Hit your target

By Peter Francesconi

The latest research into the tennis market by the Tennis Industry Association can be a gold mine of information for those in this business. But just having the information isn't enough; you need to put it to use. As author Heinz Bergen wrote, "Information is the seed for an idea, and only grows when it's watered."

For teaching pros and facilities, the TIA data (most of which was gathered by Taylor Research & Consulting Group and Sports Marketing Surveys) can help you determine what you can do to attract players and to offer them more of what they're looking for, so they continue to come back to you and your courts. For retailers, point-of-purchase trends and pricing data can help you determine where to invest your inventory dollars.

The 2006 TIA/USTA Tennis Participation Survey shows that total and frequent player numbers essentially are flat. However, taken as a two-year "rolling average" (where 2006 is an average of '06 and '05, 2005 is an average of '05 and '04, and so forth), the trends show a continuing increase in both total players and frequent players from 2004 (see chart).

Total and frequent tennis players

Total players (those ages 6 and up, who've played at least once, including frequent players) currently stand at 24.5 million, up from a low of 23.8 million in 2004. Frequent players (who play 21 or more times a year) have increased to 5.2 million, from a low of 4.7 million in 2003.

The four-year increase in frequent players is extremely important to tennis facilities and specialty retailers, since these players essentially are the heart of your market. Generally, as frequent players increase, so do most indicators in the tennis business — racquet and ball sales, courts booked, apparel and shoe sales, etc.

When there's an increase in frequent players, and even total players, there generally will also be an increase in the number of times they play, a measure called tennis play occasions. The latest two-year rolling average for total play occasions shows some important increases since 2004 (see chart). Total play occasions increased to 538 million, and in the key frequent-player demographic, the increase has gone from 361 million play occasions to 425 million. Not only are frequent players your best customers, but they're also playing even more tennis than in the recent past.

Tennis play occasions

This data points up several opportunities for tennis facilities. For instance, it's in your best interest to keep frequent players doing what they love to do — play tennis. What's popular among your frequent players? Singles leagues? Social doubles? Cardio Tennis classes? Try slowly increasing or expanding your offerings. You don't want to suddenly flood your players with options, or offer more programming that only receives a lukewarm response. You want to keep any growth as controlled and as manageable — and as profitable — as possible.

And if you're able to have your frequent players playing even more tennis, then they'll need to be prepared when it comes to equipment. If players are increasing the amount of time they spend on court, maybe it's worth it for them to get a second — or third — racquet. More play means they'll want to restring their racquets more often, too. Make sure they know that when their string tension decreases 25 to 30 percent, they need to restring. Or you can fall back on the well-worn, yet still valid, advice of stringing as many times per year as you play in a week.

You may also find them going through tennis shoes more frequently. And, on a very practical level, if they're playing more times per week, they'll probably need more tennis apparel, to replace the clothes that are waiting in the laundry hamper.

The Fitness Factor

All of this player data plays nicely into the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association's study of traditional participation sports. Much has been made of the study that came out last year of how, from 2000 to 2005, tennis is the only traditional participation sport to have grown (10.3 percent), while all others have declined in participation (see chart). And while the 2006 data is not yet finalized for publication, initial reports indicate that tennis growth in participation is even greater than the year before, while the slide in participation of most other traditional sports has continued. Again, this is all very good news for the tennis business.

Traditional sports

The SGMA study also points up some other interesting things that play into your business. The highest growth in sports participation has come from new individual sports and fitness-based activities. According to the SGMA, 12 out of the top 20 growth sports over the last five years are fitness activities.

Need further proof that fitness is key when it comes to attitudes toward tennis? TIA research indicates that playing tennis for exercise was high on the list of virtually every group of players. For instance, of new players to the game, nearly 60 percent said "exercise" was very or somewhat important in getting them on a court for the first time. Of continuing players (defined as having played tennis for more than one year), 53 percent said exercise was very or somewhat important in keeping them playing; for frequent players, that number is 63 percent, while 59 percent of "rejoiners" felt that way, too.

Research also indicates that 50 percent of lapsed players and 48 percent of "samplers" (who have tried tennis but haven't played in the past 12 months) would be a lot/a little more likely to play tennis again if a Cardio Tennis program was available to them.

A TIA email survey of more than 340 Cardio Tennis sites shows some important trends for your business. For instance, on average, Cardio facilities said 15 new players were created, 15 players returned to tennis, and 20 players were playing more frequently because of Cardio Tennis.

The same study shows that 71 percent of facilities have increased their lesson revenue because of Cardio Tennis, 47 percent have increased program fees, 23 percent have increased pro shop sales, 22 percent have increased court booking fees, and 18 percent have increased membership sales. In addition, 52 percent of Cardio facilities figure to increase the number of Cardio Tennis sessions this year. Overall, nearly 75 percent of Cardio sites said the benefit to their facility was either Good or Very Good (see chart).

Cardio Tennis ratings

This emphasis on fitness in the U.S. is something that you can easily capture in your business. Think Cardio Tennis sessions, think fitness-related tennis apparel with the latest in performance fabrics, think local advertising and marketing that pushes the fitness aspect of tennis.

Go online, for instance to calorie-count.com, and you can find out that a 150-pound person burns 544 calories per hour in singles and 408 calories per hour in doubles. Then compare it to those burned playing other sports — for instance, golf using a riding cart burns only 238 calories per hour. Cardio Tennis, which is not yet on these lists, can burn anywhere from 600 to 1,000 calories an hour. Let players — and potential players in your area — know about the positive fitness aspects of tennis.

Lessons and Teams

Essential for creating more frequent tennis players are the availability of programs that allow for team play, and the availability of pros for lessons.

