A Great Wall in China
An American manufacturer says companies doing business in China need to help that country bring tennis to the masses.
By Randy Futty
Last fall, I took my first trip to the Peoples Republic of China. It’s easy to see what great opportunities China has taken advantage of as one of the world’s manufacturing powerhouses. Likewise, it’s easy to see just how extremely large the gap is between those who “can” play tennis in that country and those who “want” to play tennis.
Without a doubt tennis — like the entire Chinese economy — continues to grow. Accordingly, most, if not all, of the major tennis companies in the U.S. look toward China as one of the few true growth markets in the world right now. While the Chinese economy has taken a bit of a hit, I was struck by the amount of commerce and construction. If I saw one high-rise building going up in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong, I saw a thousand. The skyline is riddled with tall cranes building 20- to 40-story buildings everywhere.
In addition to housing and factories, tens of thousands of tennis courts have been built since the Beijing Olympics, and it seemed as though every city had built, or was building, a world-class sports venue. Cities you’ve never heard of are building 50,000-seat soccer stadiums, NBA-quality indoor arenas, Olympic-size tracks, modern aquatics centers — and huge tennis facilities. It’s becoming commonplace for relatively small cities such as Nantong or Changshu to build a tennis center with more than 100 courts. Yes, it’s mind-boggling to most Americans.
But what is even more confusing is trying to understand how “tennis” will find a way to become a part of the recreational choices made by the majority of the people in China.
While the factory owners and business people are doing fairly well, the vast majority of the population earns very, very little. Of the five factories I visited, the average wage of the workers was about 4 ¥ (Yuan) per hour, or in U.S. currency, about 60¢ an hour. So with the millions of people making less than $2,000 USD a year and the majority of the “middle class” making between $10,000 and $20,000 USD annually, who has the time or disposable income to invest in a love of the game of tennis?
Assuming a factory worker can buy a tennis racquet for $15 USD at an open-air market in a Chinese city, that’s still an investment of 1 percent of their yearly salary — that’s a tough sell in any country. And even if their passion for the game ran so deep that they did acquire a racquet and balls, most of the tens of thousands of courts are locked out to the masses. Operators would rather let the courts stay vacant than allow the commoners to enjoy the sport.
In fact, one of the companies we visited had built a beautiful tennis court on its property to showcase the products they made, and even though the factory had an on-site dormitory to house its hourly workers and sales staff, the company kept the court padlocked and would not allow access to it for the people who lived and worked there. These are the same people who built the products being showcased, and the same people who had made their company profitable and a successful seller of tennis goods.
It seems to me that while the cities, provinces, and national governments build top-notch facilities to show off to the rest of their country and to the world, they are overlooking the opportunity to invest in their biggest and largest asset they have — their people. Until they do, tennis will never truly flourish in China.
I urge the Chinese government and American tennis companies doing business in China to reach out, take action, and help grow tennis at all economic levels in China. If we choose not to, the entire global tennis community will have missed a golden opportunity to build on and expand the game that we all dearly love.
3914 Randy Futty is the general manager of Lee Tennis Court Products, based in Charlottesville, Va.
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About the Author
Randy Futty is the general manager of Lee Tennis Court Products, based in Charlottesville, Va.