Friday, September 10, 2010

When Tennis Stars Never Die

Watching the US Open tennis championship during the past few days on various TV channels, I've noticed that most of the announcers are past greats of the tennis circuit: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova, Pam Shriver, Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, and so forth. I am reminded of the contrast with televised pro hoops, where color commentators like Mark Jackson, Tom Tolbert, Jon Barry, Tim Legler, Steve "Snapper" Jones, and so forth were generally not perennial All-Stars. Of late, TNT has made a point to employ former studs (viz. Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller) as studio or game announcers, but this an unusual innovation in the short history of television coverage of basketball. Past MVPs like Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, and David Robinson aren't in the TV game; they are running pro teams, running charter schools, or supporting Republican politics. Why, then, do a relatively larger fraction of great tennis players turn to TV shilling?

First, it may be that the tennis vets simply love the game more than the basketball greats do.

Second, tennis purses during the 1980s and 1990s were nowhere near the rich wages afford to NBA stars. Perhaps Martina and her ilk need the money.

Third, in an individual sport, there are fewer management roles available to retired stars. Michael Jordan can buy a team and Joe Dumars can build a roster, but what can Connors do? He could coach a player, as he did with Andy Roddick, but coaching in tennis is fairly low-profile (coaches are not even allowed to signal the player during a match!) and perhaps is a less fulfilling job than management in the NBA. Also, there is only one Davis Cup coach, and Patrick McEnroe held that job for the past ten years.

A contrarian take might say that basketball players are better trained to move on with the next phase of their lives, whether that be in business or philanthropy, while tennis players, having never attended college, don't know what to do with themselves other than remaining involved in the game. Here is another argument for my prior thesis that we need an NBA draft age limit.