Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sports Boom or Sports Hype?

Posted By on Wed, Aug 5, 2009 at 11:15 AM

Tennis is booming. Skateboarding is booming. Lacrosse is booming. So are soccer, Ultimate Frisbee, cycling, rock-climbing, extreme kayaking, running, yoga, crew, ju-jitsu, and Pilates. Oh, and football and basketball are doing pretty good. And Americans of all ages are really getting in shape.

Except they're not. And we're not. At least not all sports and certainly not all Memphians.

The latest "boom" sport is tennis, which is supposedly enjoying a 43 percent increase in its popularity since 2000, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association and the Tennis Industry Association. Some 18 million Americans play at least once a year.

Big deal. Maybe 2000 was the low point for tennis participation. And I played Yahtzee last Christmas. Am I a player to be counted? Guess so, since I played once a year. Hail to the Yahtzee boom! Associations and their publicists and fans are forever telling us that their sport is booming. I'm never quite sure what the point is, but I often suspect it's a setup for a plea for public funding for more of this or that.

Sometimes that's a good idea. Sports, like anything else, go stale. Parks and recreation directors can get stuck in old ruts, unaware of new trends. It's safe to say we probably don't need any more baseball fields.

And I wonder if we need any more tennis courts. I've played tennis pretty regularly for 27 years in Memphis. The sport has become more dispersed. Some trends are clear — bigger racquets and longer shorts to name two of them. More players? The old Wimbleton Sportsplex on Sycamore View has mostly gone from indoor tennis to fitness machines. The indoor and outdoor courts at the Racquet Club are often unused. Granted, those clubs cost money. The public Leftwich and Wolbrecht tennis centers are regularly booked. Tennis NTRP leagues are strong, but they were strong 10, 20, or 30 years ago, too. Steve Lang and Arveal Turner have done a lot to teach and promote tennis to newcomers. If there's a boom, it's partly because of people like them.

"Our numbers are probably flat, but our outreach is as strong as ever," said Lang, executive director of Tennis Memphis, which manages the public courts. "Tennis is affordable compared to golf."

It's a copout to say a sport is so expensive that people cannot afford to play it. Athletes find a way. If they really want to chase a ball, climb a wall or hill, bike, skate, run, lift, or fight, they won't be denied. Many of us geezers started playing tennis on concrete courts with metal nets and weeds growing in the cracks. A new racquet can cost more than $100, but Tennis Memphis will find you one for a lot less than that, and every player I know has too many racquets and would gladly contribute to a racquet drive for new players. There are decaying courts at the old Frayser Tennis Center, which was going strong 20 years ago under the late Don Miller. (Lang says the center is open but unstaffed, and players can play for free if they check in at the community center next to the courts.) Lots of apartment complexes put in tennis courts that are never used. And I don't think I've ever seen anyone hitting on the two courts at LeMoyne Owen. Sure, they're not in good shape, but which comes first, supply or demand?

Tennis is a hard game to learn, even harder if both players can't play. It helps a lot to have someone good hit balls to you. A wall is better than a partner who can't play. Some of the best players in the world learned the game that way back in the day in Hamtramck, Michigan, under the guidance of Jean Hoxie. They didn't have indoor courts. They weren't rich kids. And they won state and national championships. The point is, where there's a will there's a way.

I see Memphis kids playing basketball on outdoor courts with rims with no nets and at indoor community centers. I see them swimming when and where public pools are open, which is to say, not much. I see lots of people riding bikes, running day and night, walking alone on hot outdoor tracks, fishing by the side of the road, throwing Frisbees at Overton Park, and hitting golf balls. I see high school kids playing lacrosse at schools that offer it. Same for volleyball.

Maybe I'm not looking in the right places, but I don't see a boom in some supposedly booming sports, and as far as fitness in the general Memphis population, the eyeball evidence runs the other way. Before anyone builds a new sportsplex at the Fairgrounds or anywhere else, they better get a good read on the true level of popularity and demand for sports in Memphis.

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