Monday, February 5, 2018

USTA League Tennis is Growing! But all is not positive ...

You may be surprised by the subject given that I've written about the declining participation in USTA League in the past, and that is true Nationally.  Since 2013, the number of players playing in the Adult leagues in all divisions from 18+ to 65+ has dropped from about 276K to 263K.  That isn't a huge drop, but it has been pretty steady.

But that decline is not happening in every section or area.  I've noted before that sections like the Pacific Northwest and Southern California have actually been growing, and the 40+ and 55+ divisions have shown growth as well.  But that means some areas and divisions are shrinking quicker to offset that growth.

This all comes up because in my area (Seattle) our growth actually appears to be causing problems.  I wrote last week that our local playoff format is changing to have fewer wildcards for second place teams in sub-flights, in fact there will be 31% fewer teams advancing to local playoffs under the new rule this 40+ season than there would have been under the old format.

The reason I've heard for this change is that as we've had growth, that means there are more teams and more sub-flights and thus more courts required for local playoffs if first and second place teams from each sub-flight all advance.  This all makes sense, but apparently, it is very hard to secure enough courts for all the teams.  Why wouldn't the USTA's money for courts be as good as any other user?

Some clubs are private and are reluctant to give up their entire facility for a weekend as I'm sure members will complain and other (perhaps lucrative) programs they offer, e.g. juniors, would suffer as well.  But apparently even public facilities aren't wanting to give up the whole facility and keep some courts for instruction or other programs.  The result is fewer courts could be secured and fewer teams will be advancing, putting a much higher priority on the regular season.

Not that I doubted what I heard, but I had do do some checking to confirm this growth and to see if the problem is real.

Taking a look at the 40+ league in Seattle since its inception, I looked at the number of teams and the number of rostered players and indeed there has been growth.

In 2013, there were 162 teams and it grew all the way to 264 in 2017 or 63% growth.  For rostered players, it went from 2,404 to 3,858, a 60% growth.  That would be noticeable and would certainly increase the number of courts required for playoffs.

The 18+ season has not yet started, but it too has grown in Seattle unlike most areas.  Teams grew from 274 in 2013 to 362 in 2017, 32% growth, and players grew from 3,610 to 4,907, 36% growth.

What is interesting is that for 2018, the 40+ team count actually dropped from 264 to 247, but the player count increased from 3,661 to 3,858.  I'm not sure the reason but one could speculate that facilities are even reducing the number of teams they'll sponsor/allow so teams are down, but there is still player growth and so rosters are now larger.

So there indeed is evidence to indicate there has been dramatic growth in teams and players, and perhaps facilities are tightening up the courts available for USTA both for regular league play with team counts down and also for playoffs.

How do we solve this?

Perhaps we were just lucky to have courts available and securable in the past so that first and second place teams could all advance.  It could be that it is more normal to have just first place teams advance and we are just losing a perk few other areas had.

But perhaps this indicates there is demand for more courts and there is an opportunity for facilities to expand or for new facilities to be built.

Last, players should talk with their facilities and encourage them to choose to support local playoffs and make their facilities available.  We already typically use more than one facility for playoffs, why not add a third?  Clearly club members want to play, shouldn't facilities support those members?

What do you think?  Is there a problem?  If so, what is a solution?  Or do we just need to suck it up and accept that second place teams won't be going to playoffs?

With fewer teams making Seattle area local playoffs, are the men's sub-flights balanced?

I wrote last week that a change in playoff format is going to result in 31% fewer teams making local playoffs in the 40 & over division in the Seattle area.  Specifically, where last year every sub-flight had the first and second place teams advance to playoffs, now, at most levels, just one second place team from all the sub-flights will advance.

This clearly puts a premium on the regular season.  In past years, a team could lose a match, perhaps even two, and still make it to local playoffs.  Now, that is less likely to be the case and there very well could be teams with just one loss that don't advance.

Those reading closely will note that there is a spot for at least one second place team to advance, so you might think that this will make things equitable and allow that really good team that got unlucky and had to face another really good team to advance anyway.  But is that really the case?

For that theory to be true, it requires that all the sub-flights be reasonably balanced so that every second place team have a reasonable chance of winning that coveted wildcard.  If they aren't balanced, one sub-flight could have three or four very good teams and beat up on each other resulting in a second place team with at least two losses, while a weaker flight could have a weak second place team lose their one important match but have a record that appears better than those in the tougher flight.

