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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How Do You Grow College Tennis? - Guest Post by Bobby Knight of College Tennis Today

by Bobby Knight, College Tennis Today

There are a lot of college sports out there that have a higher profile than tennis but you'd be hard-pressed to find one that is more exciting. Many that follow the sport got hooked after seeing a dual-match live and in person but the issue is how do you get people to show up that first time?

As a long time follower of college tennis there are a number of things that I think each school should be doing to help grow its following and raise its profile on campus. There are also a number of things that I think the ITA/USTA/NCAA can do on a national scale to help grow college tennis and lastly, the general public can play a role too.

Let's start off at the local level and look at what each school should be doing to increase its following both in person and online (some are already doing many of these).

1. There should be some kind of promotion for each match to try and draw a crowd; some examples would be free pizza, schedule magnet, posters, meet and greet with the players/coach, face-paint for the kids, trying to return a first serve in play to win a prize, etc. Ole Miss has a nice promotion calendar to let everyone know what's happening on each match

2. Be extremely active on social media to get the message out about match times, promotions, results, etc. 

3. Run features on each student-athlete during the fall so everyone can get to know who these guys/gals are and where they are from. Here is a nice piece that Florida did on Josie Kuhlman and Arizona did one on Oliver Plaskett. After watching these it gives you a better sense of who they are and makes you want to follow them to see how they do - it's also interesting to hear how they got to where they are now. 

4. Make it easy for fans/parents/friends to follow the matches at home and keep them engaged from start to finish via the following methods:

  • Run an in-match blog (Baylor, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Georgia) through Cover It Live or even through a google doc. 
  • If the resources aren't there to do a blog make sure you have someone running the team's twitter account during the match to interact with fans and provide updates - PrincetonHarvard, and several of the Ivy League schools do a really nice job on twitter.
  • Have an easy to read and accurate online scoreboard (no one likes to see the score jump all over the place). Of course if the online scoreboard is automatically tied in to the hand held devices that the chair umpires have then there's really nothing to do.
  • Have a way to communicate the score during a tiebreak - there are a lot of schools that use the same scoreboard which doesn't have the capability to show a tiebreak score. There's nothing worse than following the match online and waiting and waiting to see the 6-6 set-score change to 7-6. If your live scoring program won't permit it then have someone tweeting the score out after each point or at least every other point. 
  • Provide streaming video if the funds/bandwidth/conference permit it; if they do then do it right - HD stream with sound and on-screen scoring. Stanford is the gold standard in streaming/scoreboards in my opinion.
  • If streaming is not possible then have video clips posted during the match of some of the bigger points that provide momentum swings i.e game, break, and match points. 
5. Start matches at the published times - so if the schedule says 1pm on Sunday then at 1 pm the first point of doubles should be underway. The pre-match festivities including the doubles warmups should take place within 15 minutes prior to the start. The big push for no-ad seems to be centered around the length of the matches so why waste 10 minutes of time before the match even begins?

6. Schedule Monday through Friday dual-matches in the 5pm to 9pm window to maximize the number of people that can attend. If you look at the ITA's Attendance Leaderboard all the schools in the top 10 are scheduling wisely. 

7. Two words - Beer Garden. Now I know that many schools aren't interested in offering this but there's a growing number of schools that are selling adult beverages at football games and other sporting events and I expect this trend to continue in years to come.  This would be an additional source of revenue though it obviously would have to be handled in a responsible manner.

8. Have a post-match online recap that at the very least includes quotes from the coach. If you can include a video clip of a match point or a post-match interview that's an added bonus. The more details about the match the better - if someone came back from 6-1, 5-1 down to win in 3 sets I'd like to know that he/she made a tremendous comeback as opposed to just having the final score listed without the details.  If you want to see how a recap is done check out one of Duke's (ex. Duke/Stanford from NCAA 2nd Round) - absolutely phenomenal work that every school should try to emulate.  There are some schools that do the absolute bare minimum on each recap and I'm hoping that's because no one ever showed them what a real recap looks like.
9. Try to get a few members of the pep band out for at least one big match a year - it's always cool to see some schools (USC/Virginia) bring the pep band out for the NCAA Championship match and it creates a good atmosphere in between the singles and doubles point.

