Tennis' Upward Swing!
Across the board, this sport is growing, and that’s good news for everybody in this industry.
We’ve all cringed at the gloomy headlines and ominous sound bites that have dominated the news lately. “Gas Prices Increase Again.” “House Foreclosures Are Up.” “Consumer Confidence Down.” “Is The U.S. in a Recession?” What seems to dominate the news nowadays is the economy. And the economy is a mess.
That, of course, would be the bad news. The good news is that in the tennis industry, things are looking good. Very good.
In fact, there is a lot of good news coming out of the TIA, USTA, manufacturers, retailers and others regarding how tennis, and the business of tennis, is doing. On the following pages, we’ll tell you how this good news is affecting the various constituents in the tennis industry, and how you can keep the momentum going.
First, a few facts from recent research by the TIA and USTA:
- Tennis participation is up. At the end of 2007, total participation was 25.1 million players, up 3.8 percent over 2006, and the first time that figure has broken 25 million since 1999.
- Frequent participation, that is, those who play tennis 21 times or more a year, is up 1.2 percent to 5.25 million — an important measure because frequent players are the heart of your market. While this increase from 2006 to 2007 appears modest, over the last four years, frequent participation has risen by 15 percent.
- Racquet shipments are up, both in dollars and units. In wholesale dollars, racquet shipments are up 9.5 percent over 2006, to $121.4 million, which is the fourth straight year shipments have increased. In units, racquet shipments have increased over the last four years by 42.1 percent.
- Youth racquet shipments are way up. In the last four years, this category has grown by 80 percent.
- Specialty store racquet sales are up 30 percent from 2003 to 2007, showing consistent growth in each of the four years.
- Ball shipments, which traditionally have been an indication of the level of play in the U.S., have increased by 15 percent since 2003. And this steady growth comes without ball sales data from some big discount retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target.
- String shipments to dealers are up 15 percent from 2006 to 2007.
Keep in mind, most of these measures have been consistently increasing each year for the last four years. And it’s important to note that when the TIA analyzed two leading economic measures — the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Consumer Confidence Index — against tennis player participation numbers and equipment shipments over the last six years, they found the tennis numbers were not affected by the overall downturn in the economy.
It appears that the united effort to help grow the game has been working.
“Having four years of steady and consistent growth in both participation and industry sales is the best news we could have,” says Kurt Kamperman, the USTA’s chief executive of Community Tennis.
Key, says Kamperman, is making sure the basics are covered. “A lot of sports have gone for the quick hit,” he says. “But we’ve done a great job of shoring up our infrastructure and making sure we can support the game, especially when you consider the investment in parks and schools. We’ve concentrated on making sure there are public facilities to accommodate play, local programs available, and properly trained people to organize and run those programs.”
In fact, so much has been going on in this industry in the last few years — from many sources, not just the USTA — it would be impossible to pinpoint a sole catalyst for the sport’s growth. It’s even possible, maybe likely, that the down economy is helping tennis, as people look for things to do closer to home. “While people may give up the big winter ski trip for thousands of dollars, tennis barriers for entry are really low,” says Kevin Kempin, vice president of sales and marketing for HEAD Penn.
And close to home, what you’re often seeing are full courts. “Five years ago I could go to the community courts any time of day and always get a court,” says Doug Booth, the executive director of the USTA Florida Section. “Now, I have to wait. And what’s really exciting is I see children out playing with their families.”
Getting kids into the game has been a huge push in the industry. Recent, and ongoing, initiatives include the USTA School Tennis program, after-school programs, and now, an industry-wide push for QuickStart Tennis for kids 10 and under. The QST format uses age-appropriate equipment, court size, and scoring to get kids playing quickly and keep them playing. QST will allow kids 10-and-under to enter the sport on a team and learn the game while playing on a team.
And one happy consequence of QuickStart and other kid’s programs may be that parents appear to be coming back to tennis, too, realizing that no matter what their skill level, they can play tennis with their kids and, importantly, all family members can enjoy the experience. Industry data shows that “rejoiners” are up 10.2 percent since 2003. Also up are “continuing players,” by 5.6 percent. And the number of “lapsed players,” those who have given up the game, is down 3.3 percent.
Teams for All Ages
Participation increases also are showing up in adult leagues, both USTA and non-USTA. “USTA Leagues were up 6 percent last year, with 310,000 unique players, and almost 700,000 total participants,” says Kamperman. “What’s interesting is that those players on average play in at least two leagues.” The increase in USTA League play has also helped boost overall USTA membership, to an all-time high of more than 730,000.
Playing in leagues and on teams seems to be appealing to players of all ages. Combined with QuickStart Tennis and adult leagues, two other key team-based programs run by the USTA clearly are succeeding in getting and keeping players in the game: High-School No-Cut and Tennis on Campus. Both have shown robust growth in just a few years.
“I believe a lot of the parents who have a passion for tennis know how family-friendly the sport is and what a great sport it is for their kids,” says Jolyn de Boer, the executive director of the Tennis Industry Association. “Not only are the older baby-boomers finding more time to play themselves, but any from that generation with younger kids are sharing their passion for tennis as a lifetime sport. And it doesn’t hurt that tennis is relatively inexpensive, too.”
Plus, the time factor works to tennis’ advantage. Courts are pretty much readily available in most communities and don’t take long to travel to. You can play tennis in an hour or hour-and-a-half. And you don’t have to pull together 10 or 12 other people like you would for team sports.
