December 15th, 2020

Going Virtual on the Court: How Technology Helped USTA Florida Bring Back League Sectionals Amid a Pandemic

Adult Leagues Adult Tennis News

How do you host a successful and safe tennis tournament in the midst of a pandemic? A daunting question, no doubt, but one that needed to be answered to keep the game moving forward in Florida.

“Our team first thought there would be little interest in League Sectionals this year, as COVID forced the cancellation of the National League Championships,” said Christine Ducey, USTA Florida’s Director of Adult Tennis. “However, when we surveyed our Florida players as part of the ‘Here to Serve’ podcast series, we found that our players and captains were still very interested in Sectionals competition.”

Nearly 3,200 league players provided feedback that was critical to the development of the safe play guidelines that assisted USTA Florida in resuming league programming in August 2020. An astounding 82% of those surveyed said they would resume play in their local league when restrictions were lifted or relaxed, however, answers pertaining to individual event size comfortability were far more mixed. 37% of respondents said they would be comfortable attending an event with 100-200 people, 22% were in favor of a size around 500-600 people, 16% said they could handle 200-300 people, 5% were comfortable with 400-500 attendees, and 20% said they wouldn’t be comfortable attending an event at all. That wide variation of answers alone was a challenge to overcome.

“We were faced with two obstacles: how to communicate with players without being face-to-face and how to keep players socially distant,” said Jen Wysocki, Adult Program Coordinator.

For years, Sectionals were conducted with a traditional tournament desk where players would interact with event staff – to turn in paper lineups, to verbally report scores, and to receive group team match assignments. With upwards of hundreds of people participating in some of these events, the tournament building would be overwhelmed with crowds.

“We knew this would not work in a COVID-19 environment,” added Adult Tennis Play Coordinator Liz McCafferty. “We wanted to continue to feature the very best elements of tennis – spirited competition, achievement, sportsmanship, friendship and fun – as safely as possible. We had no choice but to find a solution to make that happen.”

Just like the vast amount of businesses and employees who were forced to adapt to a more virtual work setting when the pandemic began – USTA Florida put together a cross-departmental staff project team to begin exploring virtual options to aid in the resumption of the sport without endangering others.

“We started by looking for software providers that could meet our need for a virtual tournament desk for adult team play and found that none existed,” explained Ducey, who has been on the project team since its launch in May 2020. “Through idea sharing, we heard that USTA Tennessee’s Director of Tennis, Jason Ontog, had some great ideas about how Sectionals could be accomplished digitally using Google Sheets and Jot Forms. He shared a YouTube video with us that described his processes, and from there, we set out to develop our own version tailored to our specific needs.”

The goal was simple – develop a technology solution that would facilitate a safer COVID-19 environment for USTA Florida League Sectional events, so play could continue. USTA Florida wanted an efficient, technological process that would allow players to virtually submit information and serve as a communication tool to prevent congregating at a physical tournament desk.

“The development process of the virtual tournament desk had lots of different moving pieces,” shared McCafferty, who served as the team’s project manager. “We decided our first priority was to partner with Tennis Director, our partner provider who had been working with our USTA Florida facilities, to create a registration and one-click communication portal that would support our new needs for texting and emailing.

Tennis Director’s robust communication platform provided the ability to text and email individuals, teams, and the entire championship with a simple click of a mouse. Teams would also receive email confirmation of submissions and would receive text messages right before their matches to confirm match participants.

“In addition to Tennis Director, our Virtual Sectional Tournament Desk includes a webpage on USTAFlorida.com that houses all the information needed for the Sectional event,” said Ducey. “We utilize Microsoft Forms for lineup and score submissions and Google Sheets for court assignments, providing a one-stop-shop for captains and players to perform all their functions, along with videos and a downloadable training guide on how to use the system.”

The system was rigorously tested before launch. From registration and communication to setting up events, teams, and revenue reports – all components were thoroughly checked to not only guarantee Sectional Tournament Directors and staff could seamlessly use the tool, but also that it offered a more efficient and streamlined process to players and captains.

“Providing the safest experience possible is our primary concern, but we’ve found these processes have improved the overall experiences for our players and improved our operations,” Ducey emphasized.

“The Virtual Sectional Tournament Desk provides efficiency, safety, and has helped advance USTA Florida’s tennis events,” added Wysocki. “Having off-site staff able to assist with running the tournament was a huge benefit that frankly, I’ve never seen done before.”

USTA Florida’s Hoku Purcell-Langley (left) and Christine Ducey oversee the newly introduced Virtual Tournament Desk as a new and safer way to deliver tournaments

The system debuted in September 2020, when League Sectionals resumed in Florida with the modifications necessary to provide play as safely as possible. At the time, USTA Florida was the only USTA Section to resume League Sectional events. The changes have been extremely well-received by players and captains alike.

“I was somewhere between impressed and astounded. I asked from whom did the USTA purchase this clever program, and was informed it was developed in-house,” commented one player who competed in October’s Adult 55 & Over 9.0 Sectional Championship. “I have been singing your praises to all that will listen and will continue to do so.”

Besides the simplicity and mobility of the Virtual Sectional Tournament Desk, there have also been some unintentional benefits discovered since its introduction.

“Since courts are assigned for the entire weekend, teams are playing next to each other and their family and friends can easily find where they are playing. Teams can also have the courts for extended warm-up as soon as the preceding match completes, and because matches are staggered and started via text, nearly all matches are now starting and ending on time,” said McCafferty. “Gone are the days of crowds of people gathered at the tournament desk waiting to hear their match called.”

The unfortunate realities of the pandemic led to the understanding that USTA Florida had to adapt to the “new normal” to be able to offer these popular Sectional events. The organization aims to continue improving the virtual Sectionals process throughout 2021 and believes it will shape the way Sectional events are run in the future.

“I think that our transition to this type of system may have been a bit overdue, but the complication of COVID really sped up the need to implement the technology,” said Ducey. “We always want to provide a smiling face and assistance whenever we can. Of course, we hope to be able to relax some of the restrictions that we currently have once it is deemed safe to do so, but the efficiency of this system is here to stay.”

To learn more about USTA Florida’s Virtual Sectionals Tournament Desk, please visit www.USTAFlorida.com/VTDS.

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