Brought to you by: Drop-In Tennis Secrets
THE STATE OF U.S. TENNIS
When reading The February 10 Washington Post article "No sign of Grand Slam drought ending soon for American men" we were kind of vindicated in our ongoing campaign to try and point out the uselessness of the USTA Player Development department. But that uselessness doesn't only extend to American men, of course. It applies to the women equally and confirms what we've been reporting for years now: The USTA, in their great wisdom, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a staff of over 60 (pre-pandemic) and pie-in-the-sky ideas about "creating" those tennis champions. Money that should have gone to the sections and to other grassroots programs. Martin Blackman, Kathy Rinaldi, José Higueras - they may well be very capable professionals, but they should really go and work in a club or an academy where they have to excel or be fired. Dowse said he let 20 or so PD staff go last year but we know now that was just more wool pulled over our eyes. The department was combined with USTA-U, another useless entity at Lake Nona, and we hear they are now ramping up staff again. Let the bloating continue.
The other side of that "drought coin" is recreational participation, of course. Our readers know how we feel about the PAC numbers so the USTA announcement in mid-February needs to be taken with a grain of salt. However, there are no doubts we are in an upward trend right now. To put things in perspective we have asked two writers to give us point and counterpoint as to where U.S. tennis is right now:
Terri Marshburn: Is Tennis Still Dying in America?
Marsh Riggs: Tennis is Alive, Well, and Thriving
Is Tennis Still Dying in America?
by Terri Marshburn
Tennis has supposedly been dying since before 1994 when Sally Jenkins wrote her now-infamous cover story for Sports Illustrated. In that article, she proclaimed the sport all but dead due to spoiled-rotten and apathetic players, “overmanned” businessmen and quarrelsome organizations, and a public that finds tennis boring and irrelevant. Ouch! As proof of an impending death, Jenkins cited data about declining attendance at majors, lower TV network ratings for the U.S. Open and other tournaments, decreased equipment sales, and the significantly fewer numbers of everyday people playing on their local tennis courts.
Nineteen years later, Merlisa Lawrence Corbett asked Why Is American Tennis Dying? in an online article for the Bleacher Report. By 2013, a new passel of excuses had come to light—including the dearth of Americans playing college tennis, the decline in American-based tennis tournaments, and the absence of an American male superstar. Embarrassingly, Corbett pointed out the obvious: Tennis thrives in other parts of the world, so why not here?
Enter 2021. Is tennis still dying in America? Did the industry take note of Jenkins’ critique and do the hard work required to sustain and improve itself—to become relevant? Did Corbett’s exposé shame the tennis industry into a fifth-set comeback? Today, even while we shudder to think American tennis may be a double fault away from slipping into oblivion, we sheepishly wonder if anything has gotten better. Worse yet, what if we’re to blame?
The Short Answer
Jenkins and Corbett’s arguments are even more relevant today—and American tennis still isn’t.
Bad news—Attendance at tennis majors continues to decline. Fewer people are playing at the local level. Fewer Americans are playing collegiate tennis, and fewer American universities are funding tennis programs. There are even fewer American-based tennis tournaments today than there were in 2013, and we still don’t have one American male tennis superstar. Then there’s the double-whammy bad news about TV viewership for majors—once the Tennis Channel was created, network television (i.e., free TV) all but stopped covering tennis. In most cable TV markets, the Tennis Channel is considered premium (i.e., expensive). While ESPN covers some majors, in general, TV coverage of tennis is severely limited.
Good news—Despite Jenkins’ assertion in 1994 that tennis equipment sales had declined, a 2020 Statista report shows equipment sales holding relatively steady between 2007 and 2019. Serena Williams, the greatest player in history, is America’s reigning tennis superstar. And American tennis enthusiasts can take some solace in the fact that tennis still thrives in other parts of the world—in Europe, it’s the No. 2-rated sport.
The Blame Game
While the bad news continues to get worse and the good news remains as slim as Djokovic’s waistline, there’s been no shortage of blame to go around in American tennis circles.
Most Americans believe that tennis is an elitist sport played only by the privileged upper class. In its heyday, tennis was a public parks game then became a country club sport. Now, junior tournament competitors and players come from the ranks of the ultra-rich, jetting off to Dubai and Buenos Aires in the winter to chase the sun and warm temperatures.
