Sunday, December 29, 2013

The New Experimental Formats in Division I College Tennis and Why I'm Against Them

Virginia's Mitchell Frank is leading student-athlete opposition to the format changes

The NCAA Division I Tennis Committee first mandated a change in the dual match format, going to a third-set match tiebreaker in singles back in 2012, but abandoned it, along with other controversial suggestions, after the objections of coaches, current coaches and players and fans.

The Intercollegiate Tennis Association, which governs college tennis, and conducts all its championships except for the NCAA team and individual championships in the spring, had meetings about format change after that, but a consensus on its necessity could not be reached.

Just over a year later, the USTA became involved, with their College Match Day promotion, and its solution was to play doubles only if the dual match was undecided after three singles.

Again, this idea proved unpopular, and the ITA Operating Committee came up with a compromise, with doubles first, but one-ad scoring, to be tried out in the first six weeks of 2014.

At this month's ITA Coaches Convention, that proposal was shot down, and the men will be playing no-ad in both singles and doubles, with tiebreakers at 5-all instead of 6-all.  The women have come full circle, and will be playing a match tiebreaker in lieu of a third set in singles, with regular scoring in doubles and singles.  For the explanation of these two experiments, see this post.

Michigan's Evan King and Florida's Bob Van Overbeek, who spearheaded the student-athlete protest against the NCAA committee's proposal, have graduated, with Virginia's Mitchell Frank now leading the campaign against the current changes. The official Facebook group is here.  Frank will be a guest on Lisa Stone's podcast Monday at noon, at blogtalkradio's ur10s network.

I have spoken to many administrators, coaches, players and fans for the last 18 months about these changes, and there's no question a sizable number feel some format change is necessary to keep college tennis relevant. Most of you know I do not share that belief.

I believe the current format is superior to anything yet proposed, and I also think this campaign is driven primarily by the unwieldy Round of 16 days at the NCAA team tournament, which occasionally produce matches that end well after midnight.  I believe it's dangerous to intertwine the two issues, and I also think the "college tennis is dying" theme that the proponents of change are using as a justification is based on dubious reasoning. The number of new facilities being built and the number of schools interested in hosting the NCAA championships does not support their contention that college tennis is disappearing with lacrosse and soccer and [insert non-revenue sport here] rapidly overtaking it.

I don't object to playing no-ad in doubles, with that format now entrenched on the ITF Pro Circuit, ATP and WTA tours, but I believe any other format changes endanger the viability of Division I tennis as a professional tennis pathway. I could be wrong about that, but for me, the risk is too great, because the goal of these format changes--shorter matches--seems so insignificant to me.

But if it turns out that a shorter dual match time somehow sparks on-campus interest in college tennis maybe these experiments will have provided some much-needed data to assist in determining how best to get to that goal. Unfortunately exactly what that goal is, other than "shorter", hasn't been revealed. And who needs to be satisfied--the USTA, their Advisory Group, the ITA, the NCAA committee, the student-athletes?

If we've learned anything in the past 18 months, it's that proposals spring from many different interest groups and none of them has the power to unilaterally implement them. Is the perfect format out there? Probably not. But it looks as if Division I college tennis is going to find it, or die trying.

4 comments:

Lovethegame said...

College basketball games are shorter than nba games. Still a great training ground. The length may not have a huge affect on outcomes or training. Shorter matches could mean fewer injuries. Seeing players throw up and cramp is not always fun to watch in these marathon three setters.

dallasoliver said...

One thing that surprises me is that the USTA and ITA seem to always dictate these larger changes all at once. I suppose that these changes are somewhat better in that they are only applicable for the first six weeks of the season, but I don't understand why all teams are going to be playing with these experimental rules.

I would rather see some voluntary experiments - the way other sports have done. I remember back in the 80s and 90s when college basketball conferences experimented with different shot clock lengths, different 3-point line distances, etc. The governing bodies had data and feedback to gauge the impact on the game.

