Fan Series: Organizing Fan, Player and Sport Well Being

Unlike football, baseball, basketball and soccer, tennis is an individual global sport without a centralized organization. There are four major tennis organizations: The International Tennis Federation (ITF), Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and United States Tennis Association (USTA). One must also surmise that tournament owners like Larry Ellison also have a voice in the sport as Indian Wells is arguably the fifth slam. With so many vested partners, there is no consistent message or focus.  Even the WTA and ATP rankings structures are different as are their websites, brand slogans and rulebooks.

tennis organizationThough tennis would benefit from the leadership of a commissioner, it is highly unlikely that any mediator could assuage the litany of tennis interests. The ITF is the world governing body of tennis, oversees regulations, international competition and promotion. While ATP President Chris Kermode’s long-term plan is to continue growth in sensible, strategic, sustainable ways and keeping control of traditional markets, Stacy Allaster WTA President was expanding into Asia before her abrupt resignation and USTA President Katarina Adams is focusing on the latino or hispanic population as well as overhauling tennis training. There is also the WTA and ATP Players’ Council, but it is unclear what the elected leaders are currently focused on. Four organizations, four leaders, four foci and one sport.

It is important to note that quickly after Allaster’s abrupt resignation Steve Simon, the Tournament Director and Chief Operating Officer of the BNP Paribas Open Indian Wells Tennis Tournament, became the new CEO of the women’s tour. At the WTA Finals in Singapore he shared his views and agenda. He said, “I think that the women’s game is actually in a good place right now. We have a lot of depth, which I think the race reflected…To do some of the things we have to do, we have to make some fundamental changes in the calendar and our approach to it.”

The WTA has 57 events (including 4 Grand Slam) in 32 countries plus Fed Cup and the ATP has 60 events (including 4 Grand Slams) in 30 plus Davis Cup.The tennis calendar is untenable.The most popular sports have clearly defined seasons, including pre-season and playoff events. It is difficult to package tennis for TV, much less maintain fan interest over the ten month tennis season.

CBS and ESPN’s focus on the slams has produced mixed results in ratings. Focusing on the slams is also problematic as it implies there are four playoffs in the sport on different surfaces with differing numbers of lead-up tournaments and preparation times. It also does little to build a fan base and neglects to address other tournaments, further splintering the sport. More effective is the USTA’s packaging and promotion of the US Open and Open Series. However, the five-week summer series that links seven North American hard-court tournaments to the final Grand Slam of the year, does not include two of the biggest North American tournaments: Indian Wells and Miami Open. Presumably, these tournaments are not include in the series because of their March time-frame, but the Rogers Cup (Montreal/Toronto) is included even though it is not an American tournament. It is important to note that of the thirteen ATP and eight WTA North American tournaments, Indian Wells is second in attendance only to the US Open.

Between Europe and North America, tennis’ traditional markets, there are nearly 50 ATP and 40 WTA tournaments. And of course there is the growing Asian market. Most troubling in the WTA calendar is the addition of an Asian tournament, the WTA Elite Trophy, after the WTA Finals. While the tournament was well attended and it produced some excellent matches and an American winner, Venus Williams, it is badly placed on the calendar as is the majority of the tournaments during the Asian Swing. Hopefully Steve Simon considers using the Asian tournaments as a lead-up to the Australian Open. In addition to proximity, surface and audience it also… By the time Davis Cup(September) and Fed Cup (November) is upon us, fans are in the throes of tennis fatigue if not overdose.

A fan-friendly calendar would also consider the players’ physical and mental health. During the US Open there were sixteen retirements. On September 1st I asked noted sports writer Jon Wertheim, “Will all these retirements and injuries finally push the ATP and WTA to address the untenable tennis calendar? US Open is feeling the pain.”

We say it once, we say it again (and again and again): We need to rethink best-of-five sets in the first week of majors. There are no longer 15 round fights in boxing. Why not? Because it was hazardous to the combatants’ health and it was determined that we could get just as much value with shorter competitions. –John Wertheim Mailbag September 1, 2015

On October 7th his response to a similar question was a bit more nuanced given Simon’s new post and decision to address the WTA calendar.

Eventually tennis will learn that less is sometimes more. That scarcity of product is an asset. That sometimes you’re better passing up money in short-term for a gain in the long-term. As it stands, this Asian swing should require a “viewer discretion” rating. Player after player is retiring mid-match with one injury or another. (And the panoply of injuries is truly cause for concern.) Maria Sharapova has essentially shut it down for the year. And, oh, yes, so has Serena Williams. You wonder if these Asian events aren’t experiencing some serious buyers’ remorse, having shelled out millions for depleted, exhausted fields and daily results featuring retirements.

Expanding into Asia? It’s a sound strategy, especially in a global sport. Sponsorship money? Expanded television rights? More prize money? All good. But this is simply not working. Asking players to compete for months on end, all over the world, on a variety of surfaces. After the last of four majors you’re then asking the field fly across the ocean play a series of tournaments in Asia? Sadly, by then, we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and point of saturation.

On Monday the WTA announced that Steve Simon would the tour’s new CEO. Say this, his first order of business is already clear: rethinking a calendar and commitment schedule that is simply not workable for the players. And thus for the WTA’s partners. John Wertheim Mailbag October 7, 2015

If a tournament of five set matches is hazardous, what can one say of a ten month calendar? Players can attempt to thwart injury with smart scheduling, training and diet, but the number of required tournaments  as well as the players’ personal and professional commitment makes this virtually impossible. Players’ responsibilities are increased exponentially by the different expectations placed on them at each tournament: interviews, parties, games, exhibitions, etc… Extensively the aforementioned activities are aimed at creating an enjoyable tennis experience, but it generally appears that the four tennis organizations aren’t clear on what experience they want to deliver, much less how to foster a culture that will support the growth of the sport. Tennis is at the Crossroad of Niche and Popularity, and it has the stench of a mangled feral animal cornered and fighting for its life with wild, unpredictable swings, some landing successfully and far too many flimsily missing the mark.

When I started writing this piece, I planned it as a single column examining the sport’s lack of popularity in America. After many weeks, I began to wonder if the sport was satisfied with its niche status or if it was willing to address core issues to achieve popularity, mass appeal. This five-part series will address some of the issues that thwarts the sport’s popularity.

  1. Game, Set and Match
  2. Tennis Fandom: Niche and Rabid
  3. Accessibility: Not Relegated to Availability
  4. Organization: Fan, Player and Sport Well Being
  5. Culture: Transparency, Criticism and Equality

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