TIA research indicates that 47 percent of new players would "play a lot more tennis" if they could play on a team with friends. Current data shows that only 14 percent of new players have ever played tennis on a team, while 40 percent of frequent players have played on teams. (About 32 percent of "regular" players (11 to 20 times a year) and 28 percent of "infrequent" players (4 to 10 times) have played on teams.)

When it comes to lessons, only 16 percent of new players have ever taken a lesson from a local pro, compared to nearly 50 percent of frequent players. Getting new players to take lessons is important to keeping them playing tennis.

Turning new players into frequent players may not be all that difficult — it could just be a matter of having them sign up for a series of lessons or getting them on a team, which will get them hooked on the sport and playing more. The key, though, is that you need to make them feel at home with the sport, and with your facility and staff.

Developing leagues, teams, and lessons that specifically target the new players in your area could be critical to the expansion of your membership and your future business growth. Be aware that new players may not know all the things that we may take for granted, such as where and when to sign up for leagues or lessons, what levels they would best fit into, what type of equipment or apparel they may need, or even tennis "etiquette." For someone who is new to the sport, this can all be quite intimidating.

You and your staff need to make these newbies comfortable, and you need to make it easy for them to get involved. Be friendly, be inclusive. Introduce them to staff and other players at your facility. You may even want to identify a few of your regular players who are particularly friendly and helpful, and ask them to help make the new players feel more at home.

Observe how your staff interacts with customers — especially newcomers. If any of your staff or pros aren't personable and friendly, you need to talk, to them about it. If they can't or won't change, replace them with more customer-oriented personnel — chances are they're hurting your business.

This doesn't just hold true for players who are new to the sport — your staff needs to be courteous, kind, and helpful to all your customers and potential customers. Last year, there were 6 million new players to the sport — an amazing number. Unfortunately, the sport lost about an equal number of players. Think how amazing tennis — and your business — would be doing if we were able to retain even a fraction of those we lost.

Equipment Trends

TIA data shows good news in racquet, ball, and string shipments from manufacturers — all have increased for the last two years (see chart). In units, from 2004 to 2006, racquet shipments increased by 12 percent, balls by 11.3 percent, and strings by 5.7 percent. In dollars, racquets increased 12.8 percent, balls, 6.9 percent, and strings 15.6 percent.

Tennis equipment shipments

Pro/specialty racquet sales in units and dollars are at their highest levels since 2000. Last year, shops moved more than 793,000 racquets, for a total of more than $105.2 million, continuing the yearly upward trend since 2003. Clearly, consumers are looking for new equipment that will help their games, and manufacturers — together with their retail partners — are able to respond.

The bad news on this front, however, is that the average racquet price has been declining. The latest drop of 4.2 percent puts the average at $132.55 — the lowest average price for racquets at pro and specialty stores since 1995. Dealer optimism dropped a bit at the end of last year, with 43 percent predicting an increase in racquet sales, down from 53 percent earlier in the year.

Inventories seem to have gotten under control toward the end of 2006, with 26 percent of retailers saying they were "overstocked" with racquets. That's down from 41 percent in early season '06, and down from the 36 percent at the end of '05.

In late season 2006, the percentage of racquet sales represented by closeouts continued to grow, to 16.8 percent for all retailers, and over 20 percent for large retailers.

Where Consumers Buy

As technology becomes more and more a part of daily life, sales over the internet, as expected, are on the increase. Data from more than 2,000 interviews of frequent tennis players shows that apparel sales, in particular, had the biggest internet increase. In late season 2006, 19 percent of all "purchase occasions" — nearly one in five — were from internet sales, up from 16 percent earlier in 2006 and 12 percent in late season '05. The TIA attributes at least some of this increase in internet apparel sales to the advancements in performance fabrics and the increased fitness trends.

Racquet sales over the internet remained fairly steady through 2006, with 23 percent of all sales coming from internet purchases in late season data. That same period showed pro and specialty shops selling 50 percent of racquets, down from 54 percent earlier in the year.

Shoes bought over the internet accounted for 19 percent of all shoe sales late in 2006, up from 16 percent a year earlier, while internet ball sales remained steady at 5 percent of all ball purchases.

Clearly, the increase in sales over the internet is further challenging pro/specialty retailers to provide the kind of service that will attract and retain retail customers. Customer service, and your knowledge of not just the sport, but the products you carry, is key. Take advantage of all that manufacturers supply in terms of point-of-purchase materials and opportunities to learn more about their products.

And make sure you're reaching your customers effectively in your local market. Review your advertising, marketing, and public relations. Make sure your website is up to date and that you're effectively using email and electronic and printed newsletters to communicate with members, potential members, and the local media.

And, importantly, use the data that the tennis industry itself provides to effectively map out where you and your business need to be. By looking at the numbers, you can target your business to maximize your profits.

The New Tennis Health Index

The TIA and the USTA have been sponsoring a large U.S. Tennis Participation Study for the last five years. However, due to various challenges, including the changing nature of telephone surveys in the U.S., the 2006 study is being modified to provide a more accurate picture of tennis' overall health.

In the future, the Tennis Participation survey will be combined with half a dozen other components to form the new Tennis Health Index, an annual measure of the state of tennis in the U.S.

"The new Tennis Health Index will provide a better gauge of the state of tennis in the U.S.," says TIA Executive Director Jolyn de Boer. "It won't rely on one single measure, but instead seven different components."

The information presented here is from "The Tennis Marketplace 2006 Year-End Executive Summary." Various levels of research data are available from the TIA depending on your membership level. (TIA memberships starts at $100 per year.) For more on research in the tennis industry or TIA membership, visit tennisindustry.org, call 843-696-3036, or email info@tennisindustry.org.


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