I’m upset. And it’s not because I just dropped and cracked the screen of my four-day old iPhone. It’s not even because I impulsively spent $30 on a lifetime supply of ShamWows. I’m upset for other reasons altogether. Now, being upset and angry is something that I rarely am. Usually, I’m a very happy and optimistic person … but not today. Not after what I just saw! Today, my “glass half-full” demeanor was shattered into millions of pieces, and here’s why.
Last night, I was having problems sleeping, and instead of staring at the ceiling of my dark bedroom, I decided to get up and go on the Internet. Somewhere along the line of my wireless travels, I came across something that caught my eye. On the screen in front of me was a downward spiraling chart. At first glance, I thought it was a portfolio of every stock I’ve ever invested in, but it wasn’t. After my eyes focused a little more on the screen, it confirmed exactly what I have been predicting for a very long time. I’ve had many conversations in the past with my friends about this exact thing, and now, it was staring me right in the face. My past instincts were unfortunately correct, and now the documented proof directly in front of me, made it as clear as day!
What I did have in front of me wasn’t my future earning potential, but a graph of the television ratings for the U.S. Open from 1987-2008. It was a shock to the system seeing the actual ratings numbers that tennis on television has earned over the years. Everyone knew professional tennis wasn’t popular in America, but I didn’t know it was this bad. On the left side of the chart were the millions of television viewers in the United States. On the bottom, were the years 1987-2008. Overall, this is what it read. U.S. Open viewership reached it’s peak, with 5.5 million people watching, in 1991. That’s no surprise, because if you remember, that was the year Jimmy Connors was making his epic run to the semifinals at the age of 39. Ever since then, the line on the graph has been gradually going down. In 2008, the U.S. Open topped out with 2.2 million television viewers. Nearly half from where it was about two decades ago.
Unfortunately, this is information we all knew for a long time. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that professional tennis doesn’t have the popularity in America that it once had. When I watch SportsCenter in the morning, tennis highlights are usually shown at the very end of the show … if at all. When I listen to sports talk radio in the car, tennis is never discussed. The bottom line is that the vast majority of the American public doesn’t watch tennis. But why? It’s a sport that is anything but boring. The sport of tennis has, quite possibly, the greatest athletes in the world competing in it. The sport has non-stop action from start to finish. There’s no clock! There are no substitutions! Why do so many Americans watch other sports and refuse to watch tennis?
At this point last night, I was totally awake and there was no way of me possibly going back to sleep. So I continued on with my research and clicked on the Nielsen television ratings for the Master’s Golf Tournament from 1977-2008. And what I found was an embarrassment to the sport I devoted much of my life to. In 1997, the Masters had 15.8 million viewers in the U.S. They were watching the emergence of Tiger Woods onto the golfing scene. And they finished with 11 million viewers watching in 2008. The ratings of the two sports aren’t even comparable! Tennis is getting spanked by golf, like a five-year-old making a scene at Toys “R” Us. A sport that you can play, and smoke a cigar at the same time, gets almost five times better ratings then tennis. What the hell?
A lot of the true tennis fans will take this information and could care less how many people watch the sport. They love it and they will watch it no matter what. But, I say to them that these numbers do matter! Tennis needs to get the recognition it deserves. There is no other sport on the planet that requires more skill and endurance to play at a professional level than tennis. The amount of time and effort the top 128 players in the world have put into their craft over their lifetime is far beyond anything that any other professional athletes in competing sports have. If the ratings continue to fall, who’s to say that a television executive won’t decide to cut back or pull the plug entirely on tennis coverage for that year? Can you die-hards guarantee me that this wouldn’t happen? I don’t think so. Look at soccer. It’s the most popular sport in the world outside of the U.S. How much is professional soccer aired on television in America? Not often at all!
I’ve heard in the past, that people who don’t watch tennis complain that racquet technology is making the game boring with these big un-returnable serves. Some suggest that they go back to wooden racquets, because that will make the game slower and have more appeal to the casual fan. A couple of years ago, they tested a slightly larger ball, to see if that would slow down the game as well. And that was the last I heard of that. Critics of the sport say that the game needs to be changed for it to be accepted by the masses in the U.S. Personally, I think that it’s such a stupid concept, and to even suggest such a dumb thing is silly. In my opinion, the game right now is at its peak of excitement!
