Tennis Industry magazine

 

Tennis' Boom Time

Keeping your baby-boomers happy will lead to more business for your facility.

By Mary Helen Sprecher

Don’t look now, but those weekend warriors who just a few short years ago were drilling shots across the court are now asking for recommendations on a sports medicine specialist. They’re talking to your pro about shoes that offer a little more support, inserts that cushion their feet. They’re wearing (say it isn’t so) sunscreen with SPF 45.

Woodfield Country Club
Woodfield Country Club

Kind of unsettling, isn’t it? After all, these are the players who used to tough out their injuries, rarely took water breaks, and played for hours on end. And you as a club owner or manager are left wondering how long the courts can hold them before they head off to another pursuit — something less strenuous, lower-impact. Bocce, anyone?

The Random House Dictionary defines a baby-boomer as “a person born during a baby boom, especially one born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1965.” These days, the baby-boomer market is gradually becoming the aging-baby-boomer market, since the upper end of that generational curve is looking straight at retirement. And while they’re not about to stop being active, they are putting on the brakes. Or at least they’re pumping the brakes. The injuries are catching up to them, and the first worries of brittle bones and bad knees are making themselves known.

The good news is that baby-boomers are the most active, health-conscious demographic in history. And with a little imagination and know-how, you can harness those qualities, keeping the boomers on your courts. After all, the groundwork has already been laid. Boomers are social animals who resist the idea of being sedentary.

“Instead of bridge or afternoon tea, it is now hiking, canoeing, swimming, and tennis,” says David Marsden, chairman of the American Sports Builders Association, the trade association for sports facility contractors, designers and suppliers. Marsden says that in his Massachusetts-based firm, Boston Tennis Court Construction, “Much of our new court construction is geared to that age group, one that is interested in good health, competition and social events — perfect for tennis.”

More good news. Boomers have a lot to spend. In fact, spending among the baby-boomers is up — way up.

“By 2010, spending by people 45 and older is projected to be a trillion dollars greater than spending by people between the ages of 18 and 39,” says John Welborn of Lee Tennis in Charlottesville, Va. Welborn, who cited the statistic in a recent ASBA meeting, says that in order to keep boomers on the court, it is important to “help them visualize themselves getting what they want through tennis.”

Want to learn how to keep your boomers in the fold — and on the court? You’ve come to the right place.

Court Surfaces

The first thing that comes to mind regarding an aging population is the type of court your facility offers. Courts are classified by surface, the most common being an all-weather surface or so-called “hard court” — asphalt or concrete with a layer of acrylic coloring. It’s easy to take care of and unless it’s pouring rain or covered with snow, it’s always ready for play. And generally speaking, it is also the fastest type of tennis surface — one that favors a serve-and-volley game.

Mirasol Country Club
Mirasol Country Club

The only downside of hard courts is, well, they’re hard. And in tennis, which is, after all, a game of running, and of frequent stops and starts, that adds up to impact on joints — especially ankles, knees, and hips.

Do you have fast courts and a boomer clientele? Here’s something you might not know: Hard courts can be tuned to bring about a slightly slower game that is, in the long run, easier on joints. Ask a tennis court contractor for recommendations.

In play, an acrylic court is fast because the smooth surface causes the ball to skid and come off the surface at a low angle, making it harder to reach. Changing the texture of the surface (even slightly) by making it rougher through additives to the color coating can help “grab” the ball and slow it down. The rougher the texture, the slower the game.

What does this do for your players? It gives them more of a strategy game, for one. Older players can’t match the twenty-somethings for speed. Help them replace slams and smashes with longer rallies and a shot placement/spin type of game. David Schobel, the USTA’s director of Community Tennis Competitive Programs, calls tennis “moving chess,” and it’s this image you can keep in mind when addressing the needs of your boomers.

Want to take it a step further? Ask your court contractor about another senior-friendly option: cushioned hard courts. Here, the forgiving layer is added before the application of regular color coating. Cushion layers range from factory manufactured sheet goods to poured-in-place liquid products. The systems range in depth from 1/16-inch to 1/2-inch and vary in resiliency and durability. Cushioning softens the effects of running on a hard surface and often, can be combined with texture to create a slower, lower-impact game.

One thing to note: Cushioned surfaces, in general, do not provide slide. When a player runs and stops, the impact is still absorbed by the joints. However, there are now systems on the market in which a free-floating rubber sheet is attached only at the perimeter of the court. When a player stops, the rubber mat moves slightly, creating a small wrinkle in front of the foot, and downplaying the impact.

Maintenance of textured and/or cushioned courts is the same as that of hard courts — sweeping or hosing the surface to keep it clean. Resurfacing is necessary every three to five years. The cushion can be damaged by improper footwear, blows, sharp objects, or heavy loads, so make sure your users are as nice to the court as it is to their joints.

