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Michael Dowse, the USTA’s new chief, draws high praise and sparks lively debate

Bill Simons

The 1986 US Open didn’t have a single male or female American native in the finals. The USTA had a bit of a panic attack. The sky seemed to be falling on a once booming sport. Leaders of the tennis industry were feeling shut out of the USTA, which critics claimed was a good ol’ boys’ network. The game seemed stuck. Some said getting the USTA to change was like turning a battleship in a lagoon.

So industry leaders gathered in Florida for a conference dubbed “The Spirit of Sarasota.” Soon captains of the tennis industry were breaking into the highest echelons of the USTA. Eventually the Tennis Industry Association was created, and leaders like Kurt Kamperman, Alan Schwartz, and Jim Baugh powered their way onto the USTA Board. Kamperman went on to become the Head of the USTA’s Community Division. Schwartz became a game-changing USTA President.

Now, decades later, the circle has been completed. After a lengthy search in which many big names were considered and there were extensive delays, one of the more powerful figures in the tennis industry, Wilson’s president, Michael Dowse, has been selected over numerous insiders to replace the USTA’s retiring CEO, Gordon Smith.

The early reviews are glowing. Schwartz said, “The choice is a delightful combination of proven leadership, tennis DNA, and industry know-how. They went outside the USTA, but not outside of tennis. Mike knows a lot of people. They’ve chosen well.” Dowse, whose mother was the Executive Director of the Utah Tennis Association, still plays. He lives in Phoenix and has three children. “He’s a great guy. I’m excited,” said John Embree, the chief of the USPTA, who worked with Mike for years.

A graduate of the University of Portland, Mike started in tennis as a Wilson sales rep in the northwest before becoming a regional sales manager in Atlanta. He then headed Wilson’s accessory and strings division and worked in other corporate assignments. He became the head of Nike Footwear before returning to Wilson. 

“It’s a loss for Wilson, but the USTA is not going to do any better than Mike,” noted the former head of Wilson Racquet Sports, Jim Baugh. Long an energetic industry reformer and catalyst, Baugh bluntly noted, “Now it’s a question of how much has the USTA really changed over the past 20, 30 years in terms of delivering down through the sections. With the USTA’s bylaws and structures, it’s difficult to drive through new agendas. You have 17 sections, a Florida bureaucracy, a White Plains bureaucracy and all those committees. It’s almost like the federal government. But Mike is a phenomenal guy. At Wilson he did a great job – I love the kid. The guy lives and breathes tennis. He came from the industry, he understands the roots of tennis and knows that if anything is going to happen it’s going to be through the trenches.

“The question is whether the trenches want to be a part of the USTA delivery system in an entrepreneurial way, because Mike’s an entrepreneur. He’s a guy who believes in local influencers. He knows the USTA needs a pro game – the US Open is its cash cow. He’s brilliant, and surely will make the sport grow.

“He’s very strategic and always talks about strategies, yet he knows it’s all about execution, because you can have your strategies, but for tennis to grow it has to be done through implementation. The delivery system of the sport needs to be united as a brand under the umbrella of tennis as a whole.

“It really comes down to the sectional leaders. Do they want change? Or do they want to keep the status quo, because the bylaws protect the sections so much? Do they just do their own thing [and essentially say] it’s okay that tennis continues to slide? Or do we want the sport to be available to the masses?

“Mike’s a doer. So that’s the real question he’s going to have to wrestle with. Do the sections really want change? Let’s be real: the sport is sliding, slowly but surely. Now, the only way we’re going to change is by changing our actions. Mike knows tennis from the grassroots up to the highest level at Wilson. He gets it, he grew up in it, he believes in it. Now he’s got to get his hands dirty. He’s got to work with people locally and get in the trenches.

“The question is whether the trenches – the sections, the pros, the facility owners – will get in bed with him. There are a lot of old dogs in this sport who don’t want change because they’re riding out their time. They have to think about the future of the sport, not just their future.”

So, in other words, observers ask, “Can Dowse light a fire?




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