This past Sunday, thanks to good friends of mine at TrainingPeaks (gratuitous sponsor plug!), I was able to get a ticket to the US Open Tennis tournament in New York City. I’ve been a huge tennis fan my whole life (Andre Agassi is my favorite athlete of all-time) so going to the Open was a total bucket list item for me. I’ll spare you the play-by-play of the entire day but I’ll just say this; it totally lived up to the hype!
What I thought I’d do here instead is jot down some of the things that entered my mind as I compared the Open, and the US Tennis Association [USTA] in general, to track and field and USATF. By no means is this me ripping USATF or telling them what to do. These are simply observations and things that I do believe could help our sport, based on what I saw this weekend. Here goes:
1) The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is amazing! – This was definitely my number one takeaway. The grounds contain not only three stadiums but also plenty of smaller courts, practice courts, indoor courts etc. They also contain all the USTA offices (where they host all of their meetings) and the complex is used year-round for adult, junior and under-10 tennis programs. It’s even open to the public from 6am to midnight just about every day and for fairly reasonable rates.
All of this got me to thinking; could USATF have a national headquarters like this with an outdoor stadium built specifically for track and field, an indoor stadium, a practice track, etc.? And could that be the venue for the U.S. Championships each and every year and the Olympic Trials every four years? Those questions are meant to be rhetorical, but I would say it’s at least possible. It would take a lot of money of course, but you have to spend money to make money. Consider that 70% of the USTA’s yearly revenue comes from the US Open alone. I’m just throwing this out there, and I’m sure there would be challenges, but Eugene sure seems like the obvious place. Can you imagine summer-long youth academies at Hayward Field? Or annual meetings at the house that PRE built instead of random cities across the country? Close your eyes and picture it. It’s pretty darn appealing…
2) The best minds in Tennis are involved with the USTA - Now I don’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of the USTA and I’m sure they have their issues, but I did hear one very interesting tidbit that caught my attention. The head coach at a Division I University is also the president of one of the USTA regions. I’ve long been frustrated that many of our sport’s brightest and most passionate ambassadors are either coaching in the NCAA or owning and operating specialty running stores, and yet, rarely do any of these folks have anything to do with USATF in any significant way. In fact, within about a week-and-a-half every December there are three separate conventions; the USATF Annual Meeting, the USTFCCCA Coaches Convention and The Running Event. So here we have all of our best minds getting together at the same time, but in separate places with little to no thought of working with the other groups. Tell me that’s not silly.
3) Tennis creates and promotes its stars – I have now been to the US Open and the USA Track and Field Trials. Eugene did an absolutely awesome job with the Trials, and maybe I’m biased, but I thought it had a fairly similar feel to the Open. I believe an outside observer with no ties to either sport would have felt the electricity at both venues. However, one glaring difference was the apparel being sold at each event. I wish I would’ve counted the exact number but there must have been at least 20 different pieces of Roger Federer apparel available for sale on the grounds. Rafael Nadal, who wasn’t even playing, had just about as many. At the Trials there was tons of cool stuff, much of it related to Hayward Field and Eugene itself but very little in the way of athlete-centered paraphernalia. Not only that but you could tell the organizers understood the value of the athletes. Quick example; Caroline Wozniacki upset Maria Sharapova and what immediately comes over the loudspeakers but Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. The whole place was singing it, myself included (and I hadn’t even had a beer yet).
Not all of this falls on USATF of course. Athlete sponsors have to use the athletes they pay to their advantage. Don’t complain about ROI if you didn’t make posters, make shirts, create marketing campaigns, set up public appearances, etc. You’ve got to admire how Skechers has maximized their Meb sponsorship. You can’t walk into a Skechers store in this country without a Meb poster right in your face. Much like you can’t walk into a tennis store without seeing Roger Federer gear. And that’s as it should be.
4) The Players are real PROS – Tennis is a tough sport to make a living in, as is running. The very top players make a lot of money and the lower ranked players struggle. However, tennis is run in such a more professional manner than running. It’s almost embarrassing really. If this topic interests you I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you read this article from Forbes.com called How the 92nd ranked tennis player in the world makes a comfortable living.
This whole thing may be for another blog post, but I’ll just quickly say that I think, in running, we need to cut the cord that ties us to our amateur roots. This is just my opinion, but I strongly believe that running needs to take on a more professional look and feel and get as far away as we can from constantly playing the “Olympic” card. If we continue to do that we’re going to be a lot closer to Ping Pong and Badminton than we are to Tennis.
– COACH BEN
P.S. – I sort of ended that on a bit of a downer and it wasn’t meant to be that kind of post. It was more that I saw a lot of similarities between running and tennis and that, with a few tweaks, we could get better. So I’ll instead end with a video of one of my favorite tennis matches ever; Agassi v Sampras at the 1995 US Open. Enjoy!