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.
The C-19 Tennis Boom Retention Test – Pass or Fail?
By Gary Horvath
The USTA recently announced that tennis participation increased by 11 million tennis players in Q3 2020. That is good news! Given the industry’s track record for retention, it is too early to break out the confetti and champagne.
This short article looks at the sport’s two tennis booms over the past 40+ years. It reviews efforts the industry has made to strengthen its infrastructure between those booms.
The final section includes an estimate of the retention rate for the 11 million new players. This analysis shows the industry will retain 1.6 million, or 14.8% of those players between now and 2022. In other words, 9.4 million of the 11 million players will not continue to play tennis.
The sport has come a long way. To improve retention and participation, the industry must provide additional support for parks and recreation, high school, and college programs.
The Two Tennis Booms
The late 1960s and 1970s were a time of change for tennis. The open era of tennis began in 1969. In 1970, Gladys Heldman and the Original 9 boycotted a USTA-sanctioned tournament to play a women's professionals tournament. That boycott led to the Virginia Slims Circuit and the start of the WTA. In 1972, Title IX, a civil rights law, was passed. Over the next decade, athletic opportunities, such as high school and college programs, were made available to girls and women for the first time.
In the spring of 1973, Bobby Riggs played an exhibition match against Margaret Court. He defeated her 6,2,6-1 in a match that was dubbed the Mother's Day Massacre. The victory put Riggs in a position to play a sequel against Billie Jean King in the Battle of the Sexes at the Astrodome. The combination of the King vs. Riggs match along with the other events created curiosity about tennis that led to a short-lived boom in participation.
A little over 40 years later, COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic on March 11, 2020. State and local governments adopted lockdown policies across the country to prevent the spread of the disease. These policies included the closure of gyms, fitness centers, and many recreational facilities.
Americans were anxious to get exercise in a safe environment. The sales of home training equipment, bicycles, cross country skis, and outdoor sports equipment soared. The popularity of outdoor sports such as golf and tennis reached record levels. At the time of the pandemic, there were 17.68 million players.
On December 3, 2020, the USTA website discussed the C-19 tennis boom, “The increase is seen in both the youth and adult demographics, with shipments of youth racquets up 40.9% and shipments of adult racquets under $50 (entry-level) seeing an increase of 43.3%. For all price points, racquet shipments are up 37.7% in that same time period.”
The USTA’s comments continued, “In addition, the Physical Activity Council reported 10.08% of the U.S. population playing tennis over that span, compared to 6.75% in the third quarter of 2019—an increase of nearly 50%. With the U.S. population now over 331 million, the 3.33% jump represents roughly 11 million tennis players.” The entire article can be found at https://www.usta.com/en/home/stay-current/national/tennis-industry-shows-strength-in-face-of-coronavirus-pandemic.html
Eleven Million Players – Do you Have a Bridge You Want Me to Buy?
It is prudent to question the above USTA statement. There are credible reasons to be skeptical, yet there are reasons to believe an increase of some magnitude has occurred.
There are two ways to look at the situation. First, the increase of 11 million players suggests the tennis facilities were underutilized before the pandemic. As a result, they were able to absorb 11 million players. Second, the tennis facilities were operating near peak capacity before the pandemic. As a result, they must add capacity to meet the increase in demand. The theory and reality of the situation tell different stories. During 2020, many facilities actually reduced their staffs and limited their programs to stay afloat and meet the needs of their customers.
A search on Google Trends also raises concerns about the validity of the addition of 11 million players. Chart I includes a Google Trends query that shows interest in tennis from January 1, 2018, through January 2021.
In 2020, interest in tennis peaked for the Australian Open (purple), Western-Southern Open (orange), U.S. Open (blue), and French Open (grey).
The interest in tennis waned between March 15 and May 15 (orange box) when lockdown policies were put in place. The value of the index was 8-10 during this period.
Between May 17 and August 9, the index increased by about 50%. It was in the range of 12-15. After the French Open (grey), the index fell to 9-13.
The increase in the index between May 17 and August 9 May reflect the relaxation of lockdown policies. It may also represent increased tennis participation.
The C-19 tennis boom was an unexpected consequence of a tragic pandemic. As a result, there was no plan for the strategic growth of the sport. Without that roadmap, it is difficult to understand how tennis participation changed in 2020.
Moving forward, the industry should use its collective assets to focus solely on retaining new players that entered the sport during the C-19 boom.
Tennis in the Seventies and the Twenties
This section includes a stroll down memory lane to assess the accomplishments of the tennis industry. The industry has taken many steps over the past 40+ years that should enable it to retain tennis players during 2021 and 2022. The major red flag is the failure to generate more support for parks and recreation, high school, and college programs.
In 1968, the open era of tennis began. Bud Collins and Jack Kramer covered the first U.S. Open on CBS network that year. Ten years later, CBS broadcast the first WTA event.
CBS held the contract for the U.S. Open for 47 years. It lost the rights to cover the event in a bidding war. Since then, the value of the U.S. Open media rights received by the USTA has grown exponentially. The effect on American tennis has been significant.