Tennis clubs and the teaching professionals who have managed to fend off total extinction, partially blame the USTA, tennis’ organizing body in America, that has gotten bloated, greedy, out of touch, and ever-more-powerful in a sport originally intended for grassroots, local fun. With incessant and inherent structural problems, including a new president nearly every two years, calls for the organization to appoint a Tennis Commissioner fall on deaf ears. Someone needs to advocate for this sport and, currently, the USTA isn’t stepping up to the baseline. By focusing on the few professional players left standing in America and building a 100-court monument to themselves in one hard-to-reach corner of the country, the USTA has defaulted on 18-million tennis-playing enthusiasts, 14-million players with latent demand, and 16-million people who are interested but don’t know how to get started—and sold out to big egos, big money, and palatial edifices.
And Speaking of the USTA
The organization has been good for tennis throughout much of its 140-year existence, but data exist that tell a very different backstory in more recent history—such as how long it took them to embrace pickleball instead of vilifying it; their ever-increasing membership and league costs; its embarrassingly weak numbers around diversity, gender equality, and inclusion; the lack of success with its junior and collegiate programs; the size of the organization alone and, especially, in relation to the numbers of stakeholders it serves; its ongoing war with its own certified pros who know better than any New York-based headquarters organization how to get kids excited about tennis at the local level. So why doesn’t the USTA recognize its teaching pros for the backbone they are to this sport at the local level and, especially, with kids? The USTA attempts to be all things to all tennis stakeholders and winds up spreading itself too thin to be effective to anyone.
Is Tennis Still Fun?
Those of us who play tennis, often refer to it as fun. The trouble is, it’s fun to significantly fewer people than it used to be. And, sure, some tennis-industry sources are predicting as much as a 22% increase in participation in 2020, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the naturally social-distancing aspects of our sport. While this may be true (data for last year isn’t available yet), the long-term impact is unlikely to change unless many other components discussed here also change. Data viewed over years (and decades) always includes some outlier years due to extenuating circumstances. Experienced data analysts know that one exceptional year neither creates a trend nor obliterates one.
From 2017 to 2018, there was a slight increase in the number of U.S. tennis players overall (not quite 1%) and in the number of core players—those who play 10 or more times a year. But the challenge for the tennis industry is with the self-proclaimed frequent and avid players (who play 21–49 times a year and 50 or more times a year, respectively). Both of these groups lost ground, which is concerning because almost 90% of tennis-related expenditures (gear, lessons, court time) are made by these groups. The industry desperately needs to convert casual players to core participants in order to sustain growth.
Even more telling is the number of people who stopped playing tennis. Over the last 10 years, this number increased by 4%. Perhaps we can chalk this up to the No.-1 reason people cite for no longer getting out and playing the game—they have no one to play it with. It’s an inherent weakness of tennis that backboards and ball machines aren’t nearly as fun as playing with a partner. And neither will meet you at a coffee shop or bar afterward to socialize.
Are We To Blame?
Technically, if you’re reading this newsletter, you’re probably not to blame because you likely participate in tennis as a coach, player, club manager, or some other tennis-related job.
American society has changed drastically since Jenkins’ article was published in 1994, redefined in many ways by events of the early 2000s, such as 9/11. Facebook was launched in 2004 and the iPhone in 2007. By the end of 2020, Google and Apple offered enough apps in their online stores (4.83 million, combined) to keep the eyeballs of you, your kids, and everyone in your extended circle glazed over for months on end—if not years.
Add to this the sad fact that obesity rates among U.S. children and adults have been steadily rising since 1998. Parents got lazy and who could blame them? As the middle class shrunk, so did incomes. Parents worked themselves to exhaustion and didn’t have the time, wherewithal, or heart to force their kids to get active. Instead, they bought Xboxes and called it a day. Ironically, the few kids who were introduced to sports during this time were also introduced to participation trophies, which weren’t necessarily a gateway drug to entitlement, but clearly didn’t hinder it, either.
Tennis isn’t an instant-gratification activity. To succeed, you have to have some humility and be coachable. It takes months to learn the basics, years to perfect the game, a partner to make it fun, and—if you’re lucky—a skilled and dedicated pro to show you the way. In most U.S. public schools, tennis hasn’t existed as a viable PhysEd option for decades. When the USTA stopped paying certified pros to go to the schools to generate interest in the sport, they directly contributed to its demise. In fact, the USTA took over so much of the pros’ piece of the pie that many of them just gave up the fight. Pros have gotten older and they’re not being replaced by a younger generation with a drawer full of participation trophies that now thrives on screen time, cryptocurrency, and Robinhood accounts.
For all of the wonderful things that tennis is, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a game in which your weaknesses are exposed, your physical abilities are tested, and your emotions are left bare. You learn the grueling truth about life on those courts—that you get ranked and rated at every turn; that there are judges and rules that you don’t agree with but must agree to; that you lose far more often than you win; and you win only if you practice, practice, practice.
