While tennis has garnered interest as a participatory sport, its pro players and products must look past newspapers' sports pages to win coverage
In the 1980s, tennis players like John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and Martina Navratilova dominated sports pages and drove casual players to the courts. But the sport has since struggled to recapture that enthusiasm.
Tennis hit a slump in the early 1990s that affected both media interest in the pro game as well as the number of casual players.
It's rebounded as a participatory sport, but tennis still struggles to get its share of coverage in the sports pages, despite a host of charismatic top players, such as Venus and Serena Williams.
"In Europe, tennis is covered like pro football or pro basketball is here," says David Higdon, senior communications VP with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the governing body of men's pro tennis, and editor-in-chief of Deuce, the quarterly ATP lifestyle magazine. "But in the US, we have just as much luck getting a guy into Rolling Stone as we do in the sports pages of USA Today. And some newspapers, which used to assign tennis as a beat, now combine the golf and tennis writer."
The lifestyle story
As tennis strives to regain its prominence in the sports sections, it continues to do well as a general-interest lifestyle story, from personality profiles to the fashion pages.
"We target men's magazines like GQ, Men's Health, Playboy, and Cargo, as well as women's outlets, ranging from Self and Fitness all the way to fashion magazines like Elle," says Siobhan Olson, EVP and director PR for Winston-Salem, NC-based Mullen, which represents the Prince line of rackets and other tennis accessories. "We're also able to pitch the innovation story to publications like Popular Science that would never write about tennis."
Olsen adds that Prince rackets also can be pitched to travel reporters. "We've had success with resorts and leisure press on how to improve your vacation experience by playing with great equipment."
Kevin Gilbert, president of racket maker Pro Kennex, adds that many newspapers have a weekly tennis page in their sports sections that alternates between traditional coverage of the pro tour and sports lifestyle coverage. In the latter category, publications mix coverage of the local tennis scene with reviews of the latest products.
The sport's main leisure competitor is golf, and Gilbert notes that tennis typically lags behind in terms of the amount of coverage in the business pages.
"There isn't a lot of coverage for the tennis business story, and most of that ends up being driven by PR campaigns of the companies or organizations, such as the USTA [US Tennis Association] noting attendance at events or revenues being up," he says.
But what tennis does have over golf is the health angle. Chris Widmaier, senior director of the pro-tennis PR division of the USTA, says the sport can be positioned as a solution to the growing obesity problem among American children, for example.
Tennis' global scope
Outside of enthusiast publications like Tennis and Tennis Life and a surprising number of regional outlets like Windy City Tennis, coverage tends to follow the four Grand Slam events, especially Wimbledon and the US Open.
One reason for that pattern is that pro tennis is a global sport, which means top players only play part of the year in the US. But Widmaier notes that pro tennis is now trying to turn the sporadic coverage into an advantage by taking a page from football, basketball, and baseball.
Working with the ATP and the Women's Tennis Association, which governs the women's pro tour, the USTA has created the US Open Series, 10 events between Wimbledon and the US Open that will get regular TV coverage during July and August. "That creates a summer season for tennis that the average sports fan can understand, with a regular season all leading up to the US Open," Widmaier says.
Widmaier adds that the one thing that tennis still has going for it is that it is a sport that anyone can play.
"Pro football is one of the country's most popular sports, but few people want to put on pads after watching a game," he says. "That's not the case with tennis, and we've found there is a correlation between seeing an event live or watching it on TV and then wanting to play."