As overall economic uncertainty continues, increasing tennis participation may be the bright spot that sees this industry through the hard times.
By most measures, it’s pretty clear that the party’s over. High oil, commodity and food prices, falling home prices, and tighter credit are wreaking havoc. The shocking U.S. economic stumbles are the worst since the Great Depression.
And while average Americans are waiting to see if the massive $700 billion bailout package passed in early October to help shore up the country’s financial system will trickle down to the things that are important — and essential — to them, in most sectors, people are still cutting back.
But, strange as it may seem, in the tennis business there is a bright spot. Tennis participation, which started turning upward a few years ago, is continuing to rise. In fact, many in this industry are extremely optimistic that while money and credit may be tight for some time to come, people will still be playing tennis — and participation will continue to increase.
“I don’t see the economy [negatively] affecting participation at all,” says Dan Santorum, CEO of the PTR. “Leagues are going crazy right now. I’ve only had one phone call from someone who’s said his business is down. I think tennis generally is one of those recession-proof sports.”
“The feedback is that facilities are pretty healthy,” adds Jolyn de Boer, executive director of the TIA. “There’s no issue there with people not playing.”
“In the past, recessions have generally helped the game,” says Tim Heckler, CEO of the USPTA. “People take less vacations and stay at home and play.”
And that seems to be what’s happening. “We’re rocking and rolling,” says Pat Decker, owner of the Middlebury (Conn.) Racquet Club. “A lot of people are looking at their budgets and wondering where they want to spend their money. Thankfully, they’re choosing health and fitness, and also staying close to home.”
Decker says memberships and season courts are up from last year. “We have record numbers of kids involved in Junior Team Tennis, and we’re struggling to fit them all in,” she adds.
“Our membership is at an all-time high,” says Robert Fisher, director of tennis at the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia. “It’s up 20 percent. Our pro shop, everything, is strong. We’re filling courts every afternoon.”
Likewise, Fernando Velasco, general manager and director of tennis at the Circle C Tennis Club in Austin, Texas, is seeing “a surge in membership.” He particularly points to the popularity of league play. “The USTA leagues are the greatest thing,” he says. “People love them.”
Club members, adds Velasco, already feel vested in their membership and are more likely to want to take advantage of it than to drop it. They may cut back on big family vacations, he notes, but they’ll find activities they can participate in together, including tennis.
“It’s a lot like war times when people were looking for family entertainment and bowling alleys became very popular,” Velasco says. “This was back in the ‘40s and ‘50s — it was a booming industry. People wanted something inexpensive for the family to do, for young people to do, so everyone went bowling. Tennis is like that.”
The sport, adds Kurt Kamperman, chief executive of Community Tennis for the USTA, “is well-positioned to hold up” in this economy. “It’s not an expensive sport, and the time element favors tennis. Compared to the competition, we’re positioned to fare pretty well. There’s no question it will impact some things, like racquet sales, but while they’ve been great the last few years, it’s not necessarily a direct link to how many people are playing.”
The Down Side
As Kamperman suggests, not everything is rosy. Many expect pro shop sales to slide as money and credit continue to tighten up, and while many court-building projects were put in motion during happier economic times, the current financial slowdown will eventually catch up in construction.
“We didn’t know there was going to be a recession back when we were buying our merchandise for the pro shop, and I’m seeing a 10 percent drop over last year,” says Billy Freer, director of tennis at Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas.
“Heaven knows what will happen in the pro shop,” adds Decker. “I’m trying to be guarded about loading up on stuff there.”
“Folks are a little more cautious,” notes Velasco. “They might be getting a racquet restrung instead of buying a new one, or they might be letting their shoes last a little longer.”
“What we’re seeing business in is maintenance,” says Freer, “things such as racquet stringing. If they break a string, they have to get that racquet restrung if they want to keep playing. If their shoes wear out, and they want to keep playing, they need to buy new shoes. But the new shirt hanging on the wall of the shop? They might want it, but they don’t need it.”
The jury is still out on lesson income, too. While some pros mentioned that lessons at their facilities were going strong (“Almost every pro I’ve talked to says lessons are good,” says Doug Cash, who runs the consulting business CashFlow Tennis), others weren’t so sure how that would play out in coming months.
Also unclear is what the job picture will look like. With participation increasing, the need for more personnel on court would seem to be a necessary part of making sure players, particularly new participants, are receiving quality instruction and guidance. But will facilities, clubs and parks have the money to hire more teaching pros?
One thing that many industry insiders appear to agree on is that bringing together groups within the industry — manufacturers, teaching pros, parks, facilities, clubs, the USTA, and more — will help tennis weather the economic storm that faces the rest of the country.
“The companies and all the key shareholders in the industry have been working together for 10 years, putting money into growing the sport,” says Dave Haggerty, president and CEO of Head USA and the current TIA president. “There’s been lots of efforts to keep tennis visible and in favor in the U.S. market. I think now is when we should outperform the market.”
“More than ever, we need the manufacturers, TIA, and USTA to continue to work closely together,” says Jon Muir, general manager of Wilson Racquet Sports and in January, the new president of the TIA. “It’s even more critical now to be even more aligned in promoting the sport. When the storm hits, that’s when we all need to be more open to helping each other to ensure the next two to three years remain healthy.”
Thankfully, the sport appears to have solid programs that are helping to maintain participation, including the new QuickStart Tennis format for bringing kids into the game. QuickStart also can help teaching pros in these challenging economic times — while it’s a relatively inexpensive program for parents, it can maximize revenue for pros by putting more kids on one court at one time.
Other key programs spearheaded by the USTA include No-Cut School Tennis Teams and USTA Tennis on Campus — both of which are bringing and keeping students in tennis by the thousands. Also, industry-wide programs such as Cardio Tennis and the Tennis Welcome Center effort appear to be doing well.
In the end, though, it may just be the intangibles that will help see this sport through. When the economy is bad, when finances are uncertain, says Tom Daglis, director of tennis and fitness operations at Lakewood Country Club in Rockville, Md., “People need that happy place to go to.”
Memo to Clubs: Keep Those Members
In tough economic times, it’s easier to keep the members you have than to recruit new ones. Tips from those in the industry:
Good times: “We make it fun for people here, we make them happy, make them laugh, make them feel good about their game and about themselves. If you have a bad experience somewhere, you might not go back and you might tell other people not to go there. But we give them a reason to come back,” says Fernando Velasco of Circle C Tennis Club.
Good facilities: “If you haven’t spent the money to fix or improve your courts, members are turned off. We’re seeing people trying everything to maintain what they have so that they don’t risk losing members. In our area, if clubs want to keep members, they must keep everything up,” says Randy Futty of Lee Tennis.
Good memories: “We strive for diversity of programming, personalization of programming, making sure every member has a sense of identity. We want to know what they’re trying to work for. We try to make sure each member has a great experience, relating that to a sense of community,” says Robert Fisher of Germantown Cricket Club.
See all articles by Peter Francesconi
About the Author
Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.