Gary Horvath is a USPTA master pro, founder and past president of the USA Professional Platform Tennis Association, charter member of PPTR, a certified coach with USA Volleyball and a long-standing member of the Wilson Advisory Staff.
His experience as a tennis pro has covered the entire spectrum from grassroots to college tennis. In addition, Gary Horvath has conducted extensive business and economic research that has largely supported the state of Colorado's economic development efforts.
COLLEGE TENNIS - THE RODNEY DANGERFIELD OF TENNIS
We want YOU to support college tennis!
By Gary Horvath
Rodney Dangerfield was notorious for his catchphrase “I don’t get no respect!” If he was alive today, college tennis might hire him as its spokesperson because it does not get the respect it deserves for being the training ground for the U.S. tennis-teaching profession. College tennis is as important to the tennis industry as semiconductors are to the U.S. economy. A college tennis player with a degree is a precious commodity in a tennis job market with a low unemployment rate and a shortage of quality tennis professionals.
U.S. Tennis Participation
In January, the USTA announced that U.S. tennis participation jumped to 23.6 million players in 2022, up from 17.7 million in 2019. Most of the surge came in 2020 and 2021 because tennis was a popular way to exercise and comply with COVID-19 protocol. In 2022, the sport increased by one million players.
After experiencing a gradual downturn from 2010 to 2019, the industry welcomed the recent pandemic surge in participation. Unfortunately, there were casualties along the way, as volatility is never uniform across all market segments.
USTA membership and some member programs experienced downturns. While disappointing, some of these downturns were not disturbing because players found alternatives such as in-house programs or unstructured play. These programs will eventually return to pre-pandemic levels or be replaced by refined or different programs.
The loss of high school and college programs is more problematic. High school tennis is a critical tool for retaining older teenagers and college tennis is part of the supply chain for coaches. Both programs have small market sizes, and unique funding mechanisms and restrictions.
NCAA Sponsorship and Participation
The following analysis uses NCAA data from their annual report, NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates (1956 through 2021-2022), updated on October 27, 2022. The report summarizes program activity from its member schools, as opposed to the market research/participation surveys conducted by TIA/SMS Marketing. The data considers the three NCAA divisions (DI, DII, and DIII) but does not include the junior college and NAIA divisions.
The irony of the ATP and WTA tours is that they both start off with a few smaller tournaments and then immediately have their players engaged in a Grand Slam event. Many may forget that years ago, the first Grand Slam was the French Open in late May and the Australian Open was played at the end of the year. Scheduling and politics changed that around. Too many top players would not bother to go down under unless they were making a run at achieving a Grand Slam or closing in on the #1 ranking in the world. That, combined with a substantial journey right in the middle of the holiday season, was for many, just too much.
Women’s Sponsorships and Participation
Each division trended downward slightly over the past decade, as a result of the pandemic. In 1997-98 there were 852 teams. After 24 years of additions and deletions, there were 859 teams in 2021-22. There were increases in the number of DI and DIII teams and a slight decrease in the number of DII teams.
Over the past 24 seasons, the average number of women’s teams was 898, and the range was 852 to 939. There was a significant decline of 41 teams across all three divisions during the pandemic.
The average annual participation was 8,629 over the past 24 seasons. During that period, the range was 8,130 to 9,028. The lowest value of the range occurred in 2020-2021.
There was a small decline of 95 players during the pandemic. Most likely, existing schools carried larger rosters or when teams were dissolved, players transferred to other schools.
All divisions posted slight gains in participation over the 24 years, and DIII posted gains during the pandemic.
Men’s Sponsorship and Participation
The story is not as positive for the men’s programs.
For starters, in 2021-22, the women had 859 teams in all divisions compared to 696 for the men. There were 8,442 women participants compared to 7,426 men.
Men’s sponsorship trended down for the past 24 seasons, while women’s sponsorship was flat.
Over the past 24 seasons, the average number of men’s teams was 752, and the range was 696 to 774. The 2021-22 season was the only time the number of sponsorships was under 700.
Over the past 24 seasons, the average number of men’s participants was 7,733, and the range was 7,122 to 8,211. The lowest value of the range (7,122) occurred in the 2020-21 season.
Since the 1997-98 season, DIII programs added 261 players, and there were 480 fewer participants in the DI and five fewer in the DII division. Given that there are 71 fewer teams in the DI and DIII divisions, it is surprising there was not more of a decline in participation.
WE WANT YOU TO SUPPORT COLLEGE TENNIS
Rather than resurrecting the Rodney Dangerfield catchphrase, a better approach would be to bring back the old Uncle Sam posters that stated WE WANT YOU!
It begins with the USTA and its seventeen divisions. They can support college tennis even though it is not a USTA program.
The USPTA and PTR can join forces with the ITA to increase the number of college tennis players interested in becoming professionals or coaches. That is about 16,000 men and women athletes in 2023.
Communities can support their local college teams!
Tennis United can show its clout and advocate for increased support for men’s programs while maintaining support for women's programs. Title IX has been great for college women's tennis. At the same time, the playing field can be made more level for men tennis.
ITA can continue advocating for college tennis as it did throughout the pandemic. Keep up the good work.
The decline in college tennis programs and participation is detrimental to the sport.
WE WANT YOU TO SUPPORT COLLEGE TENNIS!
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