Ask The Experts
Roundtable - Is College Tennis Thriving or Struggling?
by TennisRecruiting.net, 7 March 2014
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It is interesting to look at the state of college tennis. Rising costs in education and the overall arms race in athletics facilities are presenting financial challenges to athletic departments - some of which are cutting sports like tennis. On the other hand, tennis remains one of the most popular sports on the college landscape - with over 2,000 varsity programs nationwide and some colleges adding tennis programs over the past few years.
When we sent this topic to our panel of coaches, the ITA had not yet announced the new experimental rules to shorten dual tennis matches - a development that is reflected in some of the coaches' answers below.
That brings us to the question we put in front of our panel of coaches...
Q) Is college tennis thriving or struggling? What changes or improvements are you monitoring?
Andy Christodoulou, head coach, Siena Women
Tennis at the college level is a non-revenue generating sport that also lacks behind in popularity to other individual intercollegiate sports such as golf, swimming and track. Currently we have 335 NCAA DI Women's tennis programs and only 161 DI Men's programs. A report in July of 2012 by the NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Tennis Committee reported that 138 college tennis programs have been dropped since 2003. More and more institutions and conferences are labeling tennis as a "tier three sport". For example tier one sorts are football and basketball, tier two are softball and baseball. Furthermore athletic conferences are "tagging" tennis as a non-sponsored sport which means it can be dropped by the member institutions of that conference. Based on these facts is my personal belief that the game of intercollegiate tennis is struggling.
Today the DNA of the collegiate tennis game has changed with more international student athletes playing DI tennis than ever before. The level and quality of play has increased, and a dual match now takes three to three-and-a-half hours to complete. The average community tennis fan and alumni cannot make the time commitment to attend such a long match, and so many fans have become disengaged.
The ITA is experimenting with shortening the dual match format that can be used to improve the collegiate dual match experience for student-athletes, fans, and television viewers. If this experiment is successful, it will generate more exposure, more interest, more resources and bring larger budgets. If these changes don't work, they will further damage the integrity of the fragile collegiate tennis game. Let's hope they work for the love we all have for this wonderful game.
Andrew Stubbs, head coach, Winthrop Men
In my opinion, the state of college tennis has reached a climax point with the outcome yet to be determined. On one hand, college tennis is thriving like never before. For the first time in the modern era, college tennis is now considered a legitimate pathway to professional tennis. The average age of the top 100 professional players is trending up, and an increasing number of the world's top juniors are choosing to play collegiate tennis without sacrificing their dreams of becoming successful on the professional level. Tennis players are choosing to become student-athletes and continue their education; they are choosing to take the time to gain experience and mature physically and mentally; and they are choosing to participate in the exciting team tennis environment. All of this is raising the overall level of college tennis players, raising the expectation put on college coaches to develop players, and it is creating a more exciting and competitive atmosphere to participate in collegiate tennis. Additionally, college tennis is gaining greater exposure from the world of tennis as a whole.
On the other hand, there are several factors threatening this prosperous time in college tennis. The arms race in college athletics, particularly in football and basketball, is pulling resources and attention away from sports such as tennis, and many universities are examining the benefits against the costs associated with moving forward in these sports. There has also been an ongoing, but heated debate regarding the college tennis format over the last few years. Advocates of the current system do not want to sacrifice the integrity of the game with changes to scoring or structure. They also believe that changes would negatively affect the number of top juniors who are currently deciding to play college tennis as opposed to turning professional. Others are arguing that change is inevitable and necessary for tennis to remain relevant in the ever-changing world of collegiate athletics.
The answers to these questions will have a huge impact on the future of college tennis. However, as for now, it is an exciting time to be a college tennis player, coach, or fan.
Andrew Girard, head coach, Carnegie Mellon Men and Women
Narrowing the focus down to the Division III level, I would say college tennis is absolutely thriving. In terms of tennis talent, more and more even top nationally-ranked players are choosing Division III, and the depth and competition every year gets better and better.
From a financial perspective, the general movement I've seen is for teams to add or expand their full-time and part-time coaching staffs. I don't have the exact numbers to quote, but I am fairly certain the number of schools that sponsor tennis at the Division III level has been steadily rising over my eleven years of coaching.
Gregory Wyzkowski, head coach, Seton Hall Women
Thriving or Striving could depend on whether you see a glass half empty or half full. Recently even more college tennis programs were dropped. Some schools have removed their tennis courts and put parking spots in their place. Reading similar stories will have you believe that college tennis is struggling - which could be true in some areas of the country but not true in others.
There are other indicators of growth, like 1,000 or more fans attending a college tennis match, and college tennis matches showing up on cable television. Both of these things are happening, and they could be growing across the country. But those exciting elements lead to another question: Do we want traditional tennis that may not attract large fan bases or TV coverage? Or do we want to change the college tennis format to, say, something like the World Team Tennis format?
Our sport offers many mental and physical challenges that other sports do not. Bruce Springsteen has a song with lyrics that went, "56 channels and nothing on." There are more things to occupy our attention now than in previous decades. Some scientists say that our attention spans - even for things we enjoy - is now shorter than it was just a few years ago. Do we make drastic changes in an effort to thrive? Immediate changes can create short-term excitement. But what happens when that wears off and we face the same situation again? When we have players and coaches participate in the sport for the love of it we can thrive. The Beatles once sang - Money can't buy me love.
