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, Gary Horvath has conducted extensive business/economic research that has largely supported Colorado's economic development efforts.
Will There be 23 Million Tennis Players by 2025?
By Gary Horvath
Hats off to the USTA for a safe and entertaining 2020 U.S. Open. The re-introduction of professional tennis in the C-19 era provided a perfect backdrop for the USTA to roll out its strategic vision at the 2020 Virtual Tennis Industry Forum. Click here for the video.
The strategic vision is comprehensive, it will utilize technology to maximize the player experience, and it focuses on all aspects of tennis, not just USTA tennis. It has the potential to transform the sport of tennis - if it can be implemented.
However, for some industry members, the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the election and return to normalcy take priority over implementing the vision. To that point, there are concerns about whether all components of the vision are relevant given changes that have occurred because of C-19 policies.
There is also hesitation the industry will be slow to adopt the new vision even though many of its components are based on stakeholder input.
The remainder of this discussion will focus on a final issue. Over the past decade, demographic and population changes have affected the education and workforce systems and other sports organizations. They will provide challenges and opportunities in the implementation of the USTA’s new strategic vision.
Increased Participation Through Improved Service and Programming
The USTA has drawn a line in the sand.
Its strategic vision is to strengthen the industry by providing better service and activities for players. The data in Chart I shows the USTA plans to increase participation from 17.68 million players in 2019 to 23 million in 2025. This includes the increase of core players from 9.15 million in 2019 to 11.5 million in 2025. As part of that effort, the percentage of participants in planned programming will increase from 40% in 2021 to 55% in 2025.
In addition, The USTA will work with teaching organizations to improve the certification process and increase the number of certified professionals and instructors to 30,000 in 2025. To help with implementing these plans, the USTA will establish a long-overdue data initiative to provide the industry with tennis-specific information that will serve as the basis for better decision making.
United States Population vs. Tennis Participation
The data in Chart II shows the U.S. population was 328.2 million in 2019. The different colored bars represent age categories designated by TIA/SMS for the tennis industry.
TIA/SMS reported there were 17.68 million tennis players in 2019. About 5.4% of all Americans played tennis compared to 6.2% in 2010.
There are more junior players (6 to 17) than senior players (45+).
About 49.4 million people are between the ages of 6 to 17 and about 4.56 million play tennis. By comparison, there are 137.4 million people who are 45+ years old, yet there are only 4.15 million players in this category. The data makes the case that tennis may not be a sport for a lifetime or that a stronger effort could be made to keep players over the age of 45 playing tennis or tennis-related spinoffs such as platform tennis or pickleball.
There is strong market penetration in the four youngest age groups (6 to 34 years). They represent about 10.6 million players or about 60% of total players. What can be done to maintain the current level of penetration in these younger age categories?
Chart III shows the difference between the 2019 and 2010 population for each year 0 through 100 (2019 population minus 2010 population = change). The age category boxes in the upper left-hand corner have arrows that indicate the direction of change in the population (left arrow) and tennis participation (right arrow).
Overall, the 2019 population was 18.9 million greater than in 2010, an annualized growth rate of 0.7%.
Tennis participation was 1.04 million fewer than in 2010, an annualized rate of change of -0.6%.
The youngest Baby Boomers (bright blue bars) were 55 years old in 2020. Baby Boomers have aged and worked their way through the tennis-playing cycle. This large group is partially responsible for past growth and decline in the tennis industry. Currently, there is no other generation on the horizon that will have a comparable impact.
Likewise, the Gen Xers are part of the declines in the 35 to 44 and 45 to 54 age categories. As Baby Boomers are replaced by the Gen Xer’s participation in senior tennis will drop off precipitously.
On a positive note, the tennis population is strongest in the 25 to 34 age category.
Finally, the declining fertility rate is reflected by the minimal change in the 0 to 24 age categories. This means there will be a smaller pool of potential players in the years ahead.
Changes in tennis participation appear to be a function of both policies established to increase participation and fluctuation in the U.S. population. The latter may be more influential.
The Changing Population by Race
The data in Table I shows there was no change in the White population between 2010 and 2019. During that period, the minority population increased by about 19 million. As a result, the White population fell to 60% in 2010.
The largest minority group is Hispanics. In 2019 they accounted for about 19% of the population, up about 3 percentage points from 2010. Between 2010 and 2019, the Hispanic population increased at an annualized rate of about 2.0%, or slightly less than 10 million.
The Asian population increased at the fastest annualized rate, about 2.8% between 2010 and 2019. The group increased by slightly more than 4 million between 2010 and 2019.
Tennis participation data by race is only available from 2014 to 2019. Table II combines participation and population data to better understand the change in tennis data by race.
The White population is the primary market for the tennis industry because of its size. Between 2014 and 2019 both the population and market share for this category were flat.
The bright spot in Table II is the increase in Hispanic players. Over this five-year period, the Hispanic population increased by 5.48 million and the number of tennis players increased by 420,000.
Sadly, the number of tennis players in other minority categories decreased by 730,000, despite an increase in population of 4.95 million.
The USTA is to be commended for its enthusiasm to increase tennis participation to 23 million players by 2025.
As stated previously, the industry will face increased competition to attract participants from a pool of potential players (total population) that is increasing at a slower rate. On top of that, the sport’s primary market, the white population, is not increasing.
In addition, there will be challenges for recruiting minority players. Assuming the TIA/SMS data accurately represents the mix of minority tennis players, it appears minorities may not be interested in playing tennis or the industry’s diversity programs and initiatives, that have been in place for 30 years, have not made a compelling story to attract them to the sport.
Stay tuned. The USTA has set the bar high – at 23 million. It is going to be an interesting ride!