Tennis Industry magazine

 

Pointing the Way

The second annual tennis participation study sheds more light on some of the obstacles to increasing play.

By Peter Francesconi

Wondering whether the sport of tennis, with its multi-million-dollar marketing campaign and Tennis Welcome Center initiative, is headed in the right direction? Well, data from the second annual U.S. tennis participation study does seem to confirm that the current initiatives are indeed targeting problem areas within the sport. And the survey also is pointing up other potential trouble spots that will need to be addressed.

In 2002, the Tennis Industry Association and the USTA commissioned a groundbreaking survey designed to initiate annual measurements of tennis participation in the U.S. The hope was that through yearly studies of who is playing and how much they play, the industry can develop a “roadmap” that can be used to improve all aspects of the sport: products, programs, participation, and plans for the future.

That first survey, conducted by Taylor Research & Consulting Group and Sports Marketing Surveys USA and released in early 2003, was hailed by many throughout the tennis industry — and the sports industry as a whole — as a groundbreaking effort.

This year’s version was conducted in exactly the same manner as last year’s: 25,500 households, chosen at random from across the U.S. and in the Caribbean and British Columbia, were surveyed by telephone in a 30-day period this past fall. The data gathered from the five-minute surveys represent observations from more than 66,000 individuals. Extended interviews also were conducted with current and former players, and with non-players.

Industry sources caution that while it is still too early to see any marked changes in participation from last year’s initial survey, this year’s data does seem to support the direction that the industry is moving with regard to the Tennis Welcome Center program and the new tennis marketing campaign. And the new data does point out some major challenges and opportunities that the industry needs to address to increase tennis participation.

“I think the latest TIA/USTA survey reaffirms our challenges in that we have to make that new-player experience better by making sure players get in a program and have the benefits of learning from a teaching professional,” says Kurt Kamperman, the USTA’s chief executive of Community Tennis and former president of the TIA. “It also makes it clear that we have to continue to provide more and better playing opportunities for our existing player base, because the continued decline in frequent players is alarming.”

Says TIA President Jim Baugh, “We don’t have a trial problem; 5.9 million new players each year is probably bigger than any other sport. It’s the way these new players are trying tennis that is the issue. We need to make sure we spread the word that you can ‘learn to play tenni … fast!’ at a Tennis Welcome Center. We must all work together to build consumer awareness of our brand, TennisWelcomeCenter.com.”

As of mid-March, 3,300 tennis clubs, parks and other facilities were signed on as TWCs, exceeding the original goal of 3,000. And more facilities continue to sign on to the program, the TIA says.

RSI was provided with a copy of an executive summary of the massive 2003 U.S. Tennis Participation Study. Here’s a look at some of the challenges and opportunities this latest study revealed.

Tennis players

Overall tennis participation is still flat. For the last four years, the total number of tennis players in the U.S. has hovered around 24 million, which is about 8.7 percent of the overall population. The current survey puts that number at 24.03 million.

Play by “frequent” players has steadily declined. This four-year downturn may be even more disturbing than the flat participation. Frequent players, defined as those who played 21 or more times in the past year, are the folks who buy more equipment and court time. They’re the heart of your business. There is, however, an increase in the number of players playing one to three times a year, from 6.3 million in 2000 to 8.62 million today. But the mix has changed, with frequent players declining and less-frequent players increasing. Key to your business, of course, is running programs designed to get people to play more frequently — to move them up to frequent-player status (Figure 1.)

And the research supports this. Current players are three times more likely to have taken a lesson in the last year (44 percent) than those who used to be frequent players but now play less than 21 times a year (15 percent). Another factor in increasing frequency is the availability of organized play and league play.

The bucket is leaking — still. You’ve heard this before, but the data clearly shows the number of existing players has dropped, and the number of new players has increased. The research makes clear that tennis still has a retention problem, but the good news is that the sport is attracting new players.

The bucket is leaking

As a matter of fact, first-time trial is not an issue with tennis, as 5.9 million people, or 25 percent of all tennis players, had their first taste of tennis in 2003, up from 5.1 million the year before. Again, the trick here is to provide programs that move these “newbies” along the path to join the frequent-player ranks (Figure 2).

