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New Call: Tennis, Everyone!

Santa Ana is the latest target as the sport tries to boost its appeal among minority youth.

March 28, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

The weathered courts atop the condominium parking garage in Santa Ana are an unlikely place to secure the future of U.S. tennis. The nets were destroyed by vandals years ago. The chipped, sloping asphalt courts send balls in all the wrong directions.

But the wide-eyed youngsters who whack the balls over makeshift peewee nets are unfazed. Their wild, choppy strokes would make tennis purists wince, but their determination and enjoyment bring smiles. Never mind that they're wearing football jerseys and tattered jeans; a 12-year-old with a smooth backhand is the only one with pressed shorts and a polo shirt.

This predominantly Latino city of about 350,000, where more than half of the residents are foreign-born and soccer is the favorite sport, is the newest target in the tennis industry's ambitious initiative to nourish its ranks with minority players.

If tennis doesn't expand significantly beyond white suburbia, the game's deep thinkers believe, Latino athletes will continue to eschew the sport. And if expanding the pool of tennis players means going toe to toe with soccer, so be it.

The median age in Santa Ana is 26, and attracting Latino youngsters to tennis will pay off for years, sports marketers know, because teenage loyalty to a sport carries into adulthood.

Santa Ana was chosen as a test bed in the push for Latino players for the very reason that so few people play the sport there.

"For us, tennis is still a rich man's sport," said Luis Rodriguez, tennis coach at Santa Ana High School and one of the few local sons to have played collegiate tennis in the last two decades.

Athletes here tend to embrace soccer and baseball, and to deride tennis as feminine, white and elitist.

Rodriguez struggles each year to field boys' teams. This year, he persuaded 40 students to try out. Most of them had never wielded a racket. About 100 freshmen tried out for the boys' soccer program, and the wrestling program has more than 100 kids.

"I recruited my tail off this year," said Rodriguez, who struggled to enlist 19 players the previous year. "I went to all the other sports this year and said, 'Anybody you don't want, I'll take.' "

And so the U.S. Tennis Assn. was heartened by the rooftop scene the other night, as youngsters darted across the chipped asphalt. "We don't want to take people away from soccer, but soccer is a team sport," said Ronita Elder, whose job with the Southern California Tennis Assn. is to attract players from various cultural backgrounds. "Tennis is an individual sport and a very social sport that can be played by the whole family. We want people to continue to play baseball and soccer, but let's use the whole park."

The stakes are high for the tennis industry, which is struggling to retain its popularity.

"Our growth has been flat since 2000, and that's not good," said D.A. Abrams, the USTA's multicultural coordinator. "The more folks you have playing the sport of tennis, the better it is for everybody -- ball and tennis racket manufacturers, tennis instructors. And the more participants you have, the more potential fans you have on television and at live matches."

The New York-based USTA estimates that 23 million Americans play tennis, and it wants 30% more by 2010. But the industry realizes that that probably won't happen unless it begins to recruit those ethnicities that traditionally haven't embraced tennis.

The number of soccer players has grown 14% since 1987 and the sport now boasts almost 18 million participants, said Jim Moorhouse, spokesman for the U.S. Soccer Federation.

David Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports marketing consultant, applauded the USTA's efforts in Santa Ana and other communities with large minority populations, saying sports industries are beginning to understand that they need to nurture the next generation of fans.

"Tennis understands that it needs to be more inclusive and appeal to people from all walks of life, not just white America," he said. "These kinds of outreach programs are a great way to recruit new groups of fans."

But Carter said such outreach is far from a sure thing.

"Soccer has a great outreach program," he said. "Participation is high. But not everybody playing becomes a longtime fan of the sport. We've been saying soccer is going to be the next big sport for more than a decade. But it hasn't happened yet. Maybe the next generation."

In Santa Ana, the push for Latino players began last fall in low-key fashion with focus groups, where prospective players told USTA interviewers they had had little exposure to tennis.

So the USTA began putting on demonstrations and clinics at parks and elementary schools. Last month, a street in Santa Ana's downtown Artists Village was transformed into a series of courts where more than 200 city officials and families smacked foam balls and real balls over makeshift nets.

Santa Ana Councilman Mike Garcia said the sport made a good first impression that night, especially with his nephews.

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