So, I went about checking on how balanced the flights are to see if teams will have an equal chance or if things are stacked in favor of some sub-flights.  To do this, I looked at the top-8 averages for each team using my ratings as of 1/1/18.  This is the best gauge of how strong a team could be known to be prior to the season starting.

Note of course that players can improve during the year, self-rated players aren't accounted for, and player availability and teams doling out equal playing time can result in teams with high top-8 averages not doing as well as expected.

For the below, I'm looking at just the men.  I wrote about the women's flights here.

The 2.5 men have just one flight so we'll skip them.

The 3.0 men have three flights and 28 teams.

  • Flight A has the top-3 teams and five of the top-7 so definitely appears to be the toughest.
  • Flight B on the other hand doesn't show up until T9 and then has three of the bottom 4.
  • Flight C fits in between but does have four of the top-12.
Certainly some disparity here, can flight A with all its strong teams get the wildcard?

The 3.5 men have four flights and 38 teams.
  • Flight A doesn't show up on the list until T11 and has three of the bottom 4 so appears to be the weakest flight.
  • Flight B has four of the top-10 but is otherwise spread out pretty evenly.
  • Flight C has five of the top-9 so appears quite strong.
  • Flight D has the top team, but then five between T11 and T17.
There are some real differences here too.

The 4.0 men have three flights and 30 teams.
  • Flight A is at the top with two of the top-3, five in the middle 8, then three of the bottom 5.
  • Flight B has three in the top-10, then fills all of the spots from 20-25.
  • Flight C is weighted towards the top with six of the top-13.
The flights are different but no one is really strong or weak.

The 4.5+ men have two flights and 16 teams, the flights alternating the top-7 spots.

Again, one flight shows a big disparity and another a noticeable one.  We'll see who takes advantage of it.

With fewer teams making Seattle area local playoffs, are the women's sub-flights balanced?

I wrote last week that a change in playoff format is going to result in 31% fewer teams making local playoffs in the 40 & over division in the Seattle area.  Specifically, where last year every sub-flight had the first and second place teams advance to playoffs, now, at most levels, just one second place team from all the sub-flights will advance.

This clearly puts a premium on the regular season.  In past years, a team could lose a match, perhaps even two, and still make it to local playoffs.  Now, that is less likely to be the case and there very well could be teams with just one loss that don't advance.

Those reading closely will note that there is a spot for at least one second place team to advance, so you might think that this will make things equitable and allow that really good team that got unlucky and had to face another really good team to advance anyway.  But is that really the case?

For that theory to be true, it requires that all the sub-flights be reasonably balanced so that every second place team have a reasonable chance of winning that coveted wildcard.  If they aren't balanced, one sub-flight could have three or four very good teams and beat up on each other resulting in a second place team with at least two losses, while a weaker flight could have a weak second place team lose their one important match but have a record that appears better than those in the tougher flight.

So, I went about checking on how balanced the flights are to see if teams will have an equal chance or if things are stacked in favor of some sub-flights.  To do this, I looked at the top-8 averages for each team using my ratings as of 1/1/18.  This is the best gauge of how strong a team could be known to be prior to the season starting.

Note of course that players can improve during the year, self-rated players aren't accounted for, and player availability and teams doling out equal playing time can result in teams with high top-8 averages not doing as well as expected.

For the below, I'm looking at just the women.  I'll follow up with an analysis of the men.

For the women, the 2.5 level has just one sub-flight so no issues there.

The 3.0 women have four sub-flights and 39 teams, and it is not balanced it appears.

  • Flight A is pretty tough with eight teams ranked in my top-24 including teams ranked T2 and T5.
  • Flight B doesn't have any team in the top-4, but has four in the top-11 so very tightly bunched.
  • Flight C is arguably even tougher at the top with three of the top-8 including #1, T2, and T5!
  • As you might expect, Flight D ends up being far weaker with only three in the top-14.
It is very possible that sub-flights A, B, and C beat up on each other and the second place team from sub-flight D takes advantage.

The 3.5 women have five sub-flights and 43 teams and some serious haves and have nots.
  • Flight A has no team in the top-6 so is not top heavy, but has eight of the next 18 so has a lot of depth.
  • Flight B is stacked with five in the top-9 and then three more in the next 11!  It will be tough for a second place team to advance here.
  • Flight C is very weak on paper, just one team in the top-25!  Worse, it has the bottom 2, three of the bottom 4, and six of the bottom 10.
  • Flight D is fairly strong with four in the top-13.
  • Flight E is not very strong with just two in the top-26.
It appears flight C will be a cakewalk for the top team, and flight B will be a dog fight.

