SBJ/August 31 - September 6, 1998/No Topic Name

In need of diversity, tennis courts its own Tiger Woods

Tennis, like its country club counterpart, golf, is reaching out to minority and young players to reverse declining participation rates.

This past spring, the U.S. Tennis

Association, the governing body of

U.S. professional and amateur tennis, launched a five-year, $50 million campaign to reach mainly urban markets. The strategy joins other programs aiming at new players, but the numbers so far are stacked against the game.

In 1987, 21 million people played tennis. By 1997, the figure had dropped to 17.5 million, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Of those, 72 percent are white and less than a third are under 18.

"The numbers have been fairly flat in the past few years," said Brad Patterson, executive director of the Tennis Industry Association. "Of course, tennis

doesn't do a good enough job of attracting minority participants. But people are now serious about what it is we need to do to make [tennis] more appealing."

The USTA's $50 million investment should help. Other efforts include a partnership between the men's ATP Tour, the Tennis Industry Association and the Cartoon Network. The partnership, called the SMASH Tennis program, includes a "cartoonized" touring truck equipped with a portable tennis court and stage featuring cartoon characters, interactive games and advertising on the Cartoon Network in an effort to expose children to tennis. This year the truck will stop in 16 cities as tennis takes direct aim at the 4- to 11-year-old demographic.

"The numbers don't prove it, but there are intangibles that show that the effort is working," Patterson said. "There is tremendous publicity everyplace where the truck stops. What tennis really needs is a Tiger Woods."

Cheaper rackets and court time wouldn't hurt either.

"There is a perception issue and a reality issue," said Ivan Blumberg, managing partner of Washington-based Pro-Serv Inc., which runs several pro tennis tournaments. "The perception is that tennis is an elitist sport, and we have to do everything in our power to dispel that perception. But tennis rackets, court time and instruction are expensive. We've got to make tennis available to our best athletes who are choosing other sports."

According to Seena Hamilton, who runs a national junior tournament called the Easter Bowl, it takes at least $20,000 annually to fund a nationally ranked junior tennis player. Hamilton cites a study that says 94 percent of all junior-level tennis players have private coaches. In addition, 25 percent of all families of junior tennis players earn at least $200,000 annually, and another 25 percent earn between $75,000 and $200,000. Thirty-nine percent of those families earn between $50,000 and $75,000. Only 11 percent earn less than $50,000.

"Most kids who break through are the ones who manage to find sponsors," Hamilton said. "If a kid wants to do more in tennis, he has to have private coaching and mentoring, but it all costs a lot of money. Something needs to be done."

The sporting goods industry is playing a major role in introducing tennis to minorities and young players as major racket manufacturers donate thousands of rackets to various organizations to get equipment into new players' hands.

Wilson Sporting Goods Co. supports six main tennis programs and donates rackets to 50 organizations annually, ranging from American Indian reservations to various boys and girls clubs. The Chicago-based company also donates $750,000 a year to various grassroots tennis programs and is the equipment sponsor of the New York Junior Tennis League.

"Our whole vision is grassroots, and some of it is community oriented and some of it is selfish," said Jeff Karp, Wilson's director of marketing for racket sports. "We want to get more people any way we can."

Other experts say that while the myriad of inner-city and youth-oriented programs is beneficial, a united effort would be more likely to improve the sport's demographics and participation rates.

"Tennis has been walking a fine line between preserving its tradition and looking forward to its next century," said Phil dePicciotto, president of northern Virginia-based Advantage International, which represents several top players and runs a number of worldwide events. "The establishment of tournaments overseas has caused a new generation of players in those countries in far greater numbers as other governments and federations donate a lot of money.

"Minority participation and ethnic diversification has happened, but it's been on a global basis. The effort used to be on expanding tennis globally, but now the effort here is to expand tennis on a participant level, and the U.S. has been trying to catch up."

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