STARNBERG, October 15, 2019 (by Matt Brown)
Public opinion of the ITF has been waning in recent years.
Many in the tennis community, from the grassroots to the elite levels, are concerned with the state of the sport. The ITF has come under increasing criticism for failing to promote tennis as well as it possibly could, and for letting the Pro Circuit become increasingly complex.
Here are 6 steps that the ITF could take to improve the state of the sport of tennis.
1. Embrace digital promotion channels
Tennis is one of the few sports with a truly great social media community. For the most part, coverage of the majors is quite open and comprehensive, and the community is mostly free of toxic “trolls” or other negative actors.
For most tournaments, comprehensive highlights are available online on sites such as YouTube, which is a great way to make professional tennis accessible to children and young adults.
However, Generation Z does not want to just watch highlights – they want to become fully involved in the sport. For those who are yet to overcome the objection that tennis is too difficult to pick up, there has to be a way to “bridge the gap”, and enable these kids to become involved.
For example, tennis does not yet have a video game that players will flock to. Unlike football’s FIFA series, which sells 20 million or more copies annually, tennis only has the occasional game made by independent developers. Often, these are spinoffs of a single tournament, and even the “World Tour” style games are not often well-received.
The ITF needs to be more careful in selling the image rights of players/tournaments, to ensure that developers are going to make a game that people actually want to play. This way, tennis will be promoted to a much wider audience.
2. Consider alternate formats
We’re not saying that the ITF should immediately change the format of the matches played at majors. Tennis has succeeded in the past due to how the sport works – and changing this for no reason would make no sense.
However, the game must evolve to match what the market wants. If research suggests that games should be quicker, then alternate formats such as Thirty30 should be considered.
Plenty of other sports use a variety of different formats for their different tournaments. Cricket, for example, has three different formats that are played at an international level. If it
is clear that change is necessary, there is no reason why tennis cannot invest in trialing different formats, especially at youth levels.
3. Make tennis more accessible
This is a broad-sounding step. What does it actually mean?
One of the problems tennis has is the fact that you need a decent amount of equipment to play it. Apart from racquets and tennis balls, you also need the right shoes, and most important of all – a court.
Other sports are able to benefit from how easy they are to pick up and play. Football for instance only requires a single person – at least to practice.
The ITF should take steps to help its national associations make tennis more accessible in their respective countries. For example, they could promote variations of tennis, designed for kids, that can be played with a wall instead of a full-sized tennis court.
The federation could also ramp up its equipment and grassroots grants to give more kids the opportunity to experience tennis.
4. Help players break even
Once a child begins to take tennis seriously, they’re faced with a bit of a problem – the game is very expensive to play. Currently, it costs around $60,000 for a player to join the junior circuit – and that’s without a coach! More than half don’t break even.
If the ITF could manage to bring these costs down for players, there would be much more competition at the junior levels, and the standard of the game would improve even further.
This is easier said than done though. Tournament organizers are hardly going to want to begin operating at a loss.
What the ITF could do is provide federations with more funds to issue means-tested grants for players. Meaning, those who cannot demonstrably afford the costs of competing would be eligible for funding, to at least help them break even.
5. Clarify how accurate HawkEye is
Because Hawkeye is provided by a third party company, which does not want to reveal its trade secrets, we as the tennis community have no real idea how the system works, or how accurate it is. Researchers from Cardiff University claim that its average error is much larger than the 3.6mm that Hawkeye has stated.
Hawkeye disputed this finding, but would not elaborate.
This might not seem like a big deal. However, it’s important that both players and fans have confidence in the system. If its accuracy remains uncertain, this raises the question of how many incorrect calls it actually makes on a regular basis.
6. Shorten the tennis calendar
This is another one that’s easier said than done!
However, it’s probably the most important thing for the ITF to do on this list. The reason that so many are critical of the ITF’s recent decision-making is the fact that it is perceived to be under the ATP’s thumb, as it were. For example, with the Davis Cup, the governing body has been forced to try to change it a one-week event in the middle of the off-season, under pressure from the ATP, which threatened to make its own separate team competition.
In men’s tennis especially, there are far too many Grand Slams – some say that tennis has an “injury crisis“.
Essentially, the ITF needs to reign back control from the ATP and WTA. Otherwise, it will be powerless to make genuine improvements to the sport of tennis.