Monday, September 19, 2005

If only you were more of a snob, I'd like you better: I've heard some crazy explanations in my day about the reasons why tennis is losing its popularity, but perhaps none so off-the-wall as Slate offers us today: because everyone can afford to play it, no one wants to.

Sure, the author gives lip service to the fact that the matches are more boring, because the players are more boring, and no one can see, much less appreciate, a 130mph serve, but really, if tennis could just be more like...more it would be more interesting. See, Tiger doesn't wear shorts, and ummm, golf matches are played mostly at private clubs, so ummmm, see??!?

I don't question that Americans are social-climbers at heart, but to suggest that the reason golf is surging and tennis waning is because golf is elitist is freaking elitist. Golf is more popular because of one word: Tiger. End of sentence, end of story. Even I, golf hater, will watch golf (at least the majors) because Tiger is playing. Short of that, I might like to stick around and see how Lefty wins or loses a tourney.

Tennis is boring because all the players are. The Williams girls gave the game a brief shot in the arm, but their all-too-evident laissez faire attitude instills the same in the same in the audience. Roddick is verging on being a one-serve wonder; Davenport, the Russians...all too inconsistent. The Maestro...he is a thing of beauty to watch play, but when no one can step up to the plate with him (not even Steffi's husband), then we are left with no one to cheer for.

Tiger's invincibility raised the game of golf up to new levels. His supposed fall, took it even higher. We all love a champion, but we secretly love the little guy too. Tennis has no little has Gulliver, and it has its Lilliputians; FeeFiFoFum, with no "Englishmun". Please, someone, rescue my tennis fairy tale.


Flyer said...

Yes the personalities haven't been there for tennis in some time. But tennis has some other problems as well.

First, nobody outside of Flushing Meadow knows what events matter and what ones don't. And nobody knows where the hell Flushing Meadow is. Most people think its from a Beatles song. The four slams ae big enough to get attention, but there's no cohesive tour beyond them that regularly features big names. Instead it's scattered all over the globe, one event feeding off another.

Second, they need to eliminate appearance fees for players, big names included. You want a big payday you have to show up and win some matches. I suspect there's quite a few who are happy to play a round or two and if things aren't going so well, no big deal. They still make $250K. At least in golf you have to beat half the field before you collect a dime. (In golf and tennis all the big names have sponsorship money flowing in, so it's not like they're going to starve, but if your name slips on the PGA Tour's end of year money list, sponsor dollars start to dry up.)

Third, both golf and tennis have some problems related to power and equipment. Namely, has oversized and improved equipment created a more agressive, but less skillful and entertaining, player. Sure the best (Tiger, Federer) have skills that are real and would stand up in any era, but the field is, arguably, less deep in each. Golf is trying to deal with it by tackling the courses first, lengthening them and narrowing the fairways, growing deeper rough. But you can't change the dimensions of a tennis court. Maybe they'll have to look at the rackets and balls eventually to rein in the cannons and bring back serve and volley tennis.

Razor said...

I shall take your well-stated, if somewhat questionably-reasoned, statements in seriatim:

1. Yes, the PGA BellSouth Classic in Duluth, Georgia is quite the tourist site, apart from the tourney. As is the B.C. Open at the En Joie Golf Club in Endicott, NY. I mean, who hasn't already been there six times?

2. Well, that's a good point, but also hard to implement. The lesser tourneys don't get crowds at all unless they offer big names. The big names go where they money or prestige take them. It's somewhat of a Catch-22. On the other hand, you might say, well, if the tourney can't support its own crowd (whether by virtue of geography or facilities), then it shouldn't have a tourney - hard to argue that.

3. Now you're on to something. The tennis court will not be changed in shape or dimension (only color [the French being the obvious exception that proves the rule]). I love how golf courses change every year, so that you never know what you'll be up against next year at Augusta. With tennis, it's all about the match-up. Which, in these dire times, means everyone has a shot to get to the Quarters, unless playing against The Maestro, and from then on, abandon all hope...

Maybe we need more clays, more variance in playing surface. Maybe, like Eno would suggest, only wood and cat gut. I should think that getting rid of the 150mph serves couldn't hurt in the long run...

Flyer said...

Say what you will about the Bell South or the 84 Lumber or other third tier golf tournaments. The PGA Tour has sold itself so well to the business community that the most ridiculously small and pathetic golf tournament gets at least two if not four days of tv coverage. The big names aren't even there but they're able to put together a multi-million dollar prize purse to get some hungry players to show up. The ratings may not be great, but the networks have enough built in advertising from the year's pool of sponsors that they don't take a bath and they make a mint on the majors and a handful of other mid-majors (Doral, Pebble, Memorial, Ryder Cup etc.).

We could argue about compelling entertainment ad nauseum and never agree, Raz, but golf has created a much more successful business model, even without Tiger. The Golf Channel was a successful venture before the Tiger Phenomenon, and before every two-bit pastime with eleven fans could get their own cable channel, somewhere in the mid-400's on your digital box. Christ, the NFL Network is barely getting traction, ten years after TGC was offering 24 hour plaid pants.

Right now tennis gets less face time than the frickin' Champions-nee-Senior Tour. Less than the Ladies Tour. About on par with bowling. I think tennis is a great sport to watch at its best, or even at its very good (yeah, that's awful writing), I just wish somehow they could resolve their issues and get good, meaningful events on tv regularly.

Razor said...

No, no, please do not misunderstand me. I agree that golf is off the charts and that it's really working on re-inventing itself.

I concur, I concur, I concur.

I just disagree with the author, and to some extent, you, on the causes of popularity. I maintain that if you take away Tiger, you are left with a lot of pretty scenery, but about half the audience.

enobarbus said...

I'm really enjoying this discussion.

Razor said...

You're supposed to say "Interesting."

Flyer said...

I also disagree with the author's point about golf being "aspirational" or whatever. And I agree that golf got a major boost from Tiger in the late '90's, some of which would go away if Tiger did.

In looking for suggestions for the sport of tennis, though, I'm saying they need to do more than just hope for "their Tiger Woods" to come along. In fact, you might say he already did, only he was two women. Women's tennis got a bump from Venus & Serena. Maybe the men will get one of their own, maybe not. In the meantime..

(For the record, I'm not suggesting that such a bump can only come from athletes of the less than caucasian complexion. A young Andre Agassi with a little more power and all the rock star attitude would work fine.)

Tennis needs to figure out what structural changes they can make to market the game better, instead of waiting around for a star bump. Golf has done well to get a star about every twenty years who can give it a boost (Palmer, Norman, Tiger) but their business model will outlast any one personality. I don't think tennis can say the same thing.

I hope tennis never becomes a "niche sport." It can and should do better. It has history and money, two things that have helped golf market itself.