The 4.0 women have three flights and 28 teams.
  • Flight A has three of the top-7 teams.
  • Flight B has #1 and T2 but then no other until T12.
  • Flight C has five of the top-11.
These flights do have a different make-up, but nothing egregiously out of whack it appears.

The 4.5+ women have two flights and 11 teams with two teams from each flight advancing.  Flight B has the top-2 teams and flight A the bottom three, but the trick here on top of that is that in flight A, teams don't have a balanced schedule and someone will get to play the bottom team twice while another team will play the top team twice.

In summary, from the above there is certainly not perfect balance between the flights, and in some cases there is a huge difference, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out and who the wildcard teams are.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Playoff format change for 2018 Seattle area 40 & over league - 31% fewer teams will advance than last year

January tends to be a slower tennis month for USTA play as some areas aren't playing at all, and those that are tend to begin play full force mid or late in the month.  Thus, I've been a bit delinquent in writing about thoughts or observations.

But as we exit January, things are ramping up and folks are getting reports (yes! I'm still doing them and ready for 2018), whether individual, team, recruiting, or flight.  As teams play, those vying for the lead in their flight start thinking about playoffs and what it will take to qualify.

In this area, there is a change for 2018 in my area, specifically the 40 & over league going on now has changed what teams and how many qualify for playoffs.

From the playoff draws already posted, we can see that for each gender and level, what used to be 6 to 8 or even 10 team draws is now generally just 4.  The change is that for the most part, it is just flight winners that advance to local playoffs instead of what used to be the 1st and 2nd place teams in each flight with just one 2nd place wildcard total across all the flights.  Here are the full scenarios.

Women


  • 3.0 - Five teams advance, four flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been eight teams in the past
  • 3.5 - Six teams advance, five flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been ten teams in the past
  • 4.0 - Four teams advance, three flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been six teams in the past
  • 4.5+ - Four teams advance, the top-2 teams from each flight, just as was done in the past

Men

  • 3.0 - Four teams advance, three flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been six teams in the past
  • 3.5 - Five teams advance, four flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been eight teams in the past
  • 4.0 - Four teams advance, three flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been six teams in the past
  • 4.5+ - Four teams advance, the top-2 teams from each flight, just as was done in the past

All told, this is 19 women's teams and 17 men's teams advancing, compared to 28 and 24, so a reduction of 31%.  That is a lot of players that won't get to experience playoffs this year that did last year.

I do not know the motivation for this change, but can speculate and consider the effects of this change.

First, it is going to reduce the number of matches that need to be hosted for local playoff weekend.  Where in the past they had to start on a Friday, sometimes even Thursday evening and some teams may have to play four matches in three or four days, the schedule now has only two matches on Friday and the rest on Saturday and Sunday, the longest path to winning being three matches and that only for a few teams.

This certainly eases the burden on the required courts and scheduling, and will also be cheaper for the USTA in that regard.  Will we see the team fee for playoffs go down as a result?  And it will make it less taxing for players likely reducing by one the number of matches to be played in a short period of time.  But some players may have relished the playing opportunity and as noted above, 31% fewer teams will get to experience playoffs.

Second, this puts more pressure on teams to do well in regular season play and puts a priority on winning every match if possible.  No longer can you have an early season loss or two and still have a shot at playoffs.  If you don't win that early season match against the top team, you are really in a hole and may need the top team to lose twice to have a shot.

This could mean captains will be less willing to play their full roster, instead wanting to run their best players out every match to avoid a slip-up that could cost a chance at playoffs.  If so, this is unfortunate as the other players may get to play less than before.

Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Encouraging teams to go all out could lead to stronger competition, and the top team that is undefeated with two matches to play may not be able to mail in the last two knowing they'd still qualify in second place.

Third, it is almost certain that a really good team is not going to make playoffs, perhaps at each gender and level.  If a team is missing some good players for a given match and comes away with an unexpected loss, they could go 8-1 or 9-1 and lose out to an undefeated team.

Yes, there is the provision for one 2nd place team to be a wildcard, but for that to be equitable it assumes flights are relatively balanced and the best 2nd place team will earn that wildcard.  The truth is that it is nearly impossible to have balanced flights and there will be a tough one with perhaps three playoff quality teams, and another flight with at most one, but the tough flight may beat up on each other and only one team advance while the 2nd place team with the best record may be weaker but benefit from being in a weak flight.

