Friday, August 17, 2012

NCAA college tennis recommendation rationale: Lack of television coverage

In most cases NCAA decisions get attention when they pertain to football or men’s basketball or a violation of some sort that leads to punishment. So a rule change about the structure of tennis championships and the length of matches might not qualify under the criteria for “newsworthiness.” 

Yet, USA Today did run an article about the issue and the tennis blog of New York Times revealed some of the responses from players and coaches. I would contend that it is a relevant topic for this blog as the rule change does have a lot to do with media, fandom and the role of intercollegiate sports in our society. 

The NCAA Division I Tennis Committee is proposing that, at the NCAA Championships, instead of a two-out-of-three set format, singles matches would be decided in a super tiebreaker instead of a third set (super tiebreaker means playing up to 10 points). Doubles would get reduced to a six-game set instead of the eight-game set.

The NCAA is also making recommendations in terms of the post-season NCAA Championships draw sizes and locations.

Just as a side note, super tiebreakers are currently played in college tennis when the match between the teams is already decided. If you ask coaches and players alike, they will tell you that a super tiebreaker is completely useless in terms of determining who the better player is. The third set is very much a mental and physical game and a super tiebreaker is a poor “copy” of the pressure and competitiveness.

The Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) and the United States Tennis Association (USTA) don't seem to think that this is one of NCAA’s most brilliant ideas. In their response, the two organizations wrote: “It is imperative to act immediately to try to persuade the NCAA Tennis Committee to keep two out of three sets in dual meet singles play, and also, if possible, to keep the 8 game pro set for doubles.” (See response here.)
The news also got some social media attention. A Facebook group in opposition to the recommendations has 6000 members and counting, and the conversation on Twitter includes comments such as “the ncaa really wants to ruin tennis,” and “this new NCAA rule for tennis is a joke.” You can find these under hashtags #savecollegetennis and #whatajoke.

First to clarify. These changes would only affect NCAA Championships dual match competition. Not the regular season matches, nor the individual tournaments. The online discourse seems to reflect some misunderstanding about this -- and frankly, at first sight, it is easy to omit the "dual match competition during the championship" specification in the report. (See full report here.)

The rationale that NCAA is giving for the rule change is the following: “by shortening the format and bringing greater excitement to the dual match, programs will be able to attract fan support and attention to tennis.” 

I'm confused. Are we still talking about the championships or is the NCAA talking about "programs" as in institutions, referring to attracting fans to home matches?

If we are talking about institutions and attracting fans to home matches, here is the issue.

At most (all?) Division I schools, tennis is not a revenue-generating sport. The schools that do get high attendance are doing well maintaining their fan base regardless of the format. As for the rest of the schools, I am not sure if the format change would necessarily attract more people. Yes, intercollegiate tennis matches are long. They can, indeed, last more than four hours.

But low fan attendance is less likely affected by the length of matches and more likely the result of facilities with uncomfortable or non-existing seating areas, lack of marketing, lack of transportation to the tennis facility, lack of knowledge about the existence of a tennis team on campus (I’m not kidding) or lack of t-shirt give-aways. Free food also works magic for college students.

If the NCAA wants tennis to get more overall attention and to “increase the popularity of dual matches,” then the on-campus marketing for the sport needs to get better. To do that, you need resources and staff. We'll leave that conversation for some other time.

If the decision, indeed, pertains only to the championships then the question about the role of media is of utmost importance.

Besides proposing shorter matches, the NCAA also made a recommendation regarding the Championship format -- namely, to reduce the number of teams who make it to the “final site.” I won’t get technical here, but one of the reasons behind this recommendation is that “the state of intercollegiate tennis is requiring a change to ensure a relevant future for the sport. Tennis is in a fragile state as the championships recently lost ESPN coverage, attendance is decreasing and the number of institutions able to host the final site is diminishing.”

Yes, it is indeed difficult for institutions to host that many teams and the championships are way too long, so this is a point that needs to be discussed.

But let me pause for a second on the “tennis is in a fragile state as the championships recently lost ESPN coverage.” Does this mean that changes need to happen so that tennis fits into the commercial sports media complex?

I think so, as the report also says:  "The shortened format may provide exposure opportunities through television coverage, live streaming and local media coverage. It is difficult and cost prohibitive for television to air a 4.5 hour college tennis match. In addition, it is very challenging for local media (television or print) to watch and cover an entire dual match. Therefore, the sport lacks local and national coverage, which will be improved with a format that consistently finishes within a three-hour time frame."

Another challenge about broadcasting college tennis is that you have 6 matches going on at the same time. So if we are going to talk about difficulties in coverage, that would be one to consider.

In the proposals the NCAA suggests that the “estimated budget impact” for both of these recommendations would be “none.” Perhaps for tennis not to be “in a fragile state,” the focus should be on how cut unnecessary costs rather than how to make the sport marketable to ESPN.

And while these decisions are collaboratively discussed among coaches, administrators, university leaders and the NCAA, who will ultimately decide about the future and the purpose of a (non-revenue) intercollegiate sport, I cannot help but conclude:

This recommendation is not about tennis, nor about participation opportunities, nor about student-athlete welfare and even less about higher education. This is about the sports media complex.

-- Dunja Antunovic

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