, travel (especially in big 5 conference), and cost of scholarship.

    Tennis programs need to fundraise, and try to become as close to self sustainable as as possible. A viable program also needs to bond with the local community (which seems more difficult with team full of foreign born players??).

    My men’s program was dropped after my senior year, it was a real bummer because many of my friends transferred, and I still had a year to graduate. They dropped men’s tennis, men’s and women’s track and cross country for title 9 and budget cut. California dropped a large amount of solid divsion 2 programs in the 90’s, I see a lot of good juniors not able to play college tennis.

  4. Alex – I will defer to your first-hand experience about coaching and travel costs. Are they different than the same line-items for other sports?

    However, regarding facilities cost I will hold my ground. To field any dual event, the school needs a minimum of six courts. With back-court and space between courts, that’s about 18,000′ sq. that no other sport can use. In the northern climates the substrate requires a lot more maintenance (crack repair, and leveling at a minimum) due to ground freezing. That’s why so many smaller schools have horrible courts. They also need to have access to indoor courts for winter practice, and weather issues during tournaments. There is a reason why indoor tennis clubs are so expensive up north, and non-existent in the south… except at universities that can afford to air condition a warehouse-sized space.

    As to a per-athlete cost; one court is approx 3,000′ sq (with back-court and side buffer space) and will accommodate a maximum of 4 athletes at a time. What other sport has a square foot to athlete ratio of 750:1?

    Re equipment; not all schools get free equipment, clothes, shoes, strings. Many have to pay a percentage of the cost, and tennis players go through shoes and strings monthly. Racquets get frame-dead in 6-months of practice and play, so that major expense is semi-annual.

    Tennis is expensive. Without the kind of fan development that Lisa is promoting, universities will continue to cut programs.

  5. From Patrick Alban: I’ve bit my tongue long enough but this issue and the direction it is heading is definitely bothersome and I’d like to share my advice to help “save college tennis”. The idea of saving it is dead on but the execution of how to do it is heading in the wrong direction and has been for years. Many articles I’ve read focus on the institutions and why they are all continuing this trend, why their reasons are invalid, and selfish. While all of this is true, it will not get much done. In order to save college tennis we must first look at it from a business perspective. In sales, it’s about the quality of the product/service and it’s also about the emotional relationship that the potential buyer has with the service (in this case it’s college tennis). The majority of the people in charge of the financial decisions at these institutions have zero emotional relationship with the sport unlike us college alumni who have had priceless memories that we cherish for the rest of our lives. Instead, many of these institutions are about increasing profits and decreasing expenses. Let’s face it, college tennis is not profitable……yet! Trying to convince these people is like trying to sell ice to an Eskimo. Instead we must look at what audiences share our beliefs, experiences, and emotional relationships with the sport we love. My proposed solution is to develop a “save college tennis boosters program” for each institution. To do this, we must start with the college tennis alumni. They are the ones who directly share our experiences and passion for the current situation. Active college tennis players need to spend one hour a week calling alumni and asking them to help out. There should be a database of contact information from all past alumni in each program. Email blasts and phone calls should be enough to get started. Imagine, a monthly donation of just $10 – $25 from each college alumni. I personally, would be more than happy to donate a monthly payment of that amount if not more, if my program needed it. Multiply that number by the amount of total alumni (not including their parents and close supporters) and we have a system that starts moving college tennis in the healthy direction. In addition, create a landing page where alumni can easily sign up for a subscription (automatic billing) donation plan and choose how much they wish to donate. They can even choose to where they wish to donate (travel expenses, clothing, athlete tuition, etc). This will not only save college tennis but also bring the tennis community a lot closer. I know, I would go to more college matches while donating because every month I am reminded about the program and the memories come flying back. #savecollegetennis

  6. Lin, I will defer to your knowledge on east coast court maintenance. In California, you wash the courts every week or two, and resurface every 5 to 10 years. Very few programs in California have or need indoor courts, I learned how to squeegee a court in 30 minutes. The courts can also be a revenue stream for camps, junior and adult tournaments. The university also uses courts for classes and students.

    I agree a lot with what Patrick says about former tennis players staying involved in their programs with financial support. The would also mean that the tennis program needs to engage tennis alumni as well and the local tennis community in fundraising efforts. That is another question about the foreign tennis recruit, do they stay engaged in the tennis program if when they are done?

  7. I also agree that Patrick’s idea is a good one. One challenge is that university administrators are like politicians; if they see money, their first instinct is to direct it where they feel it could be best employed… so they waste it. If a tennis program created an influx of contributions, it wouldn’t take long for the administration to reduce the tennis program’s budget. After all, if they can raise their own funds, why does the university need to foot the bill? It wouldn’t matter that the “found money” is needed to keep the program vital, they’ll just say the team needs to work harder at fundraising.

    I don’t know if it’s feasible, but perhaps a written agreement with the AD and/or the school’s President to guarantee the program’s funding at current levels irrespective of any outside funds raised would insulate the program from the monetary leeches. This would still allow the school to cut the program if they choose, but not to incrementally defund it. Once the tennis program shows that it can be a sustainable model, the school would have a hard time cutting it.

  8. I just checked the rosters for UMBC’s current teams:
    Mens team: 4 US (all local), 4 foreign
    Womens team: 1 US, 8 foreign

    1. I’m not saying the national makeup of the team doesn’t contribute to the likelihood of a program being cut, but, a college student is a college student no matter from where they hail, and the point of this article is to preserve playing opportunities at the collegiate varsity level for ALL coming up through the junior tennis ranks.

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