Another option popular with aging athletes is courts made of granular material — clay or fast dry. These have an earthen sub-base, a layer of crushed stone, a layer of fine stone and a top layer of natural clay or, more commonly, fast-dry material. The fast-dry material is made of crushed stone, crushed tile, or crushed burnt brick, screened and mixed with a chemical binder. Because of their highly textured surface, these courts provide medium to slow play and offer slide. The fine material on the surface grabs the ball, creating a higher, slower bounce, which gives players more time and less bending. It’s a marriage of characteristics the older players love.

“My first recommendation is for fast-dry courts,” says George Todd Jr. of Welch Tennis Courts Inc. in Sun City, Fla. Todd admits, though, that what often gives court owners pause is not so much cost of installation, but long-term spending prospects; in other words, “the concern of maintenance cost.”

Maintenance of clay or fast-dry courts is a process, rather than an event. Daily maintenance includes brooming, watering, and rolling. The courts also require annual reconditioning and they’re easily damaged (although easily repaired).

Soft courts won’t work everywhere. Where temperatures stay below freezing for long periods, the season is too short. Where there is frequent freeze and thaw, the courts will alternate between being hard and unplayable, and mushy and unpleasant. And where there is not sufficient staff to maintain soft courts, it is best to rule them out immediately.

The problem is, everyone wants the same thing. “Ease of maintenance, less wear and tear on the body, convenience,” says Marsden. “And sometimes these are mutually exclusive, so compromises are necessary. I only recommend a particular surface after I can gauge what the prospective buyer seeks. For instance, if a player wants the softest surface available with no regard for maintenance issues, I recommend a clay-type surface. If maintenance is a concern, I recommend a cushioned acrylic surface.”

Amenities

Hard and fast courts can be tuned for slowness or converted to cushioned courts — even to soft courts — by an experienced contractor. But if you’re serious about making your facility boomer-friendly, don’t stop at the surface. Think about the overall ambience.

“Older players are generally bothered by younger players and would prefer that they play separately,” says Todd. He says that older players also enjoy a shaded viewing area “located some distance from the court so that people not involved in the match have a comfortable area in which to view the match. It generates more interest in the game, particularly in a public setting.”

Unlike their “go hard and go home” days, many boomers may be retired — or at least partially so — and thus able to enjoy the social aspects of tennis. They’re more likely to play doubles, and to sit in the shade and catch up with one another after a match. If refreshments are available, they’ll stay even longer. Don’t forget that more doubles players equals more efficient court use, in terms of programming.

You can’t (and of course, you shouldn’t) restrict court use to youngsters, boomers, tweeners, or anyone else. But you can carve out private areas through creative use of landscaping and windscreens, even in places where courts are close together. Making sure there are sources of chilled drinking water, telephones in case of emergencies, trash cans (with lids), and even stacks of clean towels can turn tennis facilities into more inviting places for everyone.

Programming

The older tennis population isn’t a fluke — it’s a fact. According to Schobel, “There are national age-group championships for players from 30 to 90 for the men, in five-year increments, and women from 30 to 85.”

Consider programming that will bring everyone together without making older players feel self-conscious. Try a “century” tournament, where the ages of the players (either two players in a singles match, or each side of the net during a doubles match) must equal 100. You could have 60-year-olds playing 40-year-olds, 10-year-olds with 90-year-olds — you name it.

Take the time to ensure that your pro shop’s stock appeals to your targeted age group. Not everyone wants to dress like Serena Williams or Anna Kournikova. And, try as they might, not everyone maintains a hard-body as they age. While older players want to keep fit and look great, few will opt for low-rise skirts or shorts, midriff-bearing tops, or edgy outfits. Including some attractive, fashionable tenniswear that fits all body types may well increase sales.

Visual Issues

There are other factors at work. For example, you’ve given a lot of thought to your players’ joints, but what about their eyes? Ankles, knees, and hips aren’t the only things that age.

“Human eyes deteriorate throughout adult life, noticeably after the age of 40,” says Bruce Frasure of LSI Courtsider Lighting, a tennis court lighting manufacturer in Cincinnati. “Less light reaches the back of the eyes in older people. The result is a reduction in contrast, sharpness of objects, and vividness of colors. In general, higher light levels will help older adults see more clearly.”

Tennis balls are manufactured in a color known as optic yellow, which is easy for the eye to track as it moves along. Soft-court surfaces are either red or green, but hard surface courts come in a variety of colors. For older players, a two-tone court may make it easier to differentiate between in-play and out-of-bounds shots. Darker colors allow for best visibility. Windscreens, in addition to ensuring privacy, will cut glare.

In cooler weather, retired baby-boomers may keep your courts full during the work week, given proper promotion and programming. But when hot weather comes, older individuals often prefer to play in the evenings or at night, after the heat of the day. If your facility sees a lot of p.m. play, consult with a lighting contractor who can evaluate your lighting levels and make recommendations.

Softer, slower games. Better, brighter lighting. More comfortable, inviting facilities. Social programming. Comfy clothes. In many cases, getting up to speed with the baby-boomer generation means knowing how to slow down.

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About the Author

Mary Helen Sprecher  is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.

 

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