Tennis holds its own – Traditional sports against others

Tennis event and competition venues

Game, set, match

How do you make a long-established sport appeal to the next generation? With smartphone technology exploding over the last decade and the mixed needs of millennials, organizations such as the United States Tennis Association (USTA) are looking for ways to draw new players. Children are not playing organized sports the same way previous generations did. “We’re fortunate that tennis is holding its own,” said Kurt Kamperman, chief executive of the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, Fla. “Tennis is actually doing quite well compared to other traditional sports.”

There are 17.9 million tennis players in the U.S., according to the Physical Activity Council 2017 report, a number that has remained relatively flat. However, the number of players ages 6 to 12 went up 11.7 percent between 2015 and 2016, and adult players are hitting the courts more often.  “We have a number of programs aimed at millennials,” Kamperman said, including social leagues with names such as “Sets in the City” and described as more of a gathering than a competition. Because the six- to eight-week season is not a commitment millennials want to make, leagues are going week-to-week instead. “Hopefully, we’ll get more millennials playing,” he said.

The USTA National Campus opened in January 2017 as a site where players of all levels can play and train. The 64-acre site boasts 100 courts and has hosted players from “9 and younger to 90 and older, which is cool,” Kamperman said. “Not a lot of sports can appeal to people in all those age groups and not a lot of facilities can accommodate them.” In its opening year, the USTA National Campus hosted recreation league championships, pro tournaments, wheelchair tournaments, an ITF World Championship and group tournaments for a variety of age groups. 

From mid-February to mid-March, it will host a collegiate Spring Break when teams from across the country can come to Orlando and play a different team each day, all at the same site. During 2017, the campus hosted 100 tournaments and had almost 200,000 visitors walk through its doors.  All that new technology is not lost on the USTA, which live streams competitions on all its courts. A grandmother in Boston watched online as her 14-year-old granddaughter played in a recent national championship. “We built that technology here because we hope other people will use it as well,” Kamperman said. “Plus, because the games are taped, kids can go back and take their best shots and share on social media.”

Leagues bounce back

Planning tennis events and competitions

With an upswing in the economy, the Copeland-Cox Tennis Center in Mobile, Ala., is seeing its leagues and tournament play bounce back. The center, one of the largest public tennis facilities in the country, offers 60 courts and hosts an array of events. “Things are up as far as local participation, league play and tournaments,” said Scott Novak, tournament director for the center. “We’re taking the maximum number of people in tournaments. The economy broke, so people are having disposable income and wanting to travel.” A couple of years ago, the center had open spots in its tournaments. That’s no longer the case. Now there’s a waiting list.

Thirty tournaments are scheduled for 2018, up from 29 in 2017 and 24 in 2016. Those 24 events in 2016 had more than a $50 million positive economic impact on the Mobile region, while the 2017 tournaments brought in about $60 million. “We are known for having large out-of-town tournaments,” Novak said, adding that the center benefits from a partnership with Mobile city and county governments, as well as Visit Mobile, the tourism arm that has a presence at the center’s events.  The largest event held at the Copeland-Cox Center is the USTA Southern Combo Adult Doubles with 1,500 participants. Smaller competitions draw about 200 players, Novak said.

The center has undergone several expansions over the past several years to accommodate the growth.

Hitting a milestone

In 2017, the American Tennis Association (ATA), the oldest African-American professional sports organization in the United States, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its first National Championship.  The ATA formed in 1916 when the United States Lawn Tennis Association (the USLTA, now the USTA) banned black players from its competitions. More than a dozen black tennis clubs met in Washington, D.C., to form the ATA and, in 1917, the organization held its first National Championship in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. 

In celebrating its 100th anniversary, the ATA National Championships returned to Druid Hill Park, drawing more than 400 adult players and more than 300 junior players, most from out of town. “Quite naturally, it was fitting that we would host our 100th National Championship in Baltimore where it all started,” said Caroline Rucker, ATA’s executive administrative coordinator. Rucker said the parks department and city were helpful in planning the championship, especially as it related to the courts at Druid Hill Park. “It was very important to us that we played there,” she said.

During the early years of the ATA, organizers faced challenges in putting on competitions. In the segregated South, large groups of black people were not accommodated at most hotels and public tennis facilities, so black universities such as Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), Morehouse College and Lincoln University provided tennis courts and housing for players.  Colleges such as Tuskegee University and Howard University had introduced tennis programs in the 1890s.

Prior to returning to Baltimore for the anniversary event, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., hosted the ATA Nationals, with an average attendance of 2,000 to 3,000 players.  “The GFLCVB is ecstatic that the ATA is looking to have their permanent home here in Broward County,” said Albert Tucker, vice president of Multicultural Business Development for the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB. “Having the home of the ATA in our destination ensures that every July we will be able to host their 2,000-plus players to our destination and we welcome the $2.5 million economic impact that the event brings to our community.” The ATA is raising funds for that permanent home: a $6.6 million, 26-court Tennis and Education Complex in Miramar, Fla. The facility will also house a museum celebrating the sport’s black stars, including Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters, who pledged $1 million toward the complex. Gibson became the first African-American to compete in a National Championship in 1950, breaking the color barrier previously placed by the USLTA.