Billie Jean Inducted into TIA Hall of Fame

By Hannah Elliott, August 31, 2010

Tennis great Billie Jean King was inducted into the Tennis Industry Hall of Fame this morning in a hotel ballroom over Grand Central Station in New York City.

King, who in addition to her 39 Grand Slam titles and 67 career singles titles earned the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, spoke briefly about her work promoting the sport–and industry–of tennis. Her biggest goal now, she said, is to help children become frequent players of the game. “My mantra is to get rid of the word ‘lesson,’” King says. “When a child signs up for tennis, they should be put on a team immediately…. The socialization process is so important. Children want to be on a team.”

That devotion to making the game fun and accessible for kids makes sense. King started playing tennis only because in fifth grade her friend Susan asked if she wanted to play. “If she hadn’t asked me, I wouldn’t have started playing,” King said.

The Hall of Fame honor was bestowed by the Tennis Industry Association, a non-profit trade association based in South Carolina. John Muir, the president of the TIA, spoke at length about his goals for the sport. He didn’t waste any time cutting to the chase: Goal No. 1 for TIA is to make money for tennis.

“It’s really about the revenue streams coming in,” Muir said, noting that his goal is to make occasional tennis players (those who play less than 21 times a year) into frequent tennis players. “It’s not about making them frequent players, it’s about making them frequent consumers of the industry.”

All told, there are 5.4 million frequent tennis players in the United States, according to TIA data, down 3% from last year. Muir said the industry faced a big decline in 2009, was up slightly in the first quarter of 2010, and has leveled off a bit since then. He didn’t speculate about how well the industry will rebound from Fall 2008.

“Now we’re trying to find the new normal,” Muir said. “You can’t really predict how much growth will happen in the next 12 months.”

But there is good news surrounding the tennis industry as well: Tennis is the fastest-growing “traditional” sport in the nation, according to the Physical Activity Council, with 30.13 million tennis players total. The number of all tennis players in the U.S. has increased 25% since 2003, and the amount of rackets sold has increase 28% over the same period.

It’s a fitting goal for Muir. King herself lobbied relentlessly to win fair pay for women tennis players in the 1970s and was the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in one year.

She also founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974 and co-founded World TeamTennis that same year. But having just recovered from surgery, she’s taking her game one day at a time–and keeping a positive perspective.

“I just had a double-knee replacement, and I’ve played tennis three times, so I’m a happy camper,” King says. “Because what really matters is to get out and play and have fun.”