10. Have an alumni page that tracks what guys are up to after they leave college. Virginia and Tennessee both have really nice pages that track former players on the tour.

11. Have a Tennis Booster Club set up so alumni/fans/parents can contribute financially to help support and grow the program. GeorgiaVirginiaBaylorOhio StateIllinois, Minnesota, and New Mexico are a few examples of programs that have a way of giving directly to the tennis team. Put together your wish-list of what you'd like to have along with the associated costs so donations can be earmarked for whichever project that people see fit.  Remember if you don't ask for help you're not going to get it!!

What the ITA/USTA/NCAA can do to help grow the sport:

1. Get as many matches on television/streamed online as possible because the more accessible the sport the bigger the potential following. A bigger audience potentially equals more sponsors and sources of revenue. It sounds like no-ad scoring is here to stay so that will keep most matches within the 3-hour time window that is important for TV.

2. Find a way to get the NCAA Championships on the Tennis Channel, ESPNU, or Fox Sports.

3. Expand the USTA MatchDay concept (which was a big deal 2 years ago but not last year) to have a College GameDay feel to it. Bring some knowledgeable college tennis people in to talk about the weekend slate of matches with the show being on-campus at a big-time match. Of course to do this you'd need a television partner to broadcast it.

4. Have a section on the ITA's website that has draws/results of all the fall tournaments because as it is now it's tough to follow many of the non-major tournaments because there's no way to find the information.

5. Have a page on the ITA's site that lets you filter schedules/results by conference/ranking along with starting times and live scoring/video links. The results page currently in place is good but if it could be filtered to include the other data it'd be great and would be a really useful resource.

6. Attempt to get all schools set up on the same live scoring program so all the data could be aggregated into one official college tennis scoreboard. How cool would it be have a page where you could track multiple dual-matches at once - if done right it's a service that I believe many would be willing to pay for especially if you could roll in streaming video.

7. Play all matches to their conclusion unless it's during tournament play - then and only then is the clinch rule necessary. It doesn't make sense to have family and friends come to watch their son/daughter/friend play a match that gets stopped just as it's nearing the finish line. If time is that big an issue then play a 10- point tiebreak in lieu of a third set.

8. Be transparent about changes - if you say that going no-ad is best for the student-athlete then show the data that supports it. If the data does support the change then you'll see the resistance strongly decreased.  Of course if the data doesn't support the change then you've got another problem.

9. Keep adding sponsors - getting Oracle on board as the sponsor of the rankings and the Oracle Masters was a big feather in the cap for the ITA and college tennis.

What fans can do to help grow the sport:

1. Show up and support your team (and bring a friend too)

2. Be loud and proud but at the same time keep the language in check for the underage crowd

3. If your school does an in-match blog or provides live updates on twitter then make sure you let the blogger and/or tweeter know that you appreciate their efforts and don't be afraid to engage in the conversation. The schools that run in-match blogs have the data to show how many people get on the blog and if the numbers aren't there to justify it then it'll go away.

4. If your school isn't doing an adequate job keeping its fans informed then make your voice heard by emailing the tennis Sports Information Director (SID) and/or Head Coach. If they don't hear from anyone then they might not think there's a need to have an online scoreboard, twitter feed, blog, etc.

5. If you have the financial means, make a contribution to the tennis program to help them with supplies and extras that aren't covered under the budget.

The collegiate sports world is a constantly changing landscape and in this day in age it's all about what have you done for me lately.  The key to keeping college tennis on an upward trajectory is to always be proactive.

If you are a tennis coach/administrator, you should always be thinking about what can I do to get an extra 10 people to show up at each match.

