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. 

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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.

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Recessions are not fair – Just ask the tennis industry!

By Gary Horvath

Recessions are not fair! They are disruptive, and they favor some industries and geographies over others. They discriminate against certain occupations and levels of education. Workers may have their hours reduced, they may lose their job, or their company may go out of business. Public policy is often well-intended, but it may miss the mark. Recessions have a cruel way of purging weak or unlucky businesses.

The Great Recession occurred between December 2007 and June 2009. U.S. employment peaked at 137.8 million in April 2007. About 8.1 million jobs were lost over the next 35 months. It took an additional 49 months for the economy to return to its April 2007 level.

Oddly enough, the left side of Chart I shows that tennis participation increased between 2007 and 2010, the period when U.S. economic activity and the labor market were weak. Between 2007 and 2010, participation increased by 19%, from 15.75 million to 18.68 million. Between 2010 and 2019, the economy improved, but tennis participation declined.

A similar situation occurred in 2020.

Many COVID-19 state policies required indoor facilities or those aligned with fitness clubs to close or operate under severe restrictions. Tennis facilities were required to have regular wipe-downs of certain public areas and provide hand sanitizer at courtside. Some facilities required players to wear masks while playing tennis and prohibited them from socializing before and after matches.

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While the tennis industry was bemoaning the devastating impact of these regulations, the golf courses were busy because it was an outdoor sport, and it was easy to practice safe distancing. Eventually, policymakers realized that tennis and other sports had the same redeeming qualities as golf. Ironically, the lockdown policies that caused angst for the tennis industry also increased interest in tennis, in-home fitness equipment, bicycles, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and other sports. This growth of tennis is reflected in Chart I (right side). Tennis participation reportedly increased by 4 million players, or 22%, during the COVID-19 recession (2020).

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There is not a monthly time series of employment data for the tennis industry to measure the impact of employment in the tennis industry. The next best thing to look at are trends in overall U.S. employment. Chart II shows that men and women in the overall economy were affected differently during and after the Great Recession (timeframe outlined by the yellow box) and during the COVID-19 recession (timeframe outlined by green box).

During the Great Recession, the level of men’s employment (blue line) peaked in early 2007 at almost 71.0 million. It declined over 43 months by 6.3 million. It then took 50 months, or until late 2014 for men’s employment to return to the 2007 peak employment level.

The women’s situation was less severe. Employment peaked at almost 67.7 in early 2008. It declined by about 2.8 million over 31 months. It then took 37 months, or until late 2013 for women’s employment to return to its 2008 peak.

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The 2007 Great Recession could cleverly be called the he-cession.

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The situation was much different in 2020 during the she-cession.

In February 2020, there were about 76.3 million women and 76.2 million men employed. Over two months (March and April), the number of employed women fell by 12.2 million, and the number of men declined by 10.1 million.

Between May 2020 and April 2021, women’s employment increased by about 7.6 million, and men’s employment added about 6.5 million. Unfortunately, the women’s current employment is only 94.1% of the February 2020 total, and the men’s total is 95.2%.

At the beginning of the she-cession, some women lost their jobs because of their education level and occupation. Many women were not able to work remotely. They have since struggled to get back in the workforce for many reasons. Some had to stay at home because daycare centers and schools were closed. Many mothers were responsible for homeschooling. Some of these mothers will be hesitant about returning to the workforce. In addition, some women will have trouble returning if they have been out of the labor force for an extended period.

The she-cession has also affected players and tennis providers. For example, the USPTA reported their membership for 2020 declined by over five percent. Most likely, there were a moderate number of job terminations among tennis professionals, and there was a disproportionate number of women who left their position in the teaching profession.

Tennis Industry United (TIU) recently reported the USPTA and PTR have 17,048 unique certified professionals. About 24% or 4,100 of these members were women. A portion of those women was sidelined during the she-cession.

During the first quarter of 2021, the U.S. economy made great strides in transitioning from the pandemic to the first stages of post-pandemic recovery. The Q1 2021 real GDP matched the value for Q1 2020. Unfortunately, it will take until 2022 or 2023 for the U.S. labor market to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The tennis economy has continued to improve, and unstructured play is at the forefront. Players are signing up for tennis leagues, tournaments, and instructional activities. Great news!

Given the previously mentioned obstacles that women have faced throughout the she-cession, it will take longer for total women’s employment to return to the pre-pandemic level. Most likely, the employment situation in the tennis industry will follow a similar path.

The good news is that the U.S. has entered the post-pandemic recovery, and players want to learn and play this great sport.

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