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College Tennis During a Pandemic

COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed almost everything in our daily lives, from how we go to the store to who we hang out with, it’s also had a sizable impact on college athletics, most notably non-revenue generating sports such as: lacrosse, soccer, and unfortunately tennis.

In fact, as of September 1st, 17 Division I programs have been cut, making tennis the most affected sport by the pandemic driven budget cuts. Even worse, that number rises to 59 programs when you look at all levels of college athletics. Most of these cuts have occurred at mid to low major schools, but recently high major schools like Iowa and Minnesota have voted to cut their tennis programs.

But why are college tennis programs being cut at a much higher rate than any of the other so called “secondary sports”?

Well according to Tim Russell, CEO of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association who spoke on the Business of College Sports podcast, “The sport is often an easy one to put on the chopping block in times of crisis. It’s one of the smaller sports where they have fewer student athletes impacted.” Russell also pointed to the need for pricey indoor facilities in certain climates. In fact, Winthrop deputy athletic director, Hank Harrawood said his school’s tennis facility required at least $1.3 million in repairs alone.

Where Does This Leave College Tennis?

For the teams that are lucky enough to survive the pandemic, many if not all of them will see significant budget cuts, up to 15% in some cases according to Tim Russell, in some places. Budget items such as travel, meal preparation, and other “non-necessities” for a program might be cut all together.

Russell also brought up the fact that the cross country travel for matches that occurs at the Division 1 and sometimes Division 2 level, may transition to more regional matches in 2021.

In spite of all the challenges that come with operating during a pandemic, the ITA has drawn up an innovative plan for competition this fall. Chase Hodges, head coach of the Georgia Gwinnett Grizzlies, spent countless hours alongside the ITA staff planning the best way to bring college tennis back and had this to say, “The most major was recommending masks for everyone on site. In addition, hand sanitizers on location throughout the facility. I also implemented a virtual event where all communication was done via messaging as there was no tournament desk. Results were texted in after completion.”

The ITA’s return to play program will start on September 18th and stretch through November 22nd Each weekend, a number of tournaments nationwide will occur. Universities and local tennis centers will host the events, both replacing canceled prior matches and tournaments for players as well as raising money for tennis programs in need.

What’s Next?

The outlook for college tennis in 2021 is average at best, as there are still many hurdles for the sport and its governing body to overcome. But there is hope. Not only that universities can safely return to the court for the 2021 season, but the fact that it may be possible to revive some of the programs we lost to this horrible pandemic. Most notably, the UAB football program was cut in 2015 and returned to the field only two years later. So there is hope.

In fact, to add to that hope, Tim Russell went on to mention that in his 5 years at the ITA pre-pandemic, that tennis programs have actually had net gains.

A shining example of what the future could hold points to the recession in 2008 which caused Arizona State University to have to cut their men’s tennis program. However in 2016, aided by a million dollar check from athletic director Ray Anderson and his wife, the program was brought back.

Russell closed the Business of College Sports podcast by saying that while the sport may not be out of the woods yet, “...we might have seen the worst of it.”

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