I can only guess that the driver for all of this is Internet streaming and television. (It may indeed be the NCAA Round of 16, but I think it has to be TV and streaming.) With all the new superconferences and the upcoming digital networks with a desperate need need for content, all sports have a chance for broadcast. So that's fine... come up with a few ideas, get them approved for experimental play, and run some experiments. Collect some data.

Any change can - and will - have unintended consequences. By running true experiments, we get more data and can judge the impacts.

David said...

If you look at American college tennis players in the pros only John Isner stands out. Steve Johnson is in the 100's now and he was the best college player in the last 5 or 6 years. I know some foreign players have done better like Kevin Anderson.

There are some American players in the high 100's, 200's and 300's and some in doubles, but only the very best college players from the very best teams will ever make it as a touring pro and net of the considerable expenses (some say $75K+ a year), no American is making any "real" money, except for Isner.

Former two time NCAA champ Somdev Devarrman from UVA and India has made it back to #90 after rotator cuff surgery in the fall of 2012, but I doubt he will get a lot higher. He is making some decent money now, but I think his touring pro career will be over in no more than 5 years, even if he stays healthy. He will certainly not be retiring on his lifetime tour tennis earnings.

I do not think college tennis is about becoming a pro, but it does provide an opportunity to do so, by providing a free training ground and good competition, except for the non covered out of pocket scholarship cost. IMO the length of the match or scoring format does not really matter, because if you are good enough you will make it as a touring pro.

Like all college sports, not named football or basketball, college tennis brings in no "net" revenues. I have never paid an admission (not even $5) at the ACC dual matches that I have attended. There is a little gross revenue at the conference tournaments, NCAA's and maybe at the NTI, but I doubt it covers the costs.

There are a lot D1, D2, and D3 teams out there and they all cost the schools money. My theory is that the powers that be understand that cutting minor sports is a reality in these times and that men's tennis with no Title 9 protection and less likely women's tennis are candidates for cutting. It will not happen at the big time tennis schools with lots of Fb and BB TV dollars. UMD in the ACC (soon B1G) did cut men's tennis a year ago.

I agree with Dallas Oliver that it must be about getting some dollars from live streaming, conference networks, etc. Then when the cuts come maybe wrestling, swimming, golf, etc will get the axe, instead of tennis.

All sporting events have to be short enough to attract viewers and fit time schedules. You just cannot risk having 4.5+ hour tennis match on TV. No one will watch anything that long, except for a few true tennis "nuts".

Most dual matches are played on Fridays when most people work, and on Sundays when there are many other TV alternatives. College tennis has never attracted large numbers of fans.

IMO the "dumbest" college tennis thing ever is that the only event that at least some tennis fans care about (the NCAA men's team event) has the semis on a Monday afternoon the day and the finals on a Tuesday afternoon. They need to be played on Saturday and Sunday, when people who want to watch can actually watch do so. It would be easy to do with a final four or maybe final 8 format starting on Friday. Better yet have it at the top seed's home court so local fans will come out.

The round of 16 at the NCAA's is a viewing disaster for many reasons, mostly because it takes all day and all night and it usually is hot or it rains. Except for the 8 vs 9 and the 7 vs 10 match ups, the the top seeded team "always" wins. Just cut the field to 32 teams and eliminate the round of 64. Then the first weekend, played also at the top seeds home courts, could have the 32's and 16's. Teams from 33 to 64 have no chance at winning the NCAA's anyway.

Matthew Litsky said...

In the "old" college days (the 80's), we (D-I) played full 2 out of 3 sets for all 9 matches and finished every match regardless of the outcome of the dual match. We played no-ad for singles and doubles, which I personally disliked. There was less coaching and less wasting of time with toweling off every single point. Putting aside what is "best" for training future "hopeful" professionals or making college tennis more of a TV and revenue producing sport - I find it hard to believe that most college players today would not enjoy that format more than what is in place today or what is being proposed and would even support regular scoring. How about first taking an on-line poll of every single college player and asking them what they want? Whether it is used or not at least the decision-makers would have the benefit of knowing what the actual participants prefer.