Gary Horvath is a USPTA master pro, founder and past president of the USA Professional Platform Tennis Association prior to its merger with USPTA, a certified coach with USA Volleyball and a long-standing member of the Wilson Advisory Staff. His experience as a pro has covered the spectrum from grassroots to college tennis. In addition, Gary Horvath has conducted extensive business/economic research that has largely supported Colorado's economic development efforts.
College Tennis – The Industry’s Best Kept Secret
By Gary Horvath
Those who have played, coached or followed college tennis recognize it is one of the tennis industry’s most exciting forms of tennis. Consider the recent women’s match between 19th ranked University of Southern California and unranked Notre Dame. USC captured the doubles point and took a 3-2 lead after four singles matches. USC captured the first set in both the #4 and #5 singles matches, but Ally Bojcczuk tied the match at 3-3 with a come-from-behind win over Sydney Van Alphen. In the #5 singles match Julia Lilien also rallied defeat Estella Jaeger in a third-set tiebreaker to seal a 4-3 upset victory for the Irish.
Because college tennis is such a well-kept secret, its value to the tennis community is often not understood and appreciated. Athletes have the best of both worlds because they represent their school by playing an individual sport in a team setting.
Most importantly, athletes receive a formal education, while learning life skills on the tennis court. There are opportunities for about 1,900 men and 2,100 women to join a college program each season. The skill levels range from the DIII Coe College women’s program with a UTR power rating of 26 to the DI Wake Forest men’s program with a power rating of 81.
A handful of college athletes are fortunate enough to play on the pro tour and a small number become teaching professionals. Hopefully, the remainder continue to play tennis for the rest of their lives.
College tennis programs strengthen the tennis infrastructure of the communities where they are located. Their courts are obviously used for practice and competition, but they may also be available for unstructured play and special events such as camps and tournaments.
In addition, local tennis professionals, coaches, and instructors may benefit from the knowledge of the college coaching staff. As well, the athletes may increase the diversity and skill level of the local tennis population.
Finally, colleges and universities may have centers of excellence that benefit the community in areas such as sports medicine, the business of sports, sports psychology, or sports performance.
It is in everyone’s best interest to support college tennis based on the tangible and intangible benefits that accrue to the athletes, community, and tennis industry.
The State of the Tennis Industry
The United States is currently experiencing its longest economic expansion. Unfortunately, the tennis industry has not been a participant in that economic growth.
Between 2010 and 2018, the United States economy enjoyed annualized real GDP growth of 2.0%, an increase of 18.7 million wage and salary employees, and an increase in the population of 18.4 million people.
In this economic environment, total tennis participation and unique registrations in the USTA League trended downward at an annualized rate of -0.7%. In addition, the TIA’s tennis equipment index fell to 98. This is the first time since 2003 this measure of the wholesale value of racquets, balls, and strings has dipped below 100. To make matters worse, the index would be lower if it was adjusted for inflation.
On a positive note, high school tennis participation increased at an annualized rate of 0.7% between 2010 and 2018 and college tennis participation was flat during the same period.
Overall College Tennis Participation and Sponsors
This analysis uses data from the NCAA website for the period 1997-98 to 2018-19. The changes in the annual division totals (DI, DII, DIII) may occur because programs are added or deleted or because programs may change their classification by division.
The data in Chart I shows there was limited volatility in the number of sponsored programs between the 1997-98 and 2018-2019 seasons, with an increase from 1,609 to 1,653 teams. Since teams were similar in size, the number of teams and players have a similar growth trajectory. The players increased from 15,781 to 16,381 total men and women athletes.
College tennis participation was flat for the past decade and posted slight gains between 1997-98 and 2018-19. College and university funding and donations were impacted by recessions in 2001 (March through November 2001) and 2007 (December 2007 through June 2009). It would have been easy for colleges and universities to eliminate programs; however, tennis remained an important part of intercollegiate athletic programs through the decade of the 2000s.
NCAA Tennis Team Sponsorship and Participation by Division and Gender
A deeper dive into the data shows there are different trends in sponsorship and participation based on gender and division.
Chart IIa shows that during the 2018-19 season, there were 789 men’s teams in all three divisions and 44.2% of the teams were DIII, 33.5% were DI and 22.3% were DII.
Between the 1997-98 and 2018-19 seasons, the total number of men’s programs decreased by 8 teams from 757 to 749 teams. The number of DI teams dropped by 18, the number of DII teams fell by 20, but the number of DIII teams increased by 30.
Chart IIIa shows that during the 2018-19 season there were 904 women’s teams in all three divisions and 40.8% of the teams were DIII, 32.5% were DI, and 24.7% were DII. The number of women’s teams increased in all three divisions.
