Hoping to grow bigger and find more stars, tennis is going small, with its leading association putting major marketing dollars behind a new format that uses shorter courts and lower-bouncing balls for kids.
The "QuickStart Tennis" style gained acceptance late last year when the U.S. Tennis Association adopted it as the standard for 10-and-under tournaments. The USTA is taking its cue from other youth sports such as baseball, which uses tees for Little Leaguers, and basketball, which uses smaller balls and lowered baskets for little hoopers.
New USTA ads will play off that paradox. One spot shows kids struggling to keep up on a pro-sized soccer field, baseball diamond and basketball court and then asks the question: "Other sports don't make kids play like adults. So why does tennis?" Another spot features former pros -- and now couple -- Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi reading a story to school children about a girl who tried to play tennis -- but the court was "way too big" and racquets "way too heavy."
The campaign, by Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency, is part of an $8 million effort to promote 10-and-under tennis, which is up from $2 million last year. The spending now accounts for more than half of the association's $21.5 million marketing budget, which had traditionally mostly been used to promote the USTA's flagship U.S. Open tournament and its Olympus U.S. Open Series of tournaments. (Ads will still run for the tournaments, but spending will be flat, with the USTA using its existing inventory of creative to save money.)
The sport is also getting an assist from First Lady Michelle Obama. Playing a ball girl in a public service announcement, she remarks that "Now it's easier to play an hour a day, every day." Her appearance is part of her "Let's Move!" campaign aimed at ending childhood obesity.
For the USTA, the campaign is an attempt to fill the pipeline with new U.S.-born talent at a time when participation in 10-and-under tournaments is growing slowly, now at about 25,000 kids a year, according to the USTA. "We saw we had an Achilles heel -- we weren't getting enough kids playing competitively at younger ages," said Kurt Kamperman, chief executive of USTA's community tennis division. "If we really want to create lifetime tennis players ... and we also want to create future U.S. Open champions, we need to get a bigger pool of kids playing tennis competitively."
Overall, the sport is enjoying a bit of a resurgence at the recreational level. Tennis participation is up by nearly 43% since 2000, according to a new study by the Physical Activity Council. In 2009, the number of U.S tennis players passed the 30 million mark for the first time in 20 years, according to the Tennis Industry Association.
But the star power is a bit dim. There are no male U.S. players ranked in the ATP top 10 and only one woman, Serena Williams, in the WTA top 10. It's impossible to tell if the new mini-courts will create more interest in match play, and thus more stars, but supporters point to other countries where it has been successful. "A lot of countries in Europe have been using this for a while, in particular Belgium [which] has been using smaller courts with the low-compression balls for over 15 years," said Mr. Kamperman, noting that Kim Clijsters, ranked No. 2 in the world, grew up on the method.
The USTA says it will redraw 3,000 courts nationwide with the new lines, which are painted inside the traditional 78-foot court. In tournament play, children eight and under will play on 36-foot courts beginning in 2012, and nine- and 10-year olds will compete on 60-foot courts. The specially made low-compression balls, colored red and orange, are designed to bounce lower so kids don't have to reach over their head to swing. The ads will begin running in July during tennis tournaments on CBS, ESPN, ESPN2 and the Tennis Channel.