Gary Horvath is a USPTA master pro, founder and past president of the USA Professional Platform Tennis Association prior to its merger with USPTA, a certified coach with USA Volleyball and a long-standing member of the Wilson Advisory Staff. His experience as a pro has covered the spectrum from
grassroots to college tennis. In addition, Horvath has conducted extensive business and economic research that has supported Colorado's economic development efforts.
This document looks at tennis participation, dating back to 1970, to see if periods of growth could be attributed to initiatives to “grow the game. For purposes of analysis this 48- year period is divided into four eras: boom, bust, recovery, and post-recovery.
Based on the volatility of the participation data and the minimal impact of programs and initiatives, there is no evidence they created a sustained increase in net participation (new players minus players who quit) during these four eras.
The takeaways from these four eras serve as the basis for the concluding comments about investments that can help “grow the game” on a sustained basis.
The Current State of the Tennis Industry
There is a heightened awareness of the need to “grow the game” given the current state of the tennis industry.
On a positive note, there were 341,614 athletes participating in 19,852 high school tennis programs for boys and girls during the 2018-2019 school year. It is estimated that high school players represent about 27% of junior players between the ages of 15 and 18. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of participants increased at an annualized rate of +0.2%.
That’s the good news!
Between 2010 and 2018, tennis participation and the number of unique participants in the USTA League decreased at an annualized rate of -0.7%. In 2018, unique players in the USTA League represented about 45% of total USTA memberships and about 2.7% of the 13.2 million adult tennis players in the U.S.
The Tennis Equipment Index declined at an annualized rate of -2.5%.
In 2019 there were approximately 76,000 juniors (1.6% market share) who played in 66 categories of junior tournaments and about 36%, or 28,000 players (0.6% market share), who played 3 tournaments or more. There were about 48,000 players (1% market share) in USTA Junior Team Tennis programs. In addition, about 48,000 juniors (1% market share) participated in experimental USTA programs.
The market share of USTA adult and junior programs is very low and the annual change in participation is even lower. These programs add value to the industry, but they have a minimal direct impact on the net change in tennis participation.
Between 2010 and 2018, the U.S. population increased by 17.8 million people. Over that same period, participation in tennis declined by 900,000 players.
Caveats About the Data
The primary source of data in Chart I is the U.S. Statistical Abstract published by the Census Bureau. Their tables cited United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA), AC Neilsen, Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, Tennis Industry Association (TIA), and Physical Activity Council. These are all reputable sources.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the general trends portrayed by the data are reasonably accurate; however, there is variability in the data that is a result of different survey vendors and methodologies. As a result, caution should be exercised when comparing data before and after 2006. For example, it is reasonable to conclude there was a boom and bust in tennis participation, but it is unlikely that participation dropped by 12.2 million players between 2005 and 2006.
JANUARY 2020 FEATURE
"Growing the Game”
Industry Leaders Must Keep Their Eyes on the Ball
by Gary Horvath
The Boom of the 1970s (1970 to 1979)
The U.S. Statistical Abstract indicated that USLTA data showed there were five million tennis players in 1960. That number doubled by 1970.
The open era of tennis was kicked off in April 1968 and the appeal of the sport increased as fans wanted to see professional and amateur players compete against each other.
On September 23, 1970, Gladys Heldman and the Original 9 started the Virginia Slims Circuit to address the disparity in prize money between men and women players. Her efforts were vehemently opposed by USLTA officials. With the passing of time, the circuit morphed into the WTA Tour.
In 1972, Congress passed Title IX, a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. It was written as an anti-discrimination civil rights law; however, it is best known for its impact on high school and college sports.
The following year, 1973, Bobby Riggs played Billie Jean King in the Battle of the Sexes at the Astrodome. Approximately 50 million Americans watched on television and 90 million others watched worldwide.
These events fueled the Boom of the 1970s.
The major take away from the boom era is that it was not driven by the USTA. Over time, the USTA has been slow to adopt new ideas, such as those forwarded by Heldman, because they were not generated from within the USTA.
The Boom of the 1970s - Sustained Impact on High School Tennis
One of the primary benefactors of the tennis boom was high school tennis.
Chart II shows that participation in high school tennis programs for boys and girls tapered off during the tennis bust, but it increased at a steady rate over the next 35 years. In addition, high school programs have served as a feeder system for college tennis, adult tennis programs, coaches, and teaching professionals.