If you are involved with the ITA/USTA/NCAA, you should be focused on making college tennis more accessible to the masses through television and streaming video (if no-ad scoring can make that happen then ok).

If you are a fan, attend as many matches as you can and keep spreading the word that college tennis is an exciting sport that is action-packed from start to finish.

If college tennis wasn't a great sport there wouldn't be big-time donors pumping in millions of dollars to build some of these luxurious stadiums that we've seen pop up in Waco, Dallas, and Stillwater over the last several years.

Let's just hope that 5-10 years from now college tennis's popularity is on the rise and we're watching multiple matches on television every week.


Rob Gurden said...

Love it Bobby!

Jeff said...

Bobby - I was really excited for this post when Colette mentioned it was coming. It didn't disappoint. You've been a huge contributor to college tennis in recent years and your effort doesn't go unnoticed, so thank you.

You've made some great recommendations that I hope people reading this website look at (cough ITA/USTA/NCAA cough). But I want to focus on the recommendations for the local level and what the school can be doing. I'll admit that while I'm a huge college tennis fan, I'm ignorant to the resources it requires to run a lot of the operations you talk about (website, twitter, fan events). Given that at most schools tennis is a very low priority, I imagine it's just one of many sports that an SID would cover. While you have a lot of great ideas for how a school with many dedicated staffed resources could improve their offerings, is this feasible for most schools? I can't imagine many schools have the resources or budget to plan fan events, do promotions, social media, live blog, live stream, online recap. I get the impression (again though I'm totally ignorant) that what schools provide now is not because they wouldn't want to do more but rather because they can't. I'd like to get your thoughts, or others who are more familiar with SID logistics, to comment on how feasible these (great) ideas are for the majority of schools.

fan said...

No mention of dbls, disappointing. "college tennis is an exciting sport that is action-packed from start to finish" thought that meant dbls. As someone commented on the rule change issue here, sgls just doesn't cut it.

Brent said...

Bobby, good stuff. Appreciate you sharing.

Pablo said...


I agree with everything you said expect for No. 7 (Play all matches to their conclusion unless it's during tournament play). Once a team clinches the dual match, fans are in a hurry to exit. All the excitement has left the building. It's time to go home and try again on another day. Usually the remaining matches are boring and ho-hum, actually having a negative effect on spectator enthusiasm, which can spill over to subsequent matches.

Bobby said...

You're correct it likely isn't feasible for most schools to do an in-match blog though I'd like to think that more of the bigger schools who do have the resources could swing it. There used to be more that did it but either the numbers weren't there or the resources went away.

The number of schools that stream has actually gone up a good bit in recent years with 24 of 52 Power 5 (ACC, B1G, B12, PAC12, SEC) schools now offering it on the men's side - well actually I guess that'd be 19 since the 5 SEC schools that did stream can't now due to the SEC Network deal which prohibits it. For non-power 5 the numbers are low and it'd take a donation to be able to buy the equipment etc.

For the non-power 5 schools where budgets are much, much tighter the streaming and blog wouldn't likely be as possible but I'd like to think someone (volunteer/player not in the starting lineup) could help with twitter updates/live scoring. Lots of schools have club teams or intramurals so if approached I'd like to think that 1 or 2 people would be interested in helping for home matches. It'd be good for the resume and if your student that likes/plays tennis why not volunteer your time for a sport you love.

I get that the SID's can be spread pretty thin so if they are looking for help with writing match recaps why not go to the journalism department and see if there are some students that'd like to write for the school website. If someone is an aspiring journalist (especially if they like sports) then they'd probably be chomping at the bit to write something that'd get read by the masses. The school wouldn't have to pay anything because the student would benefit by working on their craft plus they'd be building a collection of writing samples.

I think the biggest untapped resource is the student body - there's no way a school with 5000+ undergrads (heck even 2000 undergrads) doesn't have at least 10 tennis nuts (I use that term in a good way) that would be willing to help with the tennis program.

