Will NCAA Change Tennis to Fit TV?

Last Updated on June 5, 2014


During the July meeting of the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Tennis Committee, ideas were presented that would reduce the dual match length and change the format of the championships. Quickly after these ideas were released, many coaches and student-athletes were protesting the recommended changes, especially those pertaining to shortening the dual match format. After the Division 1 cabinet met earlier this month, the majority of the proposals pertaining to shortening the matches were defeated. However, the cabinet did encourage the committee to research other methods to decrease dual match length and to present these ideas during the next meeting in February.

Even though the changes originally presented to shorten match length were rejected, that does not mean that the Division I dual match format is safe. The Division I Men’s and Women’s Tennis Committee is still searching for methods to shorten the length of a dual match. However, it should be noted that tennis at the collegiate level is already abridged with doubles matches being only a pro-set to eight games. So why is the committee trying to find other ways to shorten the dual matches?

According to the Report of the NCAA Division 1 Men’s and Women’s Tennis Committee July 10-12 Meeting, a dual match can last up to 4.5 hours. No other NCAA sport requires the student-athlete to compete for this duration. Also, the report noted that match length deters fan support and it does not allow for media coverage. The committee argued that by shortening the time of a dual match so it would take between 3-3.5 hours there would be more opportunity for local and national television coverage of the sport, as well as live streaming on the internet.

The most notable change suggested that singles matches would be best two-out-of-three matches with the third set being a super tie-breaker (the first player to ten points wins). However, would removing the third set increase the appeal?

The most popular tennis matches viewed on TV are the men’s grand slam finals, which are played as a best three-out-of-five sets, a not so fan-friendly format according to the Division 1 Men’s and Women’s Tennis Committee. The 2012 Wimbledon final between Andy Murray and Roger Federer was the highest-rated and most-watched tennis match ever for ESPN, averaging a 2.5 US rating and having 3.925 million viewers. Did I mention it took 4 sets to complete the match?

That’s not the only instance of a longer match that drew in viewers. This year’s five-set US Open final drew in 16.2 million viewers, compared to the 11.8 million who tuned in to the four-set final from last year. The three-set women’s final (in grand slam women’s tennis the matches are a best two-out-of-three contest), brought in the most viewers for the US Open ladies final since 2002, with an audience of 17.7 million. It would seem longer matches are not what is deterring tennis fans.

Currently, professional tennis viewing is going through an increase in popularity. When looking at the number of viewers for the Gentlemen’s Wimbledon Final, we see that in 2010 the final received a rating of 1.6, whereas this year the final received an average rating of 2.5 and had 3.925 million viewers.

In women’s professional tennis we see the same trend. In 2010, the women’s final only earned a rating of 1.6 and increased to 2.0 this year. Therefore, tennis is increasing in popularity, regardless of match length. So what is preventing the popularity of Division I tennis?

Collegiate sports are only popular in the US, as other countries do not offer collegiate-level sports. How does this effect tennis? Tennis is a sport that is popular worldwide. Therefore, many international athletes come to the US to play collegiate tennis. Of the international student-athlete population, 23.2 percent play tennis, whereas in basketball the percentage is 9.5 percent. It is even less for football, with only 1.4 percent of the international student-athlete population playing. Furthermore, in Division I tennis 38.4 percent of the men’s players and 49.9 percent of the women’s players are international.

This does not bode well for the popularity of collegiate tennis considering it will only be viewed by North Americans. Additionally, with other powerhouse sports dominating US sports culture – such as basketball and football – tennis becomes a difficult sport to market.

Let’s compare professional tennis television ratings to those of the most popular NCAA sports: basketball and football. This year’s US Open final drew in 16.2 million viewers worldwide, which was an increase of 4.4 million viewers compared to the 2011 final. However, compare this to the 2012 March Madness championship and the BCS Championship game and we see that they pulled in 20.005 million and 24.214 million viewers respectively, the majority of these viewers being from North America.

This shows that there is a great viewing audience available in America, however tennis does not have the popularity here to pull in that grand of an audience. If professional tennis has trouble matching the number of viewers NCAA basketball and football draw, it is difficult to market the potential for NCAA tennis. There is not as much money available here.

Would changes to the format that shorten playing time increase the sports popularity in America? It seems unlikely considering the professional tennis ratings are going up, even with longer match times. Much of the excitement of tennis comes from the third-set intensity where players have to dig deep mentally and physically to become the victor. Additionally, when it is considered that the matches that draw in the most viewers are also the longest, the men’s grand slam finals, it would seem that shortening the match duration may not increase the sports view ability.

For now, Division I collegiate tennis players and fans do not need to worry about losing the third set since the cabinet rejected the idea. However, with the Division I Men’s and Women’s Tennis Committee looking for ways to increase the sports popularity and view ability will they discover ways to change the format of matches? Will changing the length of matches also affect the dynamic of the sport? Is shortening the matches really the method to increase popularity since in the past, longer professional matches have drawn in more viewers? We will have to wait and see what changes may come to Division I tennis in the spring when the cabinet meets again.


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