Older Players Lose the Swagger but Gain the Swag
With preteens forming corporate relationships and 20-somethings locked into wildly lucrative deals, tennis marketing often seems dominated entirely by the youth of the sport. But each year, hundreds of seniors across the country take the sport’s marketing to the opposite end of the age spectrum.
Players in the sport’s senior category, some as young as 30 and some older than 90, can also reap the benefits of sponsorship deals with major equipment manufacturers because of their influence among their peers. They agree, without compensation, to use free tennis products exclusively from one company as they travel to local, national and international tournaments.
Lucy Dettmer, 86, speaking about her new agreement with Babolat, could have been confused with a budding player poised for a run at a junior title.
“I’m in my first year, so I haven’t proven myself,” Dettmer said with all seriousness about her relationship with the company, which has sent her free merchandise, including rackets, strings and shoes.
But Dettmer, a Park City, Utah, resident, soon began referring to herself as “an old babe” and “the old lady.” She was merely someone receiving the same perks as people 70 years younger, because seniors like her enable companies to receive concentrated exposure in places that megastars may not be able to reach as effectively, like local tennis clubs.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve loaned one of my rackets,” said Rita Anderson, a 52-year-old from Anderson, S.C., who is sponsored by Babolat. “A lot of those players are interested in looking at what better players are playing with.”
The beginning of the United States Open next week means millions will be exposed to tennis company products and logos, through deals like Maria Sharapova’s lifetime endorsement contract with Prince or Roger Federer’s lifetime agreement with Wilson.
But while Sharapova and Federer may seem like distant characters, on another planet as far as talent is concerned, the local teaching professional or club champion is approachable and typically has a level of talent that seems attainable.
People at clubs “can identify with a 65-year-old woman,” Rose Jones, a sales representative for Babolat, said.
That is one of the reasons why Babolat has 220 of what it calls senior ambassadors, Jones said. Prince has a program with more than 300 seniors, and Linda Glassel, vice president of marketing for the company, said that many of them include “key influencers” in local communities.
Some of the seniors are icons of the sport, like Babolat’s Dorothy Cheney, known as Dodo, a 90-year-old who called herself “an old has-been” but still wins tournaments and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004.
And some, like Prince’s 78-year-old Jason Morton, have names that are not famous but hold a significant place in the sport’s history. In addition to being a longtime teaching professional and having won numerous national tournaments, Morton was the chair umpire for the 1973 match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
“If I can just remember how to keep score, I’ll keep going,” Morton said about playing, adding that because of sponsorships he did not think he had ever paid for a racket.
Most of the sponsored players are teaching professionals or ordinary people who have had extraordinary success in tennis as adults and are highly ranked within one of the senior age divisions.
But for some companies, handing out free merchandise to seniors is not nearly as appealing as giving it to the sport’s young stars.
Amy Wishingrad, national promotions manager for Head/Penn Racquet Sports, said her company focused mainly on juniors and young professionals. She said in late July that the company received few sponsorship requests from senior players, and she mentioned only one who was being sponsored by her company and was not a teaching professional.
“If they’re known in the area and can help, we might do it,” Wishingrad said.
But even with the reluctance of some companies to sponsor seniors and a primary focus within the industry on sponsoring young talent, many of the seniors have found homes with multiple companies. Dettmer said she has had contracts with Wilson and then Prince, but joined Babolat this year after Jones gave her samples to try.
Glassel said that companies compete for the top seniors in the game, though it might be “a little less competitive” than with juniors because seniors change equipment less often.
Morton, who has been with Prince for more than 30 years, said, “I’ve been offered contracts by several companies, but I’m a loyal guy.”
Morton also said he was paid by Prince when he signed on with the company in the mid-1970s, and he joked that he was upset “for a few hours” when his financial agreement ended a few years later.
Now, most seniors are not paid but receive a set amount of equipment that helps to offset the costs of an expensive sport.
“Sponsorship is a loose term there,” said Diane Fishburne, a 49-year-old from Charleston, S.C., who is sponsored by Babolat and works at a doctor’s office. “We don’t get any money.”
While loyalty to companies and player representatives attracts some seniors, others look for improvements in racket technology. Jones said she thought Babolat’s “natural gut strings” and “ergonomic handles” were particularly appealing.
Many seniors, even the most successful, are simply happy to be involved with a program that provides year-to-year support for a long time, sometimes a lifetime.
“Some players are more finicky and fussy about their rackets,” Cheney, who will turn 91 on Sept. 1, said. “I just go with the flow.”