Mind and Body
Then there’s the health benefit. “People get bored with just working out with exercise machines,” says de Boer. Tennis, on the other hand, provides a great workout without that boredom. “Tennis is a great mind and body workout; it engages you mentally and physically at the same time.”
To help people get into the game, the industry launched the Tennis Welcome Center initiative a few years ago. Now, there are more than 2,100 TWCs pledged to create a welcoming environment for new and existing players. And to capitalize on the health benefits, Cardio Tennis programs allow participants to burn hundreds of calories, often more than 600, in a fun, active, 45 minutes on court. There are now more than 800 registered Cardio Tennis sites.
Increased play also seems to be triggering a building boom. “In the last three to four years, I’ve seen more big public facilities being built or resurfaced,” says Kamperman. Court builders also report an upsurge in building and renovating, especially for public court projects.
Large-scale facilities bring in large-scale events, too, and communities are reaping the benefits as adults and juniors and their parents travel and stay at tournament locations. In fact, the 60-court public facility in Mobile, Ala., which hosts about 20 tournaments a year, has a $28 million impact to that city.
Another recent USTA focus is advocacy. “All this positive news is great ammunition for volunteers throughout the country advocating for more tennis courts and more programs in their communities,” says Kamperman. “Local providers already know that tennis can have a positive impact on a community and on people’s lives, and now through our advocacy efforts, more and more public officials are realizing this, too.”
Legitimate Once More
The good news isn’t just on the recreational tennis side. Professional tennis is drawing huge numbers of fans. The US Open has been setting attendance records for years, and it remains the largest-attended annual sporting event in the world. The 5-year-old Olympus US Open Series, which creates a six-week summer season of tennis leading up to the US Open, has also increased interest in the sport and, importantly, has given tennis a regular, weekly home on TV. And, whether American or not, pro players have created interesting storylines that help to pull fans into the game.
The combination of all this good news means that, “Tennis is legitimately a growth industry again,” says Kamperman. And that sentiment is echoed by a very important group-manufacturers.
“When the numbers are this good, and consistently good, the first thing it means is we can continue to invest,” says HEAD Penn’s Kempin. “Yes, we’re watching our dollars, but we’re spending more. The industry is growing rather than contracting, and that in turn helps to propel this to continue.”
“We’re already heavily invested grassroots-wise, but we’re looking at how we can shift some more of our resources to the grassroots side to keep this going,” says Jon Muir, general manager of Wilson. “It gives us more confidence that you can plan around growth. In reality, you probably didn’t have that mentality five or 10 years ago. In the past, it wasn’t so much about organic growth, it was much more market share.”
Adds Linda Glassel, vice president of marketing for Prince Sports, “We’re really excited with the trends in the industry. We’re going to keep doing the things that we’re doing, and we’ll continue to evolve our grassroots programs to help things grow.”
Kamperman says the fact that tennis has shown consistent growth also means it should start attracting more young teaching pros into the game again. “When tennis was stagnant and in decline, we weren’t getting a lot of new blood.”
This “legitimacy” is apparent in other ways, too. One is that big retailers, such as Target and Wal-Mart, are taking notice and carrying more tennis products. Another is that the sport is showing up more and more in advertising and marketing for non-tennis products.
“It’s a great sign that people are buying more racquets,” says Jeff Waters, executive director of the USTA New England Section. “And that transcends into more tennis in TV commercials. We know those big companies are doing their market research, and the fact that tennis is good enough to show in their commercials is a real positive sign.”
Overall, marketing in an up industry should produce exciting results across the board-for teaching pros, facilities, retailers, court builders, manufacturers and more.
Maintaining the Growth
But can this growth continue? Right now, there’s no real reason to think it can’t. Kamperman does have some concerns that, while the USTA has brought a lot of resources to bear on community tennis in recent years, the current “budget crunch” the organization is going through could impact certain areas.
“We’ve had four good years back to back,” he says. “I’d hate to see cutbacks in any of our grow-the-game efforts, as I think this has been money well spent, and is a significant reason we’ve seen this consistent growth.”
And of course, there are other challenges. For instance, online registration for lessons, clinics and court sign-up is a major convenience for customers and has been a boon to facilities that have implemented it, resulting in full courts and more play. But many facilities still are reluctant to take that step. Players enter tournaments and events online, but to book a court or a clinic, at many facilities you still have to pick up the phone. The TIA has been addressing this by offering various online registration options, and the good news is that in the last three years, online bookings have dramatically increased and continue to do so every month.
Another challenge Kamperman points out is what he calls the “antiquated” way most competitive junior and adult tournaments are run. “Only a small percentage of adults, kids and families have the time or money to spend on traveling to three-day events,” he says. “We don’t need to eliminate these traditional tournaments, but we need to start offering more one-day and half-day events that count for rankings.”
Many in the industry agree that the gains over the last few years would not have come about if competitors in the industry were not able to put aside their differences and come together. “We should never take for granted what these companies and organizations have done for the good of the sport,” says the TIA’s de Boer. From his perspective, Kamperman adds, “The USTA has to continue to make sure our resources promote ‘TENNIS,’ not just the USTA.”
Right now, the news in tennis is good, and it’s something that you should be trumpeting loudly in your communities. You can, and should, be using all this positive news to be an advocate for tennis.
It will not only keep the sport growing, but it will also keep your business growing, too.
See all articles by Peter Francesconi
About the Author
Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.