Tennis has made tremendous inroads as a recreational sport, but as a spectator attraction it still barely makes a dent. ``In numbers we're tiny,'' says Billie Jean King. ``The Los Angeles Dodgers probably draw in a season half of professional tennis's total world audience -- for both men's and women's matches.'' This can easily be lost sight of at the US Open, where the sport witnesses its largest crowds. Total attendance for the 13-day event will exceed 400,000.
Looking at the big picture, though, Hall of Famer Arthur Ashe believes tennis has limited potential to win over spectators, at least American ones.
``The average sports fan doesn't get as emotionally involved in a tennis event as he does the team sports because the players don't belong to a particular city,'' he observes. ``When people come out to watch tennis they say, `I think I'd like to watch Mayotte win,' or `Sadri has a nice serve, I think I'll root for him.' But if you go to a New England Patriots football game there's no question, you're unequivocally cheering for the Patriots.''
Sensing this deeper identification Americans have with team sports, Billie Jean revived team tennis this year. She feels this is the best method to appreciably tap the spectating market. The eight-team league, called TEAMTENNIS, wrapped up a whirlwind, one-month season Aug. 4 and held its championship match a week later, which San Diego won. Average match attendance was 1,200.
Ashe admires Billie Jean's persistence in pioneering the league, but doesn't think the effort will go any place. Its main appeal, he feels, is to the players. ``It's another opportunity for them to make some money, and it doesn't hurt their ranking. That's the big thing.''
Considering the sad state of men's American volleyball in 1976, when the US team failed to qualify for the Olympics, recent results have been nothing short of incredible. Last summer the squad won the gold medal at the Olympics, and a week ago it beat the Soviet Union, which boycotted the Los Angeles Games, in the finals of the four-team USA Cup tournament. Karch Kiraly, captain of the US team, believes it has made dramatic gains due to the establishment of a national training headquarters in San Diego and a four-year development plan.
This is why he laughs off the notion of ex-basketball great Wilt Chamberlain ever making the US team, which he reportedly wants to do in 1988.
``Any time Wilt talks about volleyball it's good for us, but the idea of him trying out two months before the Olympics is utterly ridiculous,'' Kiraly states. ``That's the way things used to be run, which was why the US was in the doldrums before. Playing on the team now is a four-year commitment, and as popular a figure as Wilt is, he couldn't afford to be with us all that time.''
Even though it's still very early in the season, this weekend should be a terrific one for college football fans. Check out some of the matchups: Penn State at Maryland: Maryland figures to have its best team since 1953, when the Terrapins won the national championship. Penn State, though, has had Maryland's number, winning all but one of their 28 confrontations, including last year's, when the Terps missed on a two-point conversion attempt in a 25-24 thriller.
UCLA at Brigham Young: BYU won the only previous meeting of these two Western powers two years ago.
Florida at Miami: Miami was the only team to beat the Gators last year.
Southern California at Illinois: A possible preview of the Rose Bowl?
Temple at Boston College: Ball watchers should be advised to train their eyes on a classic battle at the line of scrimmage between Boston College noseguard Mike Ruth, a one-man defensive wrecking crew, and Temple blocker John Rienstra, an equally formidable man-mountain. Ruth, who was absolutely sensational in B.C.'s opening defeat to Brigham Young, is 6 ft. 21/2 in., 268 lbs; Rienstra 6-4, 275.
Other games of note find Oklahoma State at Washington and Florida State at Nebraska.
Baseball may be the national pastime, but foreigners have been doing a pretty good job lately of outshining American amateur teams. Last month South Korea beat Mexico to defend its title at the Little League World Series, while teams from Cuba won both the world junior (16-to-18 year olds) and adult (above 18) championships. And of course last summer Japan won the Olympic gold medal, defeating the US 6-3 in the championship game. The South Korean victory in Williams-port, Pa., did not go unquestioned. Little League officials have initiated an investigation into charges that the champs began practicing earlier than allowed and drew their all-star roster from more than the allotted number of teams.
With the National Football League season set to start Sunday, here's an interesting bit of trivia. Since 1960, the Dallas Cowboys have been more successful than any other team on opening day, compiling a 20-4-1 record and .820 winning percentage. Cleveland, rather surprisingly, is tied with San Diego for the next best mark (16-9, .640).
Individually, Los Angeles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin enjoyed perhaps the fastest start of any player, passing for 554 yards in a 1951 victory over the New York Giants. Even in today's pass-oriented game, no one has ever surpassed that performance, on opening day or any other occasion.
Nothing personal, fellas, but what are John Laupheimer and Jerry Diamond doing at the head of women's sports organizations? Laupheimer is commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association and Diamond is the executive director of the Women's Tennis Association. Both men apparently are capable administrators, yet with all the breakthroughs women have made in sports it seems rather ironic they don't occupy these two responsible posts.