Agassi and the Death of American Tennis

Packed on the number 7 subway line to the U.S. Open, tourists ignored the New York custom of not chatting with strangers on the train. Everyone was abuzz about Agassi. Was he scheduled to play during the day or night? He had another cortisone shot? Can he win another match? But the most common phrases overheard were the clich├ęs familiar to anyone who has watched the breathless U.S. Open television coverage of Agassi: “He has given so much back to the game” or “It’s really what he’s done off the court.”

Even if you’ve never followed tennis, it’s hard to ignore Agassi’s career. It has spanned 21 years and he has won every Grand Slam tennis tournament, a feat that eluded Sampras, Borg, Connors, McEnroe, even the great Federer (thus far). Beyond that, however, you probably know Agassi by his nearly $200 million in endorsements. About ten years ago he thankfully traded in his “image is everything” faded denim shorts and a classic 80s hair-metal coif for a shaved head, two children with Steffi Graf, and his work with the Andre Agassi Foundation in Las Vegas.

Commentators have fallen over themselves lauding what Agassi has given back to the game. But during the interminable rain delays last week, John McEnroe as commentator would inevitably turn about the sorry state of American tennis: Who is the next star? Where is the next batch of American rivals? The next Pete vs. Andre, John vs. Jimmy?

So what has Andre given back to the game? He produced TV ratings at last year’s U.S. Open final versus Roger Federer that were 92% higher than in 2004. His victory against Pavel last week broke records for first round TV viewing. And he provided late-night thrills versus Baghdatis in a match for the ages. But has he inspired any new interest in tennis?

The retirement of Agassi’s cult of personality reveals that tennis is a fading sport in the United States. An informal survey of urban tennis courts in southeast Washington, DC finds them empty on beautiful, sunny days. A few of the preppier neighborhoods often have tennis players waiting, but most of the competition for urban play space revolves around soccer fields or basketball courts. The TV viewership reflects this. NASCAR attracts nearly twice as many viewers as a Grand Slam final without Agassi. Even with Agassi, the NFL draft attracted almost as many viewers as the 2005 U.S. Open final between Federer and Agassi.

So as we bid Agassi farewell, we may also be bidding farewell to the last generation of U.S. tennis superstars. Prove me wrong, James Blake and Andy Roddick.
Average Number of U.S. TV Viewers for Major Sports Events in 2006