Who’s Watching Out For Tennis?
A conundrum is developing in US fitness culture lately. Despite stats provided by the USTA and TIA that indicate tennis participation is growing, media coverage indicates otherwise. Tennis got a boost (excuse the pun) after the Covid pandemic when it was one of the first exercise activities condoned by the CDC, yet media coverage has been more focused on pickleball than tennis. Add to that the response to innovation in the tennis industry—that lands with the thud of a pickleball on media ears—and tennis is not the sport that is growing.
Tennis may still be the main event during Opens and Slams, yet pickleball is riding the coattails of tennis coverage, and then superseding tennis coverage during other tournaments, often appearing alongside the tennis news in the NY Times, ESPN, and various other mainstream media outlets. No longer does tennis make its way onto the proverbial front page; pickleball is capturing the headlines.
Tennis needs its caretakers to capitalize on tournament play to ensure the sport remains unique and viable as competition to watch. They must not allow coverage of tournament play to be diluted by references or comparisons to other sports, particularly pickleball. Such cross-over and intermingling of coverage puts pickleball in direct competition with tennis for players, sponsors, resources, media coverage—and growth of the industry.
So who is protecting the sport of tennis in the US right now? Is there a steward of tennis responsible for making sure tennis remains part of mainstream culture, and receives adequate attention and coverage during mainstream moments? These may be rhetorical questions because most tennis aficionados are aware the USTA is the steward of tennis. And that the USTA is not the only organization responsible. However, the USTA remains the chief caretaker of the game. Anyone who wants to be involved in the business of tennis has to meet the requirements of the USTA. For those of us in the business of tennis there has been solace in the fact that protecting and growing tennis is the chief priority of the USTA.
What happens if tennis is not the chief priority of the USTA? Tennis would lose its standing, simple as that. Is that where we are today? We could be, since the USTA has added another priority to its care-taking apparatus: pickleball. Rather than deepening its focus on tennis, the USTA turned its focus away from tennis and actually has designed a program to embrace pickleball, even adding big banks of pickleball courts to the USTA national campus in Orlando. The chief protector and steward of the game is now splitting time with another sport, a sport in direct competition with tennis for media coverage, TV airtime, sponsors, and resources.
Is anyone else as disappointed as I am to think that the chief governing body of tennis has decided to promote another sport? If the USTA appears to have overtly abandoned its support of the tennis game and industry, is there another entity ready and able to fill the gap?
There are other obvious caretakers of tennis, namely tennis coaches. They're on the ground day in and day out. Coaches often are the first touchpoint for a new player's tennis experience. Coach and student interactions are fertile ground for sowing the seeds of joy in playing; it's critical to the growth of tennis that coaches understand the importance of their interfaces with students. Tennis depends on the health of these public interactions, which need to be positive and demonstrate the full commitment of the coach to the game—and to promoting it. Not all pros are going to be academically and technically proficient in every aspect of the game; but it's imperative they express a love for the game and a commitment to making tennis a fun and fulfilling experience that keeps players playing.
Other critical touchpoints for players include dealers and distributors. A healthy interaction with a dealer can have a positive impact on a player. Along with coaches, dealers are responsible for helping players get the right equipment and proper fit for their style of play. Proper fit of racquet and strings can make a huge difference in a player's tennis experience. And a good experience keeps a player playing and helps promote the industry and the sport.
Climbing back up to the top of the tennis-caretaker ladder, I recently had the opportunity to meet with some distinguished members of the tennis guardian community. I was eager to discuss the current state of tennis culture and how we tennis professionals can best nurture and care for the sport. Having spent upwards of the last 20 years perfecting a significant racquet innovation that delivers power and control (Zipstrip) and can keep players playing free of injury, and having offered it for sale or license to numerous major manufacturers on different occasions, I wanted to know if the current guardians of tennis would support a game-changer in the equipment arena.
Fully aware that innovation is a key to growth in most industries, I wanted to find out if the current stewards of tennis thought it was okay for our industry to take 20 years to accept a simple concept that has enormous implications for improving racquet performance to enter the market? I wanted their thoughts on how tennis can survive at that snail's pace rate of innovation. I was stunned that the answer to all my questions was the suggestion that I ask one of the big racquet manufacturers.
PicklebalI was not on my radar at the time of that meeting, though it is now. Since then, I have come to recognize pickleball as a phenomenon the tennis community must pay attention to, making the conversation we had about innovation and keeping players in the game of tennis more important than ever—as much as it is a conundrum.