Serving Up Diversity: The USTA’s D.A. Abrams

When David Anthony Abrams, the chief diversity and inclusion officer for the United States Tennis Association (USTA), first hit a tennis ball, he didn’t just hit it over the net — the first step for any newcomer to the sport. He hit it up and out of the fenced court in north Philadelphia, where the 12-year-old Abrams and a close friend first learned to play.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Abrams, who goes by D.A.

That first contact led to a moderately successful playing career. Once he was able to keep the ball inside the court and hit it cleanly over the net, Abrams played on a youth tennis team that won a championship — though he said, somewhat jokingly, he didn’t contribute much to the effort because he lost all of his matches.

Abrams went on to get a good handle on tennis; with practice, he became a nationally ranked junior player, an esteemed honor in youth tennis. Serena Williams — ranked among the top female tennis players in the world and who has won multiple major tournaments and an Olympic gold medal — began her career as a nationally ranked junior from Florida. Although not quite on Williams’ level, Abrams was good enough to earn a college scholarship playing tennis.

Still, Abrams’ greatest achievement in tennis is likely still to come. As the top diversity and inclusion executive for the USTA — the nonprofit governing body of tennis in the United States and producer of the U.S. Open — Abrams is in a position to make a major impact on the game.

Historically considered a country club sport, tennis is growing rapidly, expanding to areas where other sports such as basketball, football and baseball typically reign supreme.

Last year, more than 28 million people in the U.S. reported they actively play tennis, according to the USTA, which partners with the Tennis Industry Association (TIA) to conduct an annual participation survey. That’s up 4 percent from 2011 and is the second highest participation total recorded since the survey began in 1988.

The demographic that experienced the greatest percentage increase in 2012 — 13 percent — was among players aged 6 to 11. African-American tennis participation reached a 10-year high in 2012, with 2.5 million participants. Among Hispanics, participation was at its third-highest level in the last decade, 3.8 million, according to the USTA.

Abrams said he wants those numbers to continue to increase, and to do that the sport must target younger players. “It is really important for me to be an evangelist for tennis,” he said. “It can just open up the world to youngsters as well as adults — but mostly youngsters.”

A Player at Heart
Abrams said he is confident in his ability to grow the sport in unlikely places because his playing career was the product of a similar effort. Growing up in Philadelphia, he ran track and played baseball, basketball and football. Philadelphia is known as one of the more passionate professional sports cities in the country. The Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL, the Phillies of MLB, the Flyers of the NHL and the NBA’s 76ers all boast highly passionate fan bases. Like in most urban areas, however, tennis isn’t always top of mind.

Abrams said he was first exposed to tennis through a program called the National Junior Tennis League, a community outreach initiative co-founded in 1969 by Arthur Ashe, the only African-American male singles tennis player to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The program is now called the National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) network, and it is one of USTA’s primary outreach initiatives.

Abrams said he enjoyed playing other sports, but something about tennis was different. Not only was it a completely different ball game, but he said the better he got at the sport, the more likely he was to see new things.

“I could go from neighborhood to neighborhood in some of these other sports,” he said. “But as I got better at tennis, not only was I seeing different parts of the city, I started to see different parts of the state, different parts of the region, different parts of the country.”

Abrams’ junior tennis career earned him a scholarship to play at Millersville State College —now Millersville University of Pennsylvania — a school west of Philadelphia. Abrams graduated in 1985 with a degree in business administration and a concentration in accounting.

His first job was as an accountant with Control Data Corp., headquartered in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Abrams worked at the now-defunct technology company for three years until 1988. He then took a job nearby with manufacturer Johnson Filtration Systems Inc. as a senior accountant in the company’s fixed asset management and capital acquisition analysis unit.

After about a year at the company, however, Abrams said he had an itch to return to tennis. In 1989, Abrams joined what was then called the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center in Philadelphia as its director of recruitment and head teaching professional. Abrams said he enjoyed working for the nonprofit because it was for kids only.

In 1993, Abrams made the move to the USTA as a national coordinator with its National Junior Tennis & Learning network of chapters and programs — the same community-outreach effort that sparked his participation in the sport.

He became the national coordinator for the USTA’s minority participation initiative in 1994 in addition to his duties under the same title for NJTL. He held both positions until 1997, when he became the first African-American executive director of one of the USTA’s regional sections for the Missouri Valley.

In 2000, Abrams moved back to the national office for a newly created position as director of the NJTL. Abrams said that role quickly morphed into a broader director of outreach position for the USTA.

Abrams remained in that position until 2006. Then he moved to White Plains, N.Y., to become the executive director and chief staff executive for USTA’s eastern section. Meanwhile, he said the USTA had slowly built its diversity and inclusion efforts, having created a formal diversity department with a strategic focus in 2003-04.

In February 2012, after six years as the eastern section’s executive director, Abrams was named USTA’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, the third person to hold the title.