College tennis is an experience a student will cherish the rest of his/her life. That could mean enjoying the journey with just your teammates most of the time - or could be an added enjoyment of TV and fans. Thriving or struggling depends on what the individual feels is important.
Eric Toth, head coach, Xavier Men and Women
With the number of recruiting inquiries I handle daily, and with the high number of prospects that I am communicating with, I would definitely say that our sport is thriving at the collegiate level. There never seems to be a shortage of young people who are interested in including competitive, collegiate tennis as part of their experience.
Through various fundraising efforts we involve ourselves with each year, our program will continue to flourish and provide our kids with the best possible experience for a school of our size and level.
Obviously, what has gotten a lot of attention as of late are the proposed changes to the format of the collegiate match to make it more watchable from beginning to end for current and future fans of our game. A lot is still up in the air as far as what will ultimately be done in this area. My hope is that the leaders of our sport will support a format that is still exciting and does not compromise the integrity of tennis. Regardless of what is decided, my enthusiasm for the college game and the impact our University, my staff and I can have on our student-athletes will remain positive.
Nicole Selvaggio, head coach, Moraine Valley CC Women
I definitely think college tennis is thriving. Up and coming tennis players realize that getting an education is just as important - if not more important - as pursuing their tennis careers. I think this has a lot to do with the economy and the financial struggles students and their families are facing. Earning scholarship money to play tennis is a great incentive for these financially-strapped students. Plus, it gives them something to work for when they are training at academies and participating in tournaments. But this does not only have to apply to the top-tier high school tennis players. High school tennis players of all playing-abilities have the chance to continue with the sport at any of the wide range of schools and divisions - NCAA, NAIA, and JUCO - available.
Being a coach at the JUCO level has definitely opened my eyes to this. After my players finish their two years playing for me, they develop the maturity and skills to continue on and pursue the sport at the next level - whether that is at a four-year university or beyond. Tennis is a very competitive sport, especially because it is so individual-based. Not every tennis player has the resources or the opportunities to travel and compete on the circuit. Playing college tennis allows these players to continue doing what they love, grow up a little bit more, and obtain a degree when all is said and done. I believe that is the ultimate win-win scenario. Plus, unlike if they were solely playing tournaments, college tennis players get the chance to experience a team atmosphere. There is no greater feeling than knowing that you have your teammates at the fence cheering you on - even though you are by yourself battling on the court. Winning now becomes intrinsic because you are competing for yourself and your team.
At Moraine Valley, we are very invested in our student-athletes. Just last year, we put in ten brand new, fully-lighted, state-of-the-art tennis courts that are even open to the community. In March 2014, we will also be opening our brand-new Health Fitness and Recreation Center, which will be free for our student-athletes to use. Improvements like these wouldn't happen unless our school was so invested in our student-athletes, and particularly our tennis players. These kinds of facilities even allow us to draw in large crowds during our matches. In particular, high school tennis teams come out to watch us because they are starting to see how attainable playing college tennis can really be. As a coach, I think this is very special because my school, my players, and my team in general are providing an image of opportunity for the neighboring high school tennis players - from the state-qualifier to the exhibition player.
I think college tennis has never been more hot than it is right now, and this trend will only continue to rise.
Mark Jeffrey, head coach, Louisiana Men
College Tennis has definitely struggled over the past 35 years. We have lost over 300 programs - both men and women - in this time. We have to change our product before we can go forward. Our product is not marketable, it is confusing, it is hard to understand for tennis followers, and it is a bit of a disconnect for tennis players at the social level. There is really only one problem with college tennis and that is the product itself. It is hard to market and needs to be changed.
The product must change. College tennis remains a lower-tier sport in the eyes of high-level administrators and school presidents. We have a losing game, and it is common sense that if you have a losing game and continue to do the same things, then why would you expect a different outcome? College Tennis needs to be revolutionized - the boat needs to move in a different direction. The more we change and try, the closer we will get to a successful product. Our refusal to change has put our game out of touch of the general public. The scoring system is complicated, and matches last too long. Our niche in the market must be placed on excitement, uncertain outcome, and allocation of time all complimentary to television viewers.
Our product has to be on television for our atheltic directors to take us seriously. I have heard many coaches with a defeatist mentality say that college tennis will never get on TV, so what does it matter? Many sports have passed college tennis in the past 25 years and now are on TV quite frequently. It is time for us to shape our product for TV. If we continue on our current model there will not be college tennis in the future.
How do other sports get to be placed on TV? First there is a groundswell of excitement. People in droves participate, then want to compete. College tennis does not relate to the regular tennis player - it never has. When a regular player plays tennis, it takes them maybe two hours at most to get a result and go about their day. College tennis has to be sensitive to the two-hour mark - not four, five, or six hours like it is today. People are not coming back once they learn it takes four to five hours to get a result.
Simplify the scoring system. Make it easier to follow for fans. For example, total points or first to a number vs points games sets. First to 21 points is a lot easier to follow rather than first to eight games.
In conclusion if you made a product for 90 minutes that is exciting and easy to follow, then you could market, brand, and make college tennis an exciting game for people to follow. Then that groundswell will push toward college administrators - and then television executives.
Until we change our product, nothing will really change....