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 tennis pro has covered the entire spectrum from grassroots to college tennis. In addition, Gary Horvath has conducted extensive business and economic research that has largely supported the state of Colorado's economic development efforts.
Increasing Participation with High-Frequency Players
By Gary Horvath
This analysis looks at the role of high-frequency tennis players on tennis participation.
It uses data from the 2019 Tennis Participation Study published by The Physical Activity Council (PAC). Tennis Industry Association and Sports Marketing Surveys conducted the research used in the PAC report. High-frequency players include the avid and frequent categories defined in the PAC report.
First, the Pareto Principle is at play in the tennis population. High-frequency players are responsible for most participation in tennis activities. They drive the tennis economy. Is the industry sufficiently meeting their needs?
Second, high-frequency players contribute to the sport in ways that may not be understood or appreciated. How can these players be called on to increase tennis participation in 2021?
Third, the rock band Blues Traveler describes the passion that high-frequency players have for tennis in the song Hook, “The hook brings you back, on that you can rely.” What is the hook that keeps high-frequency tennis players coming back?
Fourth, tennis is an appealing sport. For many legitimate reasons, it has a low retention rate. Between 2010 and 2019, tennis participation trended downward, decreasing from 18.7 million to 17.7 million players. In 2010, 6.6 % of the U.S. population, ages six and older, played tennis. That rate declined to 5.8% in 2019. The industry lost market share to other activities during this period. As part of that decline, the number of high-frequency players fell from 6.0 million in 2010 to 4.6 million in 2019.
Is there a hook that will increase the number of high-frequency players? What is the hook that will retain players who were attracted to the sport in 2020?
The Pareto Principle and High-Frequency Players
The PAC report categorizes participants into five categories based on their frequency of play and the number of playing occasions. These categories are listed below.
Casual (1 to 3 times a year) – 4.7 million players (26.6%), 9.0 million playing occasions (2.3%)
Occasional (4 to 9 times a year) – 3.8 million players (21.5%), 26.0 million playing occasions (6.8%)
Regular (10 to 20 times a year) – 4.6 million players (26.0%), 65 million playing occasions (16.9%)
Frequent (21-49 times a year) – 2.2 million players (12.4%), 70 million playing occasions (18.2%)
Avid (50+ times a year) – 2.4 million players (13.6%), 215 million playing occasions (55.8%)
The green oval in Chart I highlights the high-frequency players, i.e., the players in the frequent and avid categories. They are the two smallest groups with a combined total of 4.6 million players. Tennis is a priority for this group.
The Pareto Principle is at play because high-frequency players account for about 26% of the tennis population and 74% of playing occasions.
The regular participants also represent 26% of the tennis population; however, they are only responsible for 17% of playing occasions. Tennis is important to some of these players, but it is not a priority for many of them.
The red and orange dots in the upper left-hand corner of the chart represent the casual and occasional players. They represent 48% of the tennis population but only 9% of playing occasions. For many of these players, tennis is simply a passing fancy.
The key takeaway from this analysis is that tennis is a priority to the high-frequency players. The following are examples of ways they contribute to the sport:
Overall, high-frequency players are the foundation of the sport.
High-frequency players are the primary supporters of tennis programs and activities.
Their passion for the sport is contagious.
They share ideas for making tennis more accessible.
They play with players at different levels because they enjoy being on the court.
They sell the sport by word of mouth and attract friends and family to play.
The TIA indicated that high-frequency players participate in 285 million playing occasions in a year. More than 20 million regular players are needed to take part in that many playing occasions. It would take almost 150 million casual players to generate 285 million playing occasions.
What is the hook that keeps high-frequency tennis players coming back? Can the passion of the high-frequency player be used to expand the base of players at all levels?
The Hook in 2021
Attraction, engagement, and retention are essential to all sales-based industries, ranging from retail trade to economic development. Multiple sources have stated the cost to attract a new customer can be five to twenty-five times more than to retain an existing customer.
It is easier said than done to attract new players, engage them in the sport, and retain them as high-frequency players. The industry made a significant investment over the past decade to increase tennis participation. The decline of one million players raises the question, “Were those efforts a failure, or did they prevent the situation from being worse?”
Take a step back to the 1970s. The stars were aligned. A tennis boom was born out of the combination of Title IX and the Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs match. It was short-lived because the sport lacked the “hook” to match the enthusiasm of new players.
Fast forward to 2021. The pandemic policies of 2020 encouraged players to take tennis for a test drive. We will know more about how the trip went in 2021.
At the end of 2021, will the tennis industry sing the chorus of Hook with Blues Traveler, “The hook brings you back, on that you can rely,” or will it join in with Queen on the chorus of "Another One Bites the Dust?"
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