I agree it would be interesting to hear an SID chime in on the struggles they face.

just saying said...

Scheduling matters. The huge UGA crowd in your picture is from an early Saturday evening match. UGA (Isner/Flores) played UCLA in the quarters of the NCAAs that year. UGA actually had a clearly bigger crowd for Saturday's quarters than they did for Monday's early afternoon semis vs. UVa. I also think the Tuesday afternoon finals vs. Illinois had fewer fans as well.
It seems like a Saturday, Sunday or even Monday final for the team event would create a better crowd for the best match.

If the latter stages of the NCAAs had 8 teams each for the men/women, you could wrap the event around a long weekend.

Bobby, thanks for your coverage of college tennis

Craig Bell said...

Bobby - great article on the state of college tennis! As a former collegiate player myself, from back in the late 70's and early 80's - what I consider the "golden era" of college tennis, I think college tennis needs to do something to wake up to the fact that the sport is in the declining mode and not on the path of an "elite" college sport. I'd be interested in sending you a few thoughts I've sent to the USTA and Wayne Bryan - let's just I didn't hear back from the USTA and Wayne and I have become very good email friends.

I'd enjoy hearing from anyone for that matter - you can reach me at cbell1360@aol.com
Craig Bell

tommy richards said...

To really improve college tennis we need to change the team match to 3 singles, 2 doubles and a player can not play both. The 5 matches would start at the same time and within 2 -2.5 hours you would have a completed match. It also would expand the playing opportunities for more players (7 verses 6 needed per match).... many of us don't enjoy singles but LOVE dubs ! (which is what most people play for FUN)
Tennis and squash assoc. need to realize that singles and doubles are two totally different games ... don't slight doubles (pro-set, 3 matches equals 1 point) highlight doubles .... fans like teams ! ..... worth a look ?

Darren Ford said...

I take my wife and son to watch Oklahoma play and we enjoy it. My son plays and it is great for him to see the live action up close. We have enjoyed watching very good squads play high level tennis. However, here is my issue locally. We have two of the nicest college facilities in Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and some top teams and players in the country, but you wouldn't know it unless you follow college tennis. The local sports stations (TV/Radio both) barely mention anything...ever. I understand that around here with college football teams and the OKC Thunder NBA team, its an uphill battle trying to compete. Part of it is awareness in my opinion, but the local news outlets aren't going to cover it if it isn't generating interest. It's a Catch 22. I have noticed some of the local tennis facilities have been putting money into renovating and trying to drum up more interest.

College Teams Need Support said...

My son played tennis at a D-1 non-football school...basketball was the main sport. The different sport teams from the school would support other by attend each other's games--thus an audience for the games and the player's on the other teams usually bring someone with them...sometimes exposing someone to tennis who had never watched it played live before. Maybe some supporting cooperation between teams would also help like at my son's school👍

Bobby said...

College Teams Need Support, getting the other sports teams to show up is definitely a great idea. Some of them have overlapping seasons but several don't. I see pictures on twitter all the time with the tennis team at the volleyball match or soccer game so hopefully those teams reciprocate.

Darren, you're right getting publicity from radio/tv is going to be tough - the SID would probably have to know someone at a TV/Radio station or would have to hound them to get them to acknowledge tennis. The school would probably have to do the legwork on a 10-15 second highlight clip to send in and then maybe it might get shown. I guess it would vary market by market because in a bigger market the stations would already have enough material but in a college town or small market that revolves around the college they'd have a shot.

Tommy, I think formats like those that you mentioned should be looked at and maybe even experimented with in the future. Many of the local leagues I've played in have that split doubles/singles format and almost all the USTA leagues are like that too. I think more people would understand that format than trying to explain no-ad and pro-sets.

In my opinion before the format gets changed anymore the schools need to figure out how to get more people to show up. If only 20 people are showing up the format being played really won't matter.

Cory said...

Nice post Bobby. But, for me, not a fan of no ad.