Last night, I walked around my small apartment in Queens, talking to myself about some type of solution that can save tennis in America. If someone were watching me through the window, they would immediately have assumed that I was John Nash talking to my imaginary roommate. All I could think about for the next couple of hours was, "What could tennis do to attract more ratings, without changing the sport?" What will make that average baseball fan stop changing the channel at a tennis match? What can tennis do to be the talk of the town? What can make people at work meet at a water cooler and talk about a tennis match they saw last night instead of Monday Night Football?
With all of this thinking (and four Advils later), I’ve finally came up with an answer. This answer wouldn’t change the actual game at all. If implemented, it could save tennis and increase the ratings and the attention it gets by the general American public by leaps and bounds. It’s so simple; I can’t believe it wasn’t thought up years ago. I know the suspense is killing all of you, so I will get to the point! Here it is (drum roll please) … have the players call their own lines. Now before you laugh to yourself and turn the page to “Tips From a Tennis Pro,” hear me out.
Tennis was at its peak of popularity in the late 1970s and early 80s. Everyone was watching and learning how to play at that time. The reason was simple. You had guys like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase playing. The matches that they played just didn’t have great tennis, but great drama. Line judges would make calls that the players didn’t agree with, and then the viewing audience got to see not only the player’s tennis abilities, but also their personality when they argued a call with the chair umpire. Think about it. How many people at that time were talking about John McEnroe and his antics. Everyone! And then you had Jimmy Connors in 1991 get a bad call made against him in his epic match with Aaron Krickstein. Jimmy responded by going nuts on the chair umpire, and the crowd and people watching at home ate it up. These players ended up retiring, and then all of a sudden in the 1990s and early 2000s, tennis started to get polite, with quiet champions like Stephan Edberg, Pete Sampras, and now, Roger Federer. And on cue, the television ratings in America have been dropping.
In recent years, the ATP came up with a device called Shot-Spot. It’s a technology that can show, on a digital screen, if the ball was in or out. Players are allowed a certain amount of challenges throughout the match to use this device when they think a bad call was made by a line judge. In my opinion, this is one of the worst decisions the ATP could make at this time of popularity in America. This device takes the whole human error aspect out of the game. There are no longer any disputes over bad line calls. There are no longer any arguments. No longer will anyone be stating their case to the chair umpire, the crowd and the people watching at home. So now, the average “sports fan” sees tennis players as just mindless, bland zombies, strolling around playing the 1970s video game, PONG!
If by some miracle, I were made the commissioner of the ATP tomorrow, I would immediately eliminate the use of line judges and the Shot-Spot technology by the players. There would still be a chair umpire calling out the score and having the power to overrule any calls made. The players would be forced to call all their own lines! It would be exactly like how it is in junior and college tennis. And anyone who has been associated with junior tennis in the past, knows how the most meaningless match between two players, could all of a sudden have more drama then an episode of ER, when a questionable call is made. Professional matches would now be personal and the viewing public will see which players are the good sports and play out balls, and which players make questionable calls. Arguments will, without a doubt, happen and the crowd might really get behind one player who they think might have gotten a bad call made against them. In the process, the television ratings would pile up!
I would still implement the Shot-Spot technology to be used only by the viewing television audience. This way, only the people at home would be able to see if a player made a bad call or not. And for those people who ask … what if nobody makes bad calls? Ha ha ha ha … Throughout a match, bad calls will be made. It’s unavoidable. Sometimes bad calls happen on purpose, sometimes they happen by mistake, but either way, they are going to happen and some type of dispute will ensue.
What people have to remember is that professional tennis is a business. The goal for everyone involved is to make as much money as they can. From the sponsors, to the advertisers, to the players, to the tennis instructors, and all the way down to the guy who strings racquets for a pro shop. Everyone involved some way in tennis, would benefit with this slight change of the professional game. Having players call their own lines would revolutionize what the American public thinks of our sport. Tennis would finally get the ratings and attention it should have all along!
Wouldn’t it be great if people actually listened to me? Unfortunately, no one ever does. That’s the story of my life. Forget it! I’m tired now, with all of this rambling. I’m going back to bed!