Restore the Green World
By Kim Shanley
To The TennisONE Community
One moment of magic at Wimbledon this week. In sheer exuberant and wildly competitive desperation, Paradorn Srichaphan and Olivier Mutis dive full-length on the grass to hit the ball one last time across the net. Srichaphan, I believe, wins the point, but both players rise smiling and laughing. The crowd shrieks in delight and delivers a thunderous ovation for these two athletes who have flung their bodies and spirit into the match with such joyous abandon.
Sometimes the essence of something shows itself in a moment, and then disappears for months. I believe the powers that be in the tennis industry should pay attention to this magical Wimbledon moment and begin to make some changes in the way the game is presented and marketed. At least in the United States, the drive to "build the game" has failed. A comprehensive survey conducted in the fall of 2002 by the USTA and Tennis Industry showed that tennis participation in the U.S. has flatlined at around 23 million. The good news was that five million took up tennis. The bad news was that 5 million left the game, and most of those between the ages of 35-50.
Many remedies have been suggested for tennis' sluggish growth, including changing some rules. While I think it's obvious that some rule changes have improved the game (the tie-breaker for one), I think the game is fundamentally sound. It's the marketing of the game that stinks. Just one example highlights the hollowness and shallow commercialism of tennis' marketing. Tennis TV coverage regularly skips points, games, and even entire sets of the biggest matches in the game! Can you imagine the NBA allowing the networks to cover just the first and fourth quarter of an NBA game or Major League Baseball allowing the networks to cover the first three innings and then skip to the ninth inning? There are too many issues here to discuss in one newsletter, including the possibility of installing an all-powerful tennis commissioner (I happen to agree with that one). I'll focus on just one remedy: tennis needs to build a powerful brand.
What's a brand? A brand is the essence of a product or service beyond its functional attributes. For example, with 50,000 coffee-houses and $4 billion in revenue, Starbucks stands for much more than a cup of coffee. Starbucks stands for a certain idealized lifestyle, where hip people hang out in a cool urban setting and listen to cool jazz music and sip authentically brewed coffee. In his inspiring book, Pour Your Heart Into It, Starbucks CEO and visionary Howard Schultz says, "In this ever-changing society, the most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart. They are real and sustainable. Their foundations are stronger because they are built with the strength of the human spirit, not an ad campaign. The companies that are lasting are those that are authentic."
Tennis isn't the only sport that has had trouble with its brand. The brand of baseball, the national pastime in the U.S., has been in trouble several times over the past twenty years. Baseball once built cavernous mega-stadiums with artificial turf, and the sport seemed dominated by self-serving superstars. In their pursuit of a mega-sport, baseball lost contact with the average fan as well as the purity and authenticity of its brand. Now all the stadiums are small, the grass is real, and the marketing emphasizes the authenticity and history of the game. Bingo, the brand has been restored and the fans have come back.
How can tennis build its brand and recapture the magic that seems to have deserted it? I say bring back the grass. During its golden age, three of the four grand slams were played on grass. Wimbledon is wonderful, but it only lasts two weeks a year! Yes, as impractical and quixotic as it sounds, I believe tennis should bring back grass as the primary surface to showcase the game.
People loved to see Srichaphan/Mutis diving on the Wimbledon grass this week. Grass is real. Grass is authentic. Grass elicits deep emotional and mythic associations to the green world, a natural world of fun and competition, where kids and adults play baseball and soccer on beautiful summer days. Just as football and baseball had to abandon their infatuation with synthetic, artificial surfaces to regain their brand essence, tennis needs to lose its infatuation with hard, cement surfaces. Rather than absorbing heat and cushioning the shock of athletic movement, cement radiates heat and breaks down the body. Cement surfaces aren't the only reason why all those 35-50 year olds are giving up the game, but these bone-jarring surfaces sure aren't helping. And how fun does this game look to kids when they see two pros are grinding away on the 120 degree surfaces at the Australian and US Open?
Wouldn't it be expensive to showcase the sport on grass? Yes, it would be more expensive. But football and baseball squarely faced up to the problem and most teams have now ripped out their artificial surfaces and replaced them with grass. The golf industry keeps investing in new courses requiring hundreds of acres of beautiful grass, including 18 perfectly manicured grass putting surfaces. And golf has grown enormously in popularity over the past twenty years.
I say spend the money to restore tennis to the green world. Is that the only thing needed to "grow the game?" Of course not. But showcase Agassi and Ferrero diving on the grass like the NBA showcases Kobe and Shaq dunking the ball, cut to tennis fans screaming with exultation at the legendary feats of their superstars, and tennis will be on its way to restoring its lost magic and having fans and celebrities genuinely shouting, "I love this game!"
My thanks to all those who wrote to me about my last newsletter ("The Joy of Hitting"). I would love to hear what you think of this one. Please click here to send your email directly to me.
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