Hit or Miss

When it comes to sports reports, are we getting played?

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. Racquetball is coming back. And football and basketball are doing pretty good. 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 the grand old sport of 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.

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 or an attempt to build a television audience for a big event such as the U.S. Open.

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.

But I wonder if we need any more tennis courts, either. 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. 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.

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

Racquetball claims 5.5 million players, down from 14 million at its peak 30 years ago. In the mid-1970s, Memphis was the epicenter of this booming sport. Elvis himself played and had a court at Graceland. A young Memphian named Andy Roberts took up the game and became world champion 15 years later. Memphian Randy Stafford, a former pro, started The Court Company, which builds courts all over the world. At one time, he says, there were more than 150 courts in Memphis. Then aerobics, jogging, cycling, and fitness machines starting pulling away players, particularly women.

"Pure racquetball didn't work so clubs had to add other things," says Stafford.

Today, racquetball isn't dead, by any means. Memphis still hosts a national tournament at The Racquet Club of Memphis in October, and 5.5 million players is a big number, considering that my favorite sport, squash, claims only 300,000 players.

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. You don't need a survey to tell you Memphians are out of shape. A trip to the grocery store will do.

I think a big source of confusion is the manufacturers' survey that counts you as a player if you have played one time in the last year. By that measure, I'm a tennis player, racquetball player, squash player, volleyball player, bowler, Scrabble player, water skier, Jet Ski rider, golfer, kayaker, weight lifter, basketball player, quarterback, Hula Hooper, jogger, and Frisbee hucker.

Except I'm not. I stink at half of those things and I know it, so I only do them when a friend talks me into it. I'm not really a player. And neither are hundreds of thousands of others. 

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