The ATP and WTA kicked off their organizations in 1973 to support the men and women tour players.
Back in the day, the United States Lawn Tennis Association's primary function was to sanction tournaments. Since there were very few grass courts, they dropped the word lawn from their name in 1975.
The USPTA was the primary certification body until 1976 when the USPTR split from the USPTA. The Intercollegiate Tennis Coaches Association had functioned for many years. The organization was formally incorporated in 1978 to support college tennis. Today they are called the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
That same year, the U.S. Open moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows. It was difficult to leave the history of Forest Hills in the rearview mirror, but financially, it was a game-changer for the USTA.
Tennis was commercialized during the 1980s, a decade that included spandex, neon clothing, and big hair. Racquetball and running had replaced tennis as the sport of choice. Court construction continued in parts of the country with increasing populations. At the same time, investors closed facilities with weak ROIs.
Through thick and thin, there was an increase in the number of USPTA and PTR memberships. As the USTA became more influential, some leaders quietly talked about controlling all aspects of the sport. To that end, they expanded their reach by starting the USTA League, the NTRP rating program, and they prepared curriculum for schools and parks programs.
Also, during the 1980s, the USTA, USPTA, and PTR matured. They created education programs that included national and regional conferences, books, magazines, and videos. Also, they established committees to encourage participation by minorities and women. They created sponsorships and industry partnerships to provide benefits for their members and strengthen the industry. Most importantly, during the period, the USPTA and PTR served as voices for the teaching profession.
Over the next three decades, there were periods when the industry worked together for the good of the sport. There were also extended periods when the industry was dysfunctional. The USTA used those times to take greater control of the sport, as it had informally announced in the mid-1980s. In many cases, this stifled innovation and cooperation within the industry.
Between 2010 and 2019, the size of the tennis industry declined slightly. In 2020, the USTA restructured itself as an organization with a mission to serve the industry.
There is a witty saying that most people would rather be 20 in the 70s than 70 in the 20s. The opposite is true for the tennis industry. The industry is in a mature stage in the 20s. Also, its infrastructure is more developed than during the 70s.
In 2020 the tennis industry received the unexpected gift of the C-19 tennis boom. After 40+ years of making changes, the industry has an opportunity to retake the retention test that it failed in the 70s. Can it retain the players who have been attracted to the sport by the C-19 tennis boom?
The C-19 Tennis Boom Retention Test
The 2020 Tennis Industry Participation Report shows tennis participation declined at an annualized rate of about 1.0% between 2010 and 2019. That means the average number of players leaving the sport exceeded the number of players entering or returning to the sport every year.
The researchers for the report developed a model that illustrates this situation for 2019. The model shows that 4.79 million players entered or returned to the sport. About 4.95 million exited the sport. The net change was a loss of about 160,000 participants. During periods of growth, changes were usually minimal. Heaven forbid if 11 million players take up the sport in 2020 and exit in 2021 or 2022.
The 2020 Tennis Participation Report includes other data that makes it possible to estimate retention. It is based on facilities most used by the players and their frequency of play. Table I shows the breakdown of players for 2019, the year analyzed in the 2020 report, by the type of facility they most frequently used.
The TIA/SMS data categorized the players and playing occasions into five categories based on the facility most used. The not classified group includes players without a designated TIA/SMS category.
Table I was sorted in descending order by the final column, the average number of playing occasions per player. About 37% of the players played at private facilities, commercial facilities, and schools and colleges. These players accounted for about half the playing occasions. They play most frequently.
About 63% of the players played at public parks, apartments/condos, and facilities not classified. They play less frequently.
Table II shows the data and information used to estimate the retention rate for the 11 million players who entered the tennis population in 2020.
The third column shows the distribution of the 11 million new players. The value for each category is the product of the percentage in the second column and the 11 million players.
About 5.3 million new players played at public park facilities, 2.2 million played at private or commercial facilities, and 1.9 million played at schools and colleges.
Each facility category was assigned retention percentages based on the average frequency of play and the likelihood there were certified professionals at those facilities. Retention percentages were estimated for likely and optimistic scenarios (fourth and fifth columns).
The likely scenario shows that 1.6 million, or 14.8%, of the 11 million players will be playing in 2022. The optimistic scenario projects that 3.3 million players, or 29.8%, of the 11 million players will be on the courts in 2022.
The tennis population in 2022 will be between 19 and 21 million players, an increase of between 1.6 to 3.3 million players compared to the 2019 total.
The C-19 Tennis Boom Retention Test – Pass or Fail?
The accomplishments of the tennis industry, over the past 40+ years, illustrate how it has strengthened its infrastructure. Also, the recent restructuring and re-missioning of the USTA will potentially pay dividends in the future. The 1968 slogan for Virginia Slims is applicable, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!”
At the same time, the following also applies, "You've Still Got a Long Way to Go, Baby!" There is a lot that can be done to attract and retain tennis players.
Pass or fail! How will the industry fare on the C-19 tennis boom retention test?
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