It hardly matters anymore whether the blame for tennis’s demise in America rests with technology, laziness, sugar-laced pseudo-food, the USTA, or even the traditional scapegoats of every generation—its parents. The truth is America has moved on and tennis is hanging by a monofilament string. The sport is no longer relevant among men, women, minorities, kids, college students, university boards of directors, older players, and even fans.
Tennis’ heyday in America is over; its remaining days are numbered—down a set and a break and facing triple match point. Its new challenges are vast and insurmountable. The large institutions of tennis are colliding with a super-sized, internet-connected society that has neither the time nor the desire to get off the couch, grab a racquet, and head to the courts. The collision is inevitable, and none of us will be able to avert our eyes—least of all, those of us who are to blame.
Terri Marshburn is a science writer/editor by profession and a tennis enthusiast by choice.
Tennis is Alive, Well, and Thriving
by Marsh Riggs
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” This oft-repeated quote by Mark Twain could be applied to the state of the tennis industry. Sally Jenkins took a sledgehammer and smashed tennis upside the head in her 1994 Sports Illustrated cover story, “Is Tennis Dying?” Don’t believe it. Tennis is very much alive, it is thriving, and the future looks very bright. Lace up those shoes and crack open that can of balls. This is game on!
Globally, this isn’t even in dispute. Most of Europe ranks tennis as the No. 2 most popular sport. In South America, it’s in the top three. Even in the United States, it’s a solid top-ten most popular sport, around No. 6 on most lists.
The total U.S. tennis economy, estimated by the Tennis Industry Association (TIA), is stable at $5.5 billion annually. That’s hardly chicken feed. But here’s the real story. What follows are six areas that guarantee tennis will remain relevant, popular, and fashionable for the foreseeable future.
The Intangibles—These are a bit hard to quantify, but it explains the demand. There are 18 million U.S. tennis players, 14 million with latent demand, and 16 million who are interested. Yes, that’s 48 million people. This category includes things like tennis is fun. We all know that. Tennis is not a mind-numbing treadmill slog, being slammed to the ground like in football, or punched in the face like in boxing. Tennis is sexy and cool and it makes you happy. Yes, these are intangible virtues, but tennis has holistic qualities—good for the body, mind, and soul. In his expose, Heath Benefits of Tennis: Why Play Tennis? Dr. Jack Groppel summarized these findings this way: “No sport other than tennis has ever been acclaimed from all disciplines as one that develops great benefits physically, mentally and emotionally.” He quoted Dr. Joan Finn of Southern Connecticut State University who added, “Tennis players scored higher in vigor, optimism, and self-esteem while scoring lower in depression, anger, confusion, anxiety, and tension than other athletes and non-athletes.” For those scoring at home, first set in hand.
Female-Centric—Of the top ten U.S. sports, none comes close to tennis for women’s participation. The TIA pegs it at 45% of all players. Women are great leaders. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there are now 29 countries out of 193 worldwide with women presidents or heads of state. Women seem to be more social than men. They make up the majority of the population, and they also are the majority of USTA league players. Women’s teams are larger. It doesn’t hurt that the greatest player in the history of the sport is Serena Williams. According to Forbes Magazine, 8 out of the top 10 highest-earning female athletes in sports are tennis players. Equal prize money for men and women started at the U.S. Open in 1973. Contrast that to pro basketball where NBA players’ average salaries are 100 times that of WNBA players. Women are smart and will not let tennis fade away. Just like the leadership in many countries, tennis is in good hands. Second set, in the books.
Powerful Health Benefits—The Healthy Sport Index compiled by the Aspen Institute lists tennis as the third most healthy sport for girls and fifth for boys. Fitness Revolution has it at No. 2 overall. Tennis is as close to a full-body workout as there is. It’s both aerobic and anaerobic. It’s a one-stop-shop for lowering resting heart rate and blood pressure, improving metabolic function, increasing bone density, lowering body fat, improving muscle strength, and speeding reaction time. A study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that tennis was associated with a longer life—on average, 9.7 years longer. Add to that the mental aspects of reducing stress and being social with friends. Like I said, powerful.