Another positive sign is that the new players are continuing to bring much-needed youth into the game. About 63 percent of all new players to tennis are 6 to 17 years old, which is about the same percentage as in 2002. That same youth age bracket also represents 35 percent of all players in the sport, and 21 percent of the total U.S. population. Also, 22 percent of all new players are Hispanic, well ahead of the Hispanic portion of the overall U.S. population, which is 14 percent.

New and rejoining players play less tennis. On average, continuing players (those who have played for more than a year) average about 27 times a year on court. New players and rejoiners (those taking up the game after having stopped playing for at least a year) play tennis on average 11 and nine times, respectively.

The research finds that, especially for new players, instruction contributes heavily to interest in playing more, and that “having a great teacher” introduce them to the game also helps create frequent players. That is why, with regard to the TWC initiative, one requirement is that there be a certified teaching pro at all the facilities (Figure 3).

Many don’t play more because they “don’t enjoy it.” Of new players, 11 percent say they don’t enjoy tennis, hence they play less. And of these tennis “samplers,” only 17 percent say they had an enjoyable first experience.

The research indicates that most samplers tend to play where there is little or no instruction available. About 80 percent of samplers play at either a public court or a school or college court, but two-thirds of all teaching pros are at private or commercial facilities. That, of course, is something the Tennis Welcome Center program is designed to combat. If you’re a teaching pro at mainly private facilities, consider expanding your horizons to the public parks and schools in your area. It can certainly broaden your base of customers.

Another very specific stat in support of the TWC initiative is that new players who played the game 21 or more times in the past year were more likely to say they had a positive first experience with tennis than new players who played less often. About 67 percent of beginning players who now play frequently said their first experience was “very enjoyable,” compared to 46 percent who played four to 10 times.

The tennis-playing population is aging. Fully 20 percent of frequent players are age 50 or over, compared with 11 percent of frequent players over 50 in 1995. The 50-and-over set also accounts for 13 percent of all players today, vs. 8 percent in 1995. Clearly, while this is an area of concern for the sport, it may point up certain business strategies you need to employ to cater to an older clientele.

For instance, the fitness aspect of tennis is huge, and one that will only become more important as aging baby-boomers look at the options available for staying fit. Consider partnering with a doctor’s office as a way to gain customers, and provide them with a valuable service. Pro shops should consider adding products that would appeal to older players. And for court construction companies, adding tennis courts to an over-50 housing development is a natural fit.

Many of the 5.9 million new players aren’t being welcomed to tennis. This is a two-pronged problem, since new players tend to play in schools or public parks, where pros and programs are more limited, and most teaching pros work in private facilities, where they are less likely to reach new players. Among new players ages 12 and up, only 32 percent have taken a lesson in the past year.

Again, this is exactly what the Tennis Welcome Center initiative is supposed to help turn around. The TIA and USTA have achieved the goal of signing on 3,000 TWCs; the trick now is to make sure the TWCs deliver the goods to new and returning players, making them feel welcome, and then leading them to programs that make them “frequent” players. “We need to focus on quality,” says Kamperman.

The “tennis infrastructure” in schools is limited. This is a problem because half of the 4 million new players in the 6-to-17 age bracket each year are introduced to tennis at school. Yet this can also be an opportunity for your business to partner with local school districts to bring tennis to these kids, or at least to help supply gym classes with equipment. Students in school also need to be “welcomed” to the sport, even if it is a gym-class requirement.

Finding playing partners is a problem. Over a quarter of all “lapsed” players say they left the game because they had “no one to play with.” Retaining customers is, obviously, key to your business. At your facility or shop, make sure there is a bulletin board, sign-up sheet, website or other vehicle that allows players to quickly and easily find partners. You need to make it easy for groups of friends to play together (Figure 4).

The Tennis Industry Association has been conducting tennis participation research since 1988, including spearheading the massive U.S. Tennis Participation studies in 2002 and 2003. For more information on the research available at the TIA, visit tennisindustry.org or contact the TIA office at 843-686-3036.

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About the Author

Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.

 

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