Written by Laura Bowen, USTA Florida Executive Director
Visit any tennis facility in Florida and, chances are, you’ll find tennis professionals busy teaching ladies’ clinics and lessons. The number of women playing tennis on any given day is strong. It might even lead you to believe that women represent the majority of tennis players in the state. You would be wrong.
Women represent roughly 51 percent of the population in Florida. Yet, women account for only 41 percent of tennis players. More than 7 percent of women who are not playing tennis say they want to. If you are looking for an opportunity to grow the game, and your business, focusing on women is a good bet.
Make it Social and Fun
Jean Mills, former USTA Florida and USTA Florida Section Foundation President, says getting women into tennis starts at a young age. In today’s world, that’s easier said than done.
Due to COVID and the overall decline in physical education in schools, girls don’t have as many opportunities to pick up a racquet as they did before. When girls do look at sports, they gravitate more toward team sports, as opposed to individual competitive opportunities.
Mills, who has been running the USTA Girls’ 12s National Tournament since 1980, says two things help attract girls to tennis. First is having a parent who plays. Second, is creating play opportunities that are both social and fun.
“I do the Girls’ 12s because when I played the Girls’ 12s, it was the biggest disappointment of my life. People were not friendly, there was no social interaction, it wasn’t fun,” Mills explains. When Mills finally got the opportunity to run the event in 1980, she worked hard to make it memorable – not from a competitive point of view, but from an education and fun perspective. Player and parent education, mentorship and social outings, underpin the match play. Women run every part of the event, providing strong examples for girls that tennis can be a career path.
“Events have to appeal more to the fun part of life and the friendships in life. It doesn’t matter what age you are. We have to do activities that bring people together,” Mills says.
Support a Women-Focused Cause
Suzi Emerson, coordinator of the Pink Ribbon Tennis Tournament for Shirley in Pensacola, agrees. The tournament started 20 years ago. It steadily has grown to be the premier event for women in northwest Florida, and competition is just a small part of the equation.
We are there to have fun,” Emerson says. “We have two 64-team draws, and we fill them in minutes.”
Emerson says what makes the event so successful is the connection that women have to the cause, and the activities off the court that focus on being social and fun. From live bands, to excellent food, beer/wine, and silent auctions, the planning team goes above and beyond to create an outstanding experience for the players.
The tournament has more demand than it can accommodate. Women come from Texas, Georgia, Alabama and Florida to attend the annual event, which is run entirely by volunteers and raises funds for breast cancer research.
“We are a totally volunteer grassroots organization, and we have raised more than $1 million,” Emerson shared.
Offer More Options for Women
Tournaments are a great opportunity to attract women, but they aren’t the only area for growth. Women continue to be a driving force in Florida leagues. That’s due in part to local non-USTA leagues flexing to meet diverse demands.
“I think the professional lives of women have changed greatly over the last several decades. Opportunities to play need to change with them,” says Christine Ducey, USTA Florida Director of Adult Tennis.
The Central Florida Working Women’s Tennis League is one that continues to expand and serve women of all ages. They currently have more than 25 facilities and 600 players that participate. Bonnie Kelly, president of the league, says it’s all about the time of day for these women and keeping things social and fun.
“That is their exercise. It’s different than working out in a gym because you are working out with friends,” says Kelly. “The teams stay together. They form strong friendships.”
The season typically runs every Thursday night, from September through April. Teams can carry up to 25 players. The large roster helps keep things moving from week to week. Tennis professionals can feed a team of women into the league, or the league board will help connect interested women with teams who are looking for players.
There are three levels – much simpler than USTA Leagues, as well. Less experienced players will enter at level 3. The best players will compete at level 1+. Kelly says the league covers a large area, and they are always looking for new facilities, new teams and new players.
Make Women Feel Special
Beyond individual events and leagues, there are other ways that facilities can attract more women to their clubs, parks and courts. Allegra Campos, Tennis Director at Hunters Green Country Club in Tampa, says girls (and women) want to feel special.
Campos suggested that clubs could leverage Women’s History Month to offer women and girls a discount at their facility. “Why not play it up? Maybe happy hour for the ladies at your Friday night tournament,” she explains. Although COVID-19 has put a damper on social events, when the pandemic ends, Campos said women will be ready and eager to participate in social play again.
“It’s our camaraderie that makes it more fun. Women are more social and love talking to each other,” she says.
Have a suggestion for growing women’s tennis play in your area? Visit www.USTAFlorida.com/contact to share your ideas with us.