I'll try to do some analysis on strength of flights to see if there are any glaring inequities and what the result could be.

What do you think?

Does making the regular season more meaningful make for a better league?  If you can't win your flight you aren't going to do well at Sectionals and beyond so no harm done?  Is letting 2nd place teams go to playoffs like giving out participation medals?

Or is only taking 1st place teams (for the most part) not fair and make it so there is pressure on a captain to only play their good players?  Or does it unfairly advantage those teams that can stack their roster with ringers?  Or is the USTA just trying to save a buck on fewer matches/courts that have to be paid for?

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Previewing the 2018 Pacific Northwest Seattle area 40 & over league

The 2018 40 & over league in the Seattle area started last night, but it is never too late for a quick preview.

This preview will identify the top team or two for each gender and level using the top-8 average for each team using my Estimated Dynamic NTRP Ratings.

First, I'll take a look at the women's flights.

The 2.5 women have several strong teams, but TSCP-Davis is the pre-season favorite.  Keep in mind that there are usually lots of self-rates and improving players so lots of things can change.

At the 3.0 level, there are four flights so quite a few teams, but one stands above the rest going into the year and that is TCSP-McCaslin.

The 3.5 women has five flights so a lot of teams, but again, one stands above the rest and that is HBSQ-$mallz.

The 4.0 level once again has one team well ahead of the rest and it is  CP-Keogh, but they have a really big roster so how often will they play their best players.

The 4.5+ level has just two flights but one team, NTC-Ogborn, appears to be the favorite.

Next, on to the men.

The 3.0 men is tight with PL-Licholai and RBW-Rockets-Faloon but there are a few teams with a lot of self-rates so these two may or may not be the favorites.

There are four flights of 3.5 men and CP-Gents-Paulson is the favorite.

At the 4.0 level, NTC-SMACK-Reddy has a modest lead over the other teams, but it is close behind them.

Last, the 4.5+ level two teams, BETC-Submariners-Nguyen and NTC-Dalkin appear to be the favorites.

There you have it.  Favorites don't always win, so none of the other teams should get down if I didn't name them, and if anything, these favorites now have a target on their back so watch out!

If you'd like a full flight report for the flight your team is in, I can provide all of the details including full roster averages and top-8 averages, just contact me.

USTA League for 2018 is off and running

We aren't even a week into 2018, but USTA League matches are already being played.  In my area, our 40 & over Adult leagues started yesterday and other sections and districts have already started or will be soon.

With a new year comes aspirations for success and improvement, both individual and team, and my Estimated Dynamic NTRP Rating Reports can help with preparation and tracking of both.

Individual reports provide detailed statistics, rating information, and a match by match chart to allow you to see how you've done overall and in different aspects of league play.  You can get a report for last year to see how you did and where you ended the year, or any other prior year for that matter, or as you play in 2018 can get reports throughout the year to monitor progress.

Team reports provide a nice summary of the ratings for an entire team along with records and courts played information, plus a partner report showing how each player has done with their different partners.  All of this can be very useful for a captain to size up how their players stack up and what partnerships work well, all useful in planning for a season.

A variation of a team report is a Team Recruiting Report but focuses on some aspects you want to know when recruiting for a team or before any matches have been played like records and ratings in singles vs doubles and in the different leagues.

Last, for captains wanting to scout opponents, Flight Reports give an informative summary of the overall and top-8 average ratings for all the teams in a flight so a captain can see who the strongest/weakest teams are, both top to bottom as well as if the best players are used.  With this in hand, a captain can know when they need their best players or when they can mix in others players to ensure players get matches in but the team results can be maximized.

Reports can be generated for any USTA League player, team, or flight.  If you are interested, contact me for more information or to request a report.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Conversations About Tennis with Carl Bialik - Podcast with me on USTA Ratings!

If you've followed sports/political statistics, you've probably come across Carl Bialik, a journalist who has written for the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, and FiveThirtyEight among others.  He has a passion for tennis though and has a regular podcast, Thirty Love: Conversations About Tennis, where he talks with guests on a variety of tennis related topics.

He contacted me recently about recording a podcast with him to discuss USTA League and NTRP ratings and I agreed, and you can now listen to it on his site or on iTunes.

Thanks Carl!