The Bust (1980 to 1985)
The bust era (Chart I) was quick and severe. The supply of courts and certified tennis professionals were not sufficient to meet the demand from prospective players. Newcomers to the sport became frustrated and exited for other activities.
The take away from the bust era was that the tennis industry must invest in facilities, workforce, and operations to enjoy sustained growth.
The Recovery (1986 to 2006) - Data
Chart III shows the annual changes in tennis participation during the recovery era. Participation increased in 12 years, decreased in 7 years, and no data was available for 2 years. The range of change was +5.0 million participants in 1986 to -12.2 million in 2006.
In addition, the U.S. population increased by 61 million during the recovery era. If tennis had captured 5% of these people, participation would have increased by over 3 million players. Given the level of volatility in the data, it is difficult to determine how much participation changed during the recovery period.
The Recovery – Activities
During the recovery, there was an increase in the number of USPTA and PTR certified professionals, in part because the organizations were a voice for its members in the industry. Throughout the early 1980s, the teaching professionals owned and ran adult and junior leagues, instructional activities for juniors and adults, and high-performance programs.
The USTA introduced programs that supported and competed against activities run by member clubs and professionals. Many of these programs increased the number of USTA memberships and they added value to the industry, but they did not increase participation. Midway through the recovery era, the USTA took ownership of the sectional and district high-performance programs.
Innovation and research were prevalent during the recovery period. Jim Loehr, Jack Groppel, and Vic Braden and others conducted research that changed the way tennis was taught, Howard Head developed the oversized racquet, and the Williams family redefined the way women’s tennis was played.
Large tennis retailers began marketing directly to players, thus bypassing the tennis professionals and the specialty and tennis pro shops in the distribution channel.
The USTA introduced technology that allowed it to more efficiently manage tournaments, rankings, and ratings. It also used technology to bypass the tennis professional to directly market USTA programs, USTA retail goods, services of USTA sponsors and advertisers, and instructional tips to USTA members.
In September 1994 the TIA sought to unite the industry and increase tennis participation with its “Initiative to Grow the Game.” The program was based on research, feedback from various stakeholders, and field testing of programs. The data through 2005 indicates this initiative may have helped “grow the game,” but the recalibration of participation data in the 2010s erased those gains.
The major takeaways from the recovery era are: 1) The industry lacks accurate data to measure its performance. 2) For better or worse, the USTA began to take ownership of more programs in the industry. 3) The role of the tennis professional in the industry was diminished. 4) The vibrancy of the era was enhanced by an entrepreneurial spirit, the growth of the USPTA and PTR, and research.
The Post-Recovery (2007 to 2018) - Data
Based on footnotes in the U.S. Statistical Abstract, survey methodology for determining participation for this era is consistent.
The data in Chart III shows participation increases in 2007, 2008, 2009, suggesting the tennis industry was immune to the Great Recession. After a minuscule gain in 2010, participation trended downward during the country’s longest period of economic expansion. These are puzzling trends.
The Post-Recovery (2007 to 2018) - Activities
During the post-recovery period, the USTA continued to exert more control over the teaching profession. As a result, prospective teaching professionals are required to take courses to learn how to teach juniors with low compression balls before taking certification tests. Continuing education requirements were established, enforced, and made more stringent. Participation in extensive mentorship programs will be required for certification. Teaching professionals are required to participate in the Safe Sport and background check program every two years. In addition, the USTA has taken control of the Professional Tennis Management programs offered at various colleges across the country. Finally, the USPTA agreed to have its certification process accredited by the USTA. The intent to take over the teaching profession has been disruptive, but it has merit. Having said that, there will be unintended consequences associated with the takeover and its implementation.
In addition, the USTA announced Net Generation, a resource for junior tennis coaches. The content and intent of Net Generation are excellent. After three years, the response to it has been underwhelming. The inability of the industry to come together to “grow the game” is reflected in the lack of support for Net Generation and the participation data.
The major takeaways from the post-recovery era are: 1) There are concerns about the accuracy of participation data. 2) The USTA continues to take control of the teaching profession. To date, this takeover has not increased participation numbers. 3) The role of the tennis professional in the industry continues to be diminished.
Investments to “Grow the Game”
The life cycle of the tennis industry shows it is in its mature stage, as illustrated in Figure I. Industry leaders have a choice to let the sport naturally decline (red line) or they can extend its growth (green arrow). Without a doubt, they will opt to extend growth through partnerships, programs, and initiatives. At best, these efforts will add short-term value to the industry, but it is unlikely they will “grow the game” on a sustained basis.
