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Building Your College Tennis Program

Chapter 2: Building Your Program on Campus

Most coaches will agree that getting the student body interested in your home tennis matches is a challenge. But several coaches have had success with this key element in building a fan base.

There are a variety of ways to get your campus community involved with your program. Some of the more effective ways have been:

  • Food and Drink
  • Working with other athletic programs on campus
  • Tennis On Campus and Campus Recreation programs
  • Working with student clubs
  • Developing student booster clubs
  • Coverage in the student newspaper
  • Player Networking
    If you are going to expect today’s student to spend a few hours of their time with you, it is probably a good idea to feed them. Several coaches have had success with “Tailgate Tennis.”

    Each season a coach can promote a few home matches as Tailgate Tennis where there is a free barbeque, pizzas, etc., for fans during the match. The barbeque would typically be funded by a local sponsor or booster club member and they would receive acknowledgement in the match program and during the public address announcements.

    Also, if you wait to break out the food during the break between doubles and singles, this can be a good way to keep fans from wandering off or losing interest.

    Odds are the tennis program isn’t the only one in an athletic department looking to build interest for their program. An easy way to add some fans and also help your co-workers is to “adopt” another team within your athletic department.

    Using the “Adopt-A-Program” practice, which has worked well at Texas A&M University and Luther College, the men’s tennis team can pair up with the women’s volleyball team and attend as many home volleyball matches as possible. In turn, the volleyball team offers support at home tennis matches. It is a win-win situation.

    Another useful way to get the word out on your program within the campus community can be through the Tennis On Campus program. This program, which the ITA has partnered the last several years with the United States Tennis Association and National Intramural Recreation and Sports Association (NIRSA) and World TeamTennis (WTT), is a good way to build a relationship with college-age tennis players (each year there are nearly 300,000 former Varsity high school tennis players on campuses across the country), who could be your most enthusiastic audience on campus.

    The Tennis On Campus, which is featured in its own section on the ITA web site, can be a vehicle to create a campus-wide league and ultimately campus-wide interest in the sport of tennis. If a coach is actively involved in this program they have access to a captive audience that likes tennis and are potential fans at your home matches.

    Here is what Coach Carl Swanson who has used this program at Linfield College had to say:

    “I started the USA Tennis program at Linfield College because I wanted to get more kids playing tennis and enjoying the benefits of the game. Not everyone can play varsity tennis, but anybody can have fun, meet new friends and get a good workout playing tennis. The turnout has been great so far, the kids are excited to play, and I am getting students with little or no tennis experience out on the court and enjoying the game and having fun with their friends. My goal now is to start USA Team Tennis on campus next year.”

    There are several ways to get student clubs and organizations on campus involved. Clubs are a natural target in that they are an easy way to gain access to many students at once. Also, the members of these clubs and organizations are typically active people who are open to new activities.

    Some coaches have utilized the Greek system for fan support. The University of Georgia created a contest for the fraternities and sororities on campus to see who can bring the most people out during the season. When they come out to the match, there’s a sign-in sheet and the sorority/fraternity that brings the most people out gets $500 donated to their charity of choice. Another win-win situation.

    It is not just the Greek system that can be effective, as most colleges have dozens of different organizations to link into. For example, a team that has an international player(s) can target the various international student organizations as backers, and your player(s) may be able to help you with this network.

    A match can be billed “Student Government Day” and allow the organization to set up a booth at the match or sit in the stands and use it as a site for their next social/mixer.

    Coaches are busy, especially in the heart of a season. That is why it can prove important to build a network of supporters.

    Some schools have utilized clubs of students that help with, among other things, match-day organization. These groups, which on some campuses are called "Match Mates," "Net Nuts," etc., can help with things like scorekeeping, match promotions and crowd activities. Such clubs have grown to over 50 strong on some campuses and can really help a program grow and prosper.

    The University of Illinois developed its “Net Nuts” program two years ago and has had around 250 students involved in it at different times. The group has provided boisterous support at Illini home matches and even caught the interest of the CBS television show “Topspin."

    What is unique about this program is that it is run and organized by students. Now a graduate, Alex Voss helped launched the program and coordinates it. The goal was to create interest in the IU men’s tennis program and it has exceeded expectations. Voss says they expected about 15 people at the first club meeting two years ago, but 100 showed up. “Net Nuts” sign commitment forms promising to attend a certain number of matches and in turn get t-shirts, hats, parties, a new social outlet and access to the team. “Net Nuts” who attend the most matches are given special gifts as well.

    The “Net Nuts” program is an example of great delegating. Coaches have to wear a lot of hats, so if you can have students work to build campus support with you, then you are going to have more time to do other things.

    A useful vehicle to reach the student body can be the university newspaper. Don’t underestimate its readership. While the goal is to land in the pages of your local newspaper, a program can also benefit by coverage in the student paper. Typically the paper is located all over campus and most students at the very least will pick one up to skim through between classes. Developing relationships with local media will be discussed in a later chapter, but the main thing to remember with campus reporters and the school newspaper is to be patient with them (they are just starting out) and to make time for them. They can become a consistent tool to promote your program to the campus community.

    A coach can only do so much when promoting a program, the players need to do their part as well.

    “I’ve always felt that you need to have your players selling the program to their peers,” says one coach. “A coach may have trouble getting a message to the typical student, but your players speak their language and can’t be shy when it comes to promoting the program to other students.”

    Consider this success story about Ron Christman and his Division III Waynesburg College tennis program:

    Christman took over at Waynesburg College (located in western Pennsylvania) back in 1998 and had to basically start from scratch. He remembers his very first dual match there when no one showed up to watch. Zero fans, zero support. Obviously disappointed by that turnout, Christman did not just accept that his campus might not be interested in his program or in college tennis. Instead he went to work and has steadily built a loyal following. Within a couple of years Christman went from zero attendance (and zero interest) at his matches to building so much campus, community and alumni support and interest in his program, that the college’s vice president in charge of development invited him to lunch to find out more about his efforts.

    Christman, who had been in the business world prior to coming to Waynesburg, says he approached his job as coach the same way he would a business. One of the first things he did was improve the appearance of his matches and treat it like people are going to be there. He quickly got the athletic department to bring folding chairs out to the matches for spectators, built a homemade scoreboard and started producing match programs to help fans follow the action. Christman also began to play the National Anthem before home matches. While not required for Division III play, he convinced his Athletic Director that officials are necessary for these matches and needed to be budgeted for. This made sense to the AD, who doubled as head basketball coach at WC and couldn’t imagine a sport without officials.

    Once the appearance of his home matches improved, Christman began work on getting the campus interested. The WC tennis courts were located close to the dorms, and made for a prime location for students to spend a couple hours on a sunny spring afternoon. So Christman made sure that the 1,300 student in the dorms knew all about the program and when the home matches were. He sent letters and e-mails to the faculty and students. Set up tent cards on the tables at the dining hall and worked with the campus radio station and newspaper. Needless to say, students started coming out to the matches.

    This is just a quick summary of what Christman did at Waynesburg when he took over there. He has also had major success developing relationships and support with alumni and this will be covered in later chapters. Different campuses pose different challenges for coaches. But this story about Waynesburg College should demonstrate that sometimes it is the little things that can make a big difference in the image of your program, whether you coach at a college with 2,000 students or a university with 30,000 students.