The Infrastructure—The governing body for tennis, the USTA, has around three-quarters of a million members. Watch what happens when they eliminate their membership fees as is being planned. Can you say explosion? They provide tennis league opportunities for 350,000 people. They support 17 sections across the country, infusing capital into local markets. The new car shine is still on the USTA National Campus in Orlando, a $63-million, 100-court mega facility. Opened in 2017, it’s home to hundreds of USTA tournaments, all of the NCAA collegiate championships, and is open to the public. While some structural problems persist within the USTA, it is gaining in its mission to promote the growth of the game, with an almost 1% advance in total participation (in the TIA’s latest survey), and up 2% in youth participation. This may seem anemic, but have you seen the declines other sports are experiencing? The USTA has new leadership and a slimmed-down workforce. They run one heck of a sporting event. The U.S. Open tennis championships are this country’s highest-attended sporting event (almost 800,000 attendees over its two-week run) with revenues in 2019 of $320 million. That’s a lot of green.
The New York Times estimates there are 250,000 tennis courts for Americans to play on and there are approximately 15,000 tennis clubs. The beating heart of this infrastructure are the tennis-teaching professionals. The 30,000 U.S. certified pros are some of the most likable, talented, and dedicated people in this country. As consistent as the sunrise, as reliable as your Swiss watch, they will continue to do what they’ve always done—grow the game of tennis. Now if the pros and the USTA can get in the same boat and row together, this topic will be put to rest forever. My money is on that happening.
Super Enduring and Versatile—Tennis is a relatively young sport, its history not as old as this country’s. It started in 1874. It has survived wars, natural disasters, famines, depressions, recessions, pandemics, and civil unrest. You can play it in the east, the west, north, or south; in the mountains, the valleys, on the plains, or in the desert. You can play on grass, clay, hardcourt, carpet, plastic tiles, even on cow manure. You can play when it’s hot or cold in the fall, winter, spring, or summer. You can play indoors or out, day or night. You can play at a park, a club, a school, an HOA, a private court, a gym, or a playground. You can play by yourself or with a bunch of others. It doesn’t have to take that long. The 1922 Wimbledon final between Suzanne Lenglen and Molla Mallory took 23 minutes. It doesn’t cost much. A can of tennis balls is still around two bucks, and a racquet can be had at a thrift store for less than $3. How do you like that, ice hockey?
Mega Facilities, Providers, and Pro Tours—The dominant players in the tennis club business, Lifetime Fitness ($1.75 billion in revenues) and Club Corp ($1.1 billion), have a vested interest in maintaining their foothold in tennis. Don’t believe for an instant they will take their eyes off the ball. Large national management companies, such as Peter Burwash and Cliff Drysdale, continue to add facilities and grow their footprints. The ATP and WTA pro tours award a combined $314 million in prize money. Don’t believe for a second that tennis players aren’t being groomed all over this country to go after that cash. And don’t believe at all that the manufacturers, court builders, program deliverers, resorts, and tournament providers are going to let off the gas pedal in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Tennis balls alone are an $80 million business. The total retail market spend in 2010, as reported by the TIA, was $863.5 million. Think these stakeholders are going away easily? Think again.
Summary—Tennis is no longer in its golden age or its peak of popularity. Has it lost some of its luster? Perhaps. But tennis has retained its relevance. It’s inherently good. It’s fair to all. It doesn’t discriminate, and you can’t buy your way onto the pro tennis circuit. It remains hugely popular for all the right reasons. It’s good for the goose and good for the gander. Perhaps a bit more so the latter. The infrastructure is well in place and supporting millions of people. Tennis has passed the test of time and overcomes challenges and adversity. The large institutions of tennis are chugging along, like a freight train heading down the tracks. There seems to be some dismissiveness coming from the USTA doubters and the U.S. men’s pro tennis skeptics. But let’s face it, the world has changed. I’m going to break some news to you: American’s aren’t giving up their smartphones. There are now a hundred sports, 200 cable channels, and a thousand excuses. But for 10% of the U.S. population, there’s a secret weapon that wards off illness, fatigue, and stress. It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good but, through this pandemic, it seems that tennis may be one of the few beneficiaries. Preliminary data suggest we gained four-million new players, recreation participation is up 22%, entry-level racquet sales are up almost 40%. It now appears the only problem for tennis is whether we can sustain these new players, bring them into the fold, and keep them showing up on the courts. It’s a good problem to have.
It’s going to take a lot more than a few Sally Jenkins articles to slow down tennis or further the demise of this great sport. Tennis is alive, well, and thriving. And that, my friends, is game, set, and match.
Marsh Riggs, USPTA
Owner- Coast to Coast Tennis, LLC
Do you like our content? If you do so, please consider supporting us. For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure the long-term future of TENNIS CLUB BUSINESS.
Click here to support and please share this with all the tennis lovers you know.