Six concepts were identified from the takeaways for the boom, bust, recovery, and post-recovery eras. They are general concepts that can be developed for investment in the industry to “grow the game” on a sustained basis.
Invest in the Industry – A take away from the bust era was the need for the industry to invest in facilities, workforce, and operations. The industry should consider adopting an economic development approach to “growing the game.” This would include the creation of grants, loans, and incentives to attract new tennis facilities and to maintain and retain current facilities. It also includes the ongoing promotion of tennis, by an industry representative, to schools, colleges, municipalities, and organizations that have the potential to build courts and hire teaching professionals. This representative can also provide no-cost facility and program assessments to help existing facilities and tennis businesses to improve the efficiency of their operations. In a similar fashion, the industry representative could provide workforce development programs that proactively help clubs find qualified workers, help teaching professionals find jobs, and provide educational programs to help professionals upgrade their skills when they are laid off. These efforts, combined with the new continuing education requirements, should create a workforce that can more effectively “grow the game.
Data Empowers – A take away from all four eras is the industry needs credible data to help tennis-related businesses make more informed decisions, policies, and investments. The industry should identify a set of metrics or standards, such as those in Figure II, that it will publish in the public domain. Current examples of data include NFHS and NCAA data. Whenever possible, data would be available at the national and state level. The collection and creation of data would be funded and managed by the industry. This project would demonstrate that industry stakeholders are sincere about working together, sharing information, and willing to provide all tennis-related businesses with data tools to “grow the game.”
Innovation and Research – A lesson learned from the boom and recovery eras was the industry was vibrant when there was an innovative spirit, tennis-specific research, and growth of the USPTA and PTR. The spirit of entrepreneurship can be rejuvenated by fostering the development and growth of innovative new products. Examples from the past include the Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) system and the Virginia Slims Circuit. Support for start-up tennis-related businesses would be similar to services they would receive in incubators or accelerators. It may also include housing, grants, and technical assistance. The industry should continue to support human performance research as well as research that helps equipment manufacturers produce better and less expensive equipment. Researchers should also be encouraged to find ways to construct and maintain hard courts with different materials. As well, they should explore ways to design systems that more efficiently heat, cool and light indoor facilities. Finally, the research could include business and teaching topics ranging from improving the stadium experience at pro tournaments to the pros and cons of using technology to teach recreational tennis.
Tennis Professionals Sell Tennis – During the recovery and post-recovery eras, the role of the tennis professional has been diminished by business decisions, policies, regulations, and the adoption of technology. The one thing that has not changed is the fact that tennis professionals have regular contact with the players at their facilities. In that capacity, they are in a unique position to influence tennis-related purchases. The industry can help tennis professionals understand they are respected and appreciated for their role in “growing the game.” It can also help them better adapt to the changing business environment. This must be an ongoing process. When teaching professionals are respected and empowered, they will more effectively sell the sport. When their role is diminished, the growth of the sport is in jeopardy.
Promote the Sport, Not the Programs – Industry stakeholders should hold the USTA accountable for pursuing its mission to “promote and develop the growth of the sport” by marketing the merits of playing tennis rather than the programs offered by the USTA. Less than 4% of the tennis population belongs to the USTA. The other 96% is interested in unstructured play, drop-in tennis, social tennis, private and group instruction, mixers, round robins and other facility activities tailored to their needs. To them, the center of the tennis universe is the staff at their local facility, not the USTA. Even though the USTA League, Net Generation, and the NTRP add value to the sport, they are not important to the 96% of the players who are not USTA members and who just want to play tennis.
Underrepresented Populations – In the late 1960s there were no initiatives to “grow the game.” The boom of the 1970s was driven by the federal government and a small group of professionals who sought to create equality for women in tennis. Over time, the increased number of girls and women players and coaches changed the way the sport was played and taught. They changed the way women were treated and the way they were paid. The recent work of the WTA and WTCA has demonstrated there is more that can be done to support female players, teaching professionals, and business leaders. There is a great opportunity to continue to advance the role of women and other underrepresented groups in tennis. This includes building courts and hiring teaching professionals to provide them with a place to play, teach, and lead the tennis industry.
These are six of many ways to invest in the tennis industry to “grow the game.” No matter the path chosen, industry leaders must work together and keep their eyes on the ball.