Grand Slam
Since blossoming into its own function, Abrams said diversity and inclusion has become a significant strategic priority for USTA. It will play a key role in making tennis look like America. However, managing diversity at a sports organization like the USTA isn’t so simple.

Because tennis is a sport with a rich heritage in the U.S. — and the USTA is an organization that is synonymous with it — managing the external brand can be both a blessing and a challenge, said Wendy Lewis, senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances for Major League Baseball.

“It’s a phenomenal asset to work with in terms of trying to drive value,” Lewis said, referencing the highly personal connection tennis players and fans — much like baseball — have with the sport. On the other hand, Lewis said it can be tough to “get your arms around something that has as much public exposure and scrutiny. People take their sports very seriously.”

Gordon Smith, the executive director and chief operating officer of the USTA, said Abrams’ position as both a former player and a fan — as well as an experienced executive — puts him in the perfect frame of mind to handle the task. “D.A. is a tennis guy from the outset,” Smith said. “Tennis is in his DNA.”

In its mission statement the USTA outlines six strategic initiatives: community tennis, professional tennis, player development, fiscal opportunities and fiscal management, people resources/structure and accountability. The diversity department has its own strategic initiatives, each designed to match USTA customer needs. They are: human assets, image, supplier diversity, section/community engagement, strategic partnerships, and training and development.

The USTA’s internal diversity efforts are set up like most. The organization has five business resource groups: African-American/Caribbean, Latino/Hispanic, “Partners” or LGBT, a women’s group and a group for working parents. Abrams said these entities drive insights for the organization’s overall mission and act as employee resources.

The organization also has a speaker’s event tied to its resource groups. Recent speakers include U.S. Fed Cup captain and ESPN tennis analyst Mary Joe Fernandez, and Anita Hill, senior adviser to the provost professor of law, public policy and women’s studies at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

The heart of the USTA’s diversity efforts, however, is external, as the organization works to increase tennis participation across the board, but especially among minority groups.

As the producer for the U.S. Open — the fourth and final major tennis tournament of the year in the Grand Slam that occurs in late August — the USTA has a vested interest in the success of American tennis players in the event.

“When we have Americans participating in the second week of the U.S. Open, ratings go up.” As television ratings rise, so does demand for sponsorship revenue and international media rights, Abrams said.

Therefore, it is critical for the USTA to ensure participation in the sport is strong, and that young and talented players of all backgrounds have access to the resources and coaching needed to advance their playing careers. Abrams said increasing this type of access makes it more likely American tennis players will go pro and be in a position to compete — and win — at the U.S. Open and other major tennis tournaments. For instance, African-American tennis player Serena Williams has won the U.S. Open four times, including in 2012. She is also ranked as the No. 1 female singles tennis player in the world.

Abrams said the main vehicle the USTA uses in this regard is its grants program. One program is geared toward tennis organizations, while the other is targeted at individual players.

Most recently, the program for organizations awarded $75,000 in grants to 10 community tennis organizations across the country. Each of those organizations received a $7,500 grant toward competitive junior development programs that train youngsters aspiring to achieve national or international rankings.

Individually, the USTA also awards grants to players ranging from $1,000 to $4,000. In 2012, 68 student athletes received these grants. To qualify, a junior tennis player must be ranked in the USTA’s top 100 player rankings, which Abrams said is a difficult feat to achieve. But, “you’d be surprised just how many of these youngsters are playing high-level tournament tennis.”

To have junior tennis players in a position to receive these grants, which mostly cover coaching and tournament expenses, participation among young players must be strong. Abrams said it has been vital that the USTA’s diversity function work to support programs that embrace tennis initiation and youth development. The USTA sponsors tennis players aged 10 and under in communities across the country, providing them with balls that bounce lower and move slower and smaller racquets and tennis courts for children to learn the game at their scale.

In terms of the diverse makeup of U.S. tennis participation overall, Abrams said there is still room for improvement. But there has been progress: African-American participation, Abrams said, rose 27 percent year-over-year in 2012. Participation among Latino Americans is also on the rise. Year-over-year, Hispanic and Latino tennis participation grew 119 percent, to 3.8 million, in 2012.

Abrams said the key going forward will be for the USTA’s diversity efforts to continue active programming to encourage minority participation in unlikely parts of the country. North and South Dakota and Minnesota are states that offer the greatest opportunity on this front.

Internally, the organization’s diversity function is in the process of developing a college internship program. Abrams said the six-week, paid program is another vehicle to promote the value of tennis, one that he said aims to act as a bridge for non-player exposure, showing how a passion for the sport can be intertwined with business and organizational diversity and inclusion.

Above all, Abrams said he wants to create more of a sense of urgency about diversity in tennis, internally and externally, because the demographics are changing fast. “If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity now, we might not have it later because it will be too late.”