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New England

Innovation Challenge Creates More Inclusive Tennis Culture

James Maimonis, Manager, Media & Communications | January 28, 2021

WESTBOROUGH, MA - The pandemic created a unique set of challenges for every industry and tennis was no different. The situation allowed for more community building than ever for USTA New England. It also opened up the opportunity to try new things and start to build a ‘new normal’. The timing was perfect when USTA Senior Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Bill Leong, reached out to the section to try something completely new called the Innovation Challenge.


“Innovation is more vital than ever and it is the key to unlocking post-pandemic tennis participation growth opportunities. The unprecedented crisis will fundamentally change the way customers choose products and services and how we need to engage and interact with them,” Leong said.


“After speaking with Bill, I felt our section had the unique opportunity to create something special at a time we needed it most. We realized the Innovation Challenge gave us a chance to connect with the community in a way we hadn’t before in hopes of creating a more inclusive culture,” said Matt Olson, USTA New England Executive Director and COO. 


The challenge ran in two phases from September to December 2020 and was open to anyone in New England 18 and older. During phase one, community members were given a chance to pitch ideas that created both new tennis experiences and reimagined present offerings for new and current players.


Altogether, the community submitted 66 public proposals. From there, the organization asked the tennis community to vote on their favorite proposals. More than 1,000 people voted those ideas down to the top 25.


In phase two, five groups of the most dedicated participants split up and chose one idea to run with. They were tasked with brainstorming a way to bring the idea to life, culminating with a proposal pitch to a group of panelists - reminiscent of the show Shark Tank. 


“It took some groups 8-10 hours to come up with the best pitch and how to present their idea,” said USTA New England Director of Player Development, Shawna Fors, who worked closely on the project. “We asked for diversity of thought from the groups, and they went above and beyond to seek out the community’s opinion about ideas they wanted to see.”  


Teams then created 1-2 minute video pitches to present their idea. Once again, USTA New England asked the tennis community to vote on their favorite idea. With consideration from more than 800 votes, a panel of judges composed of USTA National and New England staff, board and volunteers, voted Summer STEAM as the grand prize winner and recipient of $5,000 cash. 


The original idea of Summer STEAM is the brainchild of Maine special education teacher and tennis coach, Resty Sapuan and utilizes a science, technology, engineering, art and math curriculum for children built around tennis. 


“I chose STEAM because of its real world applications and how fascinating it would be to use it to show the scientific side of tennis through its curriculum,” Sapuan said. “Not only could the idea help students retain academic skills that many lose during the summer, but it could help them become better, more technical tennis players.”


Sapuan’s team included Rachel Coppola, Brett Zuraitis, Taylor Witkin and Jocelyn Haixu Zhu and represented Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The team spent weeks working together to refine the idea and bring it to life. 


“You could feel the pride this team had in the idea as we were presenting it to the judges,” he said. “I feel like each of us took my basic idea and turned it into something more. There are components of the final draft of the plan that has a piece of each member. We are all proud of the project because we all had a hand in it.”


The goal of Summer STEAM is for children to connect tennis to the real world via a free curriculum delivered to them through their school or youth organization.  


Not only was the team rewarded with the win and cash prize, but USTA New England is committed to implementing their idea.


“Based on our level of engagement, the community as a whole was very excited that we included them as we forge a new way forward.,” Fors said. “This is a model we plan to use moving forward and we are excited to hear the next great idea!”


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