Moving the Dial?
The third annual Tennis Participation Study shows signs of improvement, and opportunities to boost your business.
Despite what you may have been hearing lately, there are signs that things may, indeed, be looking up for the tennis industry.
Data gathered recently in the massive 2004 U.S. Tennis Participation Study does show, once again, that there are continuing challenges in this sport. But there also are some signs of success:
- 5.7 million people took up the game last year, up from 5.1 million in 2002. (Overall participation, though, remains flat at 23.6 million because about the same number of players left the game — that pesky “leaky bucket.”)
- Those 5.7 million are heavily concentrated among youth (the median age of new players is 15). Almost two-thirds of all new players are under age 18.
- 5.3 million people came back to playing the game as “rejoiners” in the past year after having not played at all for at least a year. The largest concentration of “rejoiners” is in the 35-to-49 age group, an age when they’re likely to have young children who they might want to get into tennis.
- For the first time since 2000, frequent players (those who play 21 or more times a year) showed a slight increase — 3 percent over 2003 — rather than a considerable decrease. This is key because frequent players are the “lifeblood” of the sport, says Jim Baugh, president of the Tennis Industry Association. Frequent players buy more racquets, shoes, balls, court time, and lessons than other types of players.
- Importantly, “fun” and “exercise” were listed as the top reasons why people play tennis for new players, frequent players, rejoiners, continuing players (who have played for more than one year), and lapsed players (who haven’t played in the past 12 months, but at one time played regularly).
In addition, new players are adding diversity — with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, and income — to the tennis-playing population, which is a key initiative for the USTA.
So, while the industry isn’t yet ready to say everything’s fabulous, it does appear that some of the initiatives started in recent years may be having a positive effect on tennis participation in this country. And the feeling among many industry insiders is that tennis has “turned a corner.”
This is the third consecutive year that the USTA and TIA have teamed to track tennis participation in the U.S. The survey, conducted by Sports Marketing Surveys USA and Taylor Research & Consulting Group Inc., is arguably the largest sport-specific study of its kind.
The 2004 U.S. Tennis Participation Study consisted of five-minute telephone surveys of 25,500 households sampled at random on a state-by-state basis. In the 25,500 households, participation was measured among the age 6 and up population, yielding a total base of more than 66,000 people. Then, extended interviews of 12 to 15 minutes took place with nearly 1,500 current players, former players, and non-players.
So, what are some of the key opportunities that you should consider when looking to boost your business?
‘Fish Where the Fish Are’
The 2004 Participation Study shows that tennis player are more likely to live in affluent households and more likely to live in suburbs compared with the U.S. population as a whole. Targeting individuals or communities that fit this description can help grow the game and your business.
Of the total population, 20 percent live in suburbs, while 28 percent of all tennis players do. And possibly more important, 12 percent of the U.S. population live in a household with an annual income over $100,000, while for tennis players, 26 percent live in such affluent households. As you would imagine, the more tennis a person plays, the more likely they are to have a household income over $100,000, rising steadily from 20 percent of those who play one to three times a year to 38 percent among those who play over 100 times a year.
Players Want to Play More
Most current players want to be playing more tennis than they do now. The study points out that there is no inherent “lack-of-desire barrier” to increase frequency of play. Of those who play four to 10 times a year, 68 percent would like to play more. Of those who play 21 to 50 times a year, 64 percent would like to play more.
Reach More People With Lessons
Tennis instruction is important for many different levels of player. Among new players in particular, instruction contributes heavily to interest in playing; 35 percent of new players say lessons would make them want to play a lot more. Among continuing players, that figure is 29 percent.
Instruction also contributes heavily to actual frequency of play. Of those who play four to 10 times a year, 37 percent have taken a lesson. But as frequency rises, the percentage of those who have taken a lesson increases significantly as well. For instance, among those who play more than 100 times a year, 71 percent have taken a lesson.
Also, instruction helps keep frequent players playing frequently. Of current frequent players, 34 percent have taken a lesson in the last 12 months, but only 13 percent of players who are playing fewer than 21 times a year took a lesson in the last year.
Crank Up Leagues and Organized Play
The No. 1 reason that current players list as to what might get them to play tennis more frequently is regularly scheduled matches with friends, at 44 percent. Also, league tennis helps to keep frequent players playing frequently.
For current players, nearly half their playing time (47 percent) is spent in league tennis. By contrast, former frequent players spend 28 percent of their time playing league tennis.
Be a Tennis Matchmaker
After “not enough time,” not having anyone to play tennis with was the most commonly mentioned reason current players aren’t playing more.
Among the 37 percent of players who played more tennis in 2004 than in the year before, finding someone to play with was the main reason why (34 percent). Also, more than half of all lapsed players (55 percent) say they would have been likely to continue playing had a tennis facility called them to arrange matches with others at their same skill level.
Of course, the annual study continues to point up a number of challenges in this sport. Chief among them is the aging player base. In 1995, 8 percent of all tennis players were age 50 or older. In 2004, that number is at 13 percent. Compounding that concern is the fact that 50-plus players are concentrated in the frequent player ranks: 13 percent of all tennis players are age 50-plus, but 24 percent of frequent players fall into that age group.
In terms of retention, overall participation has been relatively flat over the last five years, so despite 24 percent of all players being new to the game and 22 percent rejoining the game, tennis is still losing just as many players as it is gaining. The number of “regular” players (playing four to 20 times in a year) dropped from 76 percent in 2001 to 65 percent in 2004. Similarly, 26 percent of all players were frequent (21 times or more) participants in 2001; but that’s down to 20 percent in the 2004 study.
Another concern is that about two-thirds of all pros work at private or commercial clubs, where they are less likely to reach many new players. Among adult new players, nearly half play at public parks, and among new players age 6 to 17, up to half are introduced to tennis at school, where the “tennis infrastructure” is limited. Only 35 percent of new players say tennis programs are offered at their local public courts, while only 9 percent say there are pros working at public courts in their area.
The full participation study has a lot more data — both positive and negative — than we can present here. But one thing that’s clear is that, for the last three years, the industry has been laying down a baseline from which to gauge future development of this sport at the recreational level.
New initiatives, such as the Tennis in the Public Parks campaign (spearheaded by USTA President Franklin Johnson and the National Recreation and Park Association) and the Cardio Tennis program (to roll out to consumers this fall) are combining with recently established initiatives such as the developing Tennis Welcome Center campaign and the college campus programs to get more people on the courts and enjoying the benefits of the sport. Add to that renewed emphasis and interest in other programs, such as corporate tennis leagues, USA Team Tennis for adults and youth, and USA League Tennis, and the initiatives are there for all of us to help move the participation dial.
See all articles by Peter Francesconi
About the Author
Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.