Charts IIb and IIIb show that overall, there were 8,596 female athletes and 7,785 male athletes in the 2018-2019 season. About 54.7% of the total programs were for women and 52.4% of the players were women. In addition, the average number of players per men’s team was 11.0 for DIII, 10.1 for DI, and 9.7 DII. The women’s teams were slightly smaller. The breakdown per women’s team was 10.5 for DIII, 9.1 for DI, and 8.5 for DII.
Percentage of NCAA Membership with Tennis Programs
Between the 1997-98 and 2018-19 seasons (Chart IV) there was a decrease in the percentage of the NCAA members that sponsored tennis programs across all categories.
During the 2018-19 season, the following percentage of members had women’s programs: 88.9% DI, 82.7% DIII, and 70.8% DII. The percentages were significantly lower for the men’s programs: 74.2% DIII, 71.5% DI, and 52.7% DII.
This data suggests there are opportunities to add men’s and women’s programs in each of the three divisions.
Fan Support for College Tennis
Fan support for college tennis has varied greatly throughout the country. For example, attendance at the University of Colorado women’s matches may reach 100 spectators if the weather is nice and the Buffs are playing Stanford. At the other end of the spectrum, the ACC website stated that attendance for the 2018 ACC Championships was 3,841 spectators. The University of Georgia website indicates that Georgia led the nation with an attendance of 4,747 during the 2014 season. The Bulldogs averaged 396 fans over 12 matches, at least 100 more than runner-up Baylor.
Support from the Industry
Anecdotal evidence suggests the industry and college tennis would benefit from greater interaction between all coaches and teaching professionals and greater support from the industry.
Over time, there have been justifiable reasons for college coaches and teaching professionals to have limited interaction. The Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), the governing body of college tennis, provides support and education programs for its coaches. In addition, college coaches and teaching professionals serve different market segments and their seasons and peak times on the court are often different.
Historically, USTA support for college tennis has been mixed - at times it has not been collegial. Some USTA sectional and district leaders have expected colleges and universities to make their courts available for USTA tournaments and programs, such as USTA college club tennis. At the same time, they have chosen not to support and promote intercollegiate tennis because it is not a USTA program. In at least one instance, USTA national, sectional, and district leaders have taken out a full-page advertisement in a major metropolitan newspaper to denigrate a local university for cutting a men’s tennis program.
On other occasions, USTA leaders have spoken out against the number of foreign players on college rosters and the fact that men have fewer scholarships than women. Much of this intervention has been construed as inappropriate interference by the USTA.
The USTA has also established USTA college rankings even though ITA had an established ranking system in place. This is an apparent power grab by the USTA and creates unnecessary confusion among consumers.
On a positive note, the USTA has supported the NCAA 2019 DI finals at the national campus. In addition, College Matchday is played in Lake Nona and televised on Tennis Channel.
The USTA has realized the potential of college tennis and sees it as a way to get the USTA brand name in front of the tennis population. Hopefully, the USTA’s future support for college tennis will place the interests of the ITA above the interests of the USTA.
Providing Support for College Tennis
There are many ways to support college tennis. For tennis fans, it is simple. Attend a local college match in your area, or live stream the matches or follow them on Live Stats or television.
For the tennis industry, ITA’s mission statement provides a roadmap for supporting college tennis:
1) Foster and encourage the playing of intercollegiate tennis in accordance with the highest tradition of sportsmanship and consistent with the general objectives of higher education.
2) Develop among the intercollegiate coaches a deeper sense of responsibility in teaching, promoting, maintaining, and conducting the game of tennis.
3) Educate and serve those individuals and groups who are involved in collegiate tennis: junior and college players, their coaches and parents, and the at-large tennis public.
The following are examples of ways the industry might support the ITA mission and college tennis.
1)Improve the quality of coaching at all levels – from recreation to college instruction. This includes creating an on-court learning environment that attracts and motivates athletes to continue playing tennis through their college years.
2) Better utilize and share the knowledge and expertise of coaches in all market segments of the industry.
3) Create funding mechanisms for facility construction that will diversify the tennis population and increase the pool of potential college players.
4) Provide financial support and incentives for colleges to add tennis facilities and programs.
5) Market college tennis with the same fervor as the Final Four.
6) The USTA should allocate resources to the promotion of college tennis at the national, sectional, and district level even if college tennis is not a USTA program.
7)The ITA should be more proactive in educating all market segments of the tennis industry about the values of college tennis, the importance of supporting college tennis, and the value that is added when coaches share their knowledge to improve the way tennis is taught and promoted.
The tennis industry has the expertise to transform college tennis from being one of its best-kept secrets into one of its best told stories. The NCAA championships are less than three months away. Support your local college team!