Tennis Industry magazine


The ‘New’ Older Market

A huge demographic shift is under way that can dramatically affect your business. Are you prepared for the Baby Boom generation?

By Mike Stone

Is this a special year for you? Perhaps a noteworthy anniversary or an upcoming job change? Is this the year you’re going to play more tournaments? Renovate your facility’s courts?

While 2011 may or may not have special significance for you, it could significantly affect your future business, income and job security. On New Year’s Day in January, the front-page headline of the Portland, Ore., Oregonian newspaper summarized it best: “Welcome, Baby Boomers, to Senior Status.”

You probably didn’t pay much attention to the upcoming demographic shifts. You’re busy with your 10 and Under Tennis classes, or your women’s 3.0 drill nights. Classes are busy, your private-lesson appointment book is full. But in the words of Baby Boomer favorite Bob Dylan, “The times they are a’ changing.”

2011 marks the first of the Baby Boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, to turn 65. When soldiers came back from World War II in 1945, they began families, bought houses and caused a demographic shift fueled by millions of babies. Guess what? Those babies are grown and ready to inundate social services and leisure activities. There are 79 million Baby-Boomers in the U.S. now and 10,000 people every day will turn 65 for the next 19 years.

How have tennis organizations prepared for this potential market? In a word, poorly.

In 2003, the USTA acknowledged the older adult tennis market by partnering with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Titled “Welcome Back to Tennis,” the program targeted older adult players who had left the game for several years. The program wasn’t specifically aimed at the beginning player although the USTA executive director at the time, Lee Hamilton, hinted “new” players would be included in the mix.

“Welcoming new and returning players fits in with our mission to promote and develop and growth of tennis,” Hamilton said in a May 2003 news release. “The USTA’s partnership with AARP is key for reaching the 50-plus demographic, and truly underscores the fact that people of all ages and abilities can have fun and stay fit playing our great game.” But the USTA/AARP partnership didn’t lead to much. An on-court promotion in a few cities with free T-shirts was the extent of the promotion, often with as many USTA staff attending as participants. The Welcome Back to Tennis promotion appeared to join many other programs in the USTA history file.

But the question remains — why didn’t Welcome Back to Tennis welcome hundreds of enthusiastic first-time participants who would then continue on with tennis as a “lifetime sport”? That question ties into why tennis clubs, tennis pro associations and tennis professionals are reluctant to tap into the enormous market potential of the Baby Boomer generation with beginning programs.

From the latest USTA promotion called “10 and Under Tennis,” to the USPTA’s “Little Tennis,” to the PTR’s “Kids Tennis,” it appears every tennis organization has its own version of beginning programs for children. Neither the USTA nor the teaching associations have fully recognized the emerging older demographic market and dedicated adequate resources to that market. The USPTA has “specialty certifications,” but older adult tennis isn’t among them. A seminar or two may be offered at national conventions, but the attendance is small, interest low.

Tennis pros in their 20s or 30s don’t have much interest in the older beginning player. The International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), a Canadian-based organization, partnered with the USTA in 2004 but has done little to feature older adult tennis other than an occasional article in its magazine, “Active Aging,” an excellent publication in other areas.

Growing the Game

Back in 2002, after the annual USTA/TIA Tennis Participation Survey was published, the USTA said this: “The USTA will lead the effort to develop new marketing incentives to attract, recover and retain players, specifically in targeting kids (through their parents), young single professionals, African Americans and Hispanics.” Notice anything missing? No mention of beginning older adult players, a significant demographic — as we’ll see — and one that could significantly affect the tennis market.

The most recent USTA/TIA Tennis Participation Survey, from 2010, has these interesting results:

Now, let’s add in some data from the most recent U.S. Census:

What’s the bottom line here for tennis? There is a huge untapped segment of the population looking to be active, and that has money to spend and time to commit to tennis.

Tennis can take some lessons from the health club industry. Those clubs are riding the Age Wave while the tennis industry is still looking for a surfboard to rent. Health clubs, usually pictured with buff men and women, have quietly recognized the silver market. According to club industry data, memberships in the 55-plus market increased 411 percent between 1990 and 2007. Nearly 10 million health club members in 2007 were 55 years old or older.

A 2007 study found that older adults accounted for 29 percent of the membership segment in fitness centers, the largest membership percentage. Health care plans often include older adult memberships at health/fitness clubs for reduced or no fees. Research by the AARP indicates personal training of clients between 45 and 64 accounts for nearly one-half of personal trainers’ incomes. Although AARP research is centered on personal training, the following statistic could easily be applied to tennis: One study shows that 57 percent of adults surveyed (ages 50-59) expressed interest in getting instruction from a professional.

According to a health club national survey, the industry’s goal is to reach 100 million members by 2010. The final count isn’t in but, as described in the industry publicity, the centerpiece of reaching that goal is the Baby Boomers. How has tennis defined the goal of reaching that group? I must have missed that memo.

Healthier and Wealthier

Here are some other stats to consider:

Great, you’re thinking, I’m going to be working with geezers. If your image of the silver market is still one of feeble, bingo-playing oldsters who have no hope of chasing down a lob, think again. It’s all changed. The market has undergone significant changes both socially and demographically. Baby Boomers are healthier and wealthier. They are looking for new experiences.

And here’s a stat that should make your eyebrows raise: Even though many of the boomers are healthier (for now!), nearly two-thirds of the silvers don’t exercise regularly and 40 percent are overweight, a statistic nearly doubled from previous years. Retirement can lead to inactivity for many, resulting in rapid physical and mental health deterioration. It’s the snowball effect: less activity, less desire for activity. It’s not restricted to older adults. Latest figures show 64 percent of the total American population is obese. Obesity may overtake smoking as the No. 1 health risk.

In a somewhat contradictory statistic, according to the Hartford Financial Services, 76 percent of Americans plan on a more active lifestyle during retirement. Let’s give them tennis! And let’s make it easy for them to get it!

Get the picture? Your facility can offer a lifestyle change. A whole new market is out there waiting for you to preach the sermon of physical exercise benefits, waiting for you to restructure their social contacts and create new friendships. But designing those programs for older adults will require new skills and a sensitivity to the physical limitations of older players, especially those trying tennis for the first time. Running lines or 9-ball pickup won’t be in your lesson plan!

Mike Stone is director of tennis at the Portland Tennis Center in Portland, Ore. He is a ranked senior player in the Pacific Northwest in both singles and doubles. Portland Tennis Center’s senior mixer programs run Monday through Friday and attract between 70 and 80 players per week.



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