Despite Slight Rise in Overall Tennis Participation, Challenges Remain

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (March 15, 2019) — While the most recent tennis participation figures indicate an overall increase in the number of U.S. tennis players for 2018—up 0.9 percent to 17.84 million—a deeper dive into the numbers show continuing challenges facing tennis, and the sports industry overall.
 
Statistics from the Tennis Industry Association (TIA) show that in addition to overall tennis players, “core” tennis players in the U.S.—who play 10 or more times a year—also increased, up 1.6 percent to 9.67 million players from 2017 to 2018. The number of “non-core” players, who hit the courts up to nine times a year, remained flat with a 0.1 percent increase.
 
But the challenge is at the top of the “core” band:  The important “frequent” players (21 to 49 times) and “avid” players (50 or more times a year) lost ground, while the lowest band of “regular” core players increased.
 
“This is a concern,” says TIA Executive Director Jolyn de Boer, “because core players buy nearly 90 percent of all tennis gear, lessons and court time, and the more avid the player, the more they contribute to the overall tennis economy.” 
 
This gradual trend from core participation to more casual play appears to be prevalent in many other sports, too, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). Since 2013, for instance, casual participation (once to twice a week) in high-calorie activities has increased 3.4 percent on average, the SFIA reports, while core participation has gone down.
 
“Long term, we need to see these numbers transition from casual to core participants, in order for sustained [sports] industry growth to take hold,” says SFIA President and CEO Tom Cove.
 
Cardio Tennis and Youth Tennis Continue to Grow
 
In tennis participation, there were some bright spots for year-end 2018. For instance, Cardio Tennis, which merges tennis with a high-energy fitness workout, increased to 2.5 million players, a gain of 12.6 percent, which is the largest one-year percentage increase of all the 121 “viable” sports and activities in the Physical Activity Council report on sports participation. Of the 17.84 million tennis players in the U.S., research indicates about 1.3 million were Cardio Tennis players first.
 
o Youth tennis participation also increased in 2018, to 4.64 million overall, a rise of 1.6 percent from 2017. Importantly, youth core players increased 6.7 percent to 2.83 million.
 
o New and returning tennis players increased about 10 percent in 2018 to 4.58 million. Since 2009, the average for new/returning players has been 4.26 million.
 
However, the number of players who stopped playing tennis in 2018 also increased, to 4.42 million, compared to an annual average over the last 10 years of 4.25 million.
 
“We need to slow and try to plug the leaky bucket in tennis,” de Boer says. “Retaining just 15 percent of lost players, and converting latent and intermittent demand to actual tennis play, can add millions more players to the game in the next few years.”
 
TIA research shows that in 2018, more than 16 million Americans expressed an interest in playing tennis—so-called “latent demand”—while more than 14 million people consider themselves tennis players but haven’t played in the past year. Both figures are each up 4 million from 2011 research.
 
“The ‘latent demand’ for tennis has increased for the fifth consecutive year, which may indicate that Americans are more aware of tennis and the health benefits the sport brings, but haven’t ‘jumped in’ yet,” de Boer says. “This is an avenue that tennis providers need to explore to gain players and tennis customers.”
 
Another major area of concern for the tennis industry is that overall tennis “play occasions” in the U.S. declined 3.3 percent to 384 million in 2018. “Core tennis players are a key to the number of play occasions, and on average, core players are hitting the courts 38.7 times per year, which is down from 40.2 times per year in 2017,” de Boer notes. Since 2009, play occasions in the U.S. have decreased by nearly 22 percent—and avid player play occasions have fallen by 106 million, a decline of 31.4 percent.
 
Equipment
 
Challenges continue on the tennis equipment front, too, with racquets, strings and balls all in decline for year-end 2018.
 
Wholesale racquet unit shipments decreased 4.9 percent to 2.23 million units in 2018, continuing a decade-long slide. Since 2008, wholesale racquet shipments have declined nearly 51 percent, from a high of 4.53 million units. 
 
Of note, players are waiting longer to purchase a new racquet. In 2007, the average player bought a new tennis racquet every 3.7 year; now the average player buys a new racquet every 7 to 8 years.
 
Racquets priced under $50 have decreased nearly 57 percent since 2008. Wholesale string shipments also decreased, to 2.75 million units, down 2.8 percent.
 
Total ball shipments decreased in 2018, too, to 103.6 million units, down 7.4 percent from 2017—and down 21.5 percent since 2008. Wholesale shipments of Red, Orange and Green balls, decreased 1.6 percent to 4.4 million.
 
Pickleball Increases
 
The Tennis Industry Association also tracks participation in other racquet and paddle sports, and participation in the sport of pickleball increased 5.3 percent in 2018 to 3.3 million players.
 
The data indicates that a third of pickleball players (1.1 million) are former tennis players. On the other hand, of the 17.84 million tennis players, 750,000 were pickleball players first, which shows the opportunity for these alternate short court platforms to act as “feeders” to tennis.
 
OIther racquet and paddle sports showed participation declines in 2018, including badminton, down 1.5 percent to 6.34 million players; racquetball, down 1.3 percent to 3.48 million; and squash, down 13.9 percent to 1.28 million.
 
“As the trends continue toward casual play, with an increase in ‘sampler’ behavior, especially among millennials, it’s important to offer the tennis experience alongside other racquet and paddle sports activities with focus on fun, fitness and social as the cornerstones of play. We all need to strive to get more Americans active and healthy,” the TIA’s de Boer adds. “Running around a court—whether a tennis court, pickleball court or squash court— can benefit all involved as tennis and racquet sports have been well documented to add years to your life and life to your years!”