A Look at the Past and Present State of the Tennis Industry
by Judy A. Julison, CLP
"Fans are bored, TV ratings are down , equipment sales are soft, and most pros seem to be prima donnas who don't care about anything but money. What can be done to save this sinking sport"
—Sports Illustrated May 1994
The sport of tennis, as we know it today, is a little more than a century old. In 1960, the United States Tennis Association estimated a total of 5.5 million tennis players in America. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the sport enjoyed the fastest participation growth of any other and in 1976, was estimated to have exploded to more than 29 million players. At the height of the tennis boom in 1978, approximately 35 million Americans played the game.
More recently, the tennis industry has experienced some troubled years with significant declines represented in viewer interest, merchandise sales, and recreational participation both locally and nationwide. The total number of tennis players in North America is now estimated at approximately 20 million by comparison to the 35 million characterizing the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although some may disagree with the condition or factors attributing to the state of the game today, tennis has unquestionably suffered in the marketplace.
In 1993, major tennis equipment manufacturers reported sales reductions of over 22% in racquets, 36% in shoes, and 8% in balls. In the following year, racquet sales slipped another 20% through the first nine months of 1994 and ball sales slipped an additional 7%. TV ratings for tennis also declined by 10-25% margins over the past two years prompting both corporate sponsors of the men's and women's professional tours to discontinue their financial support.
In a May 1994 article, "The Sorry State of Tennis," published in Sports Illustrated magazine, author Sally Jenkins assessed the condition and public perception of the game in this way: "Fans are bored, TV ratings are down, equipment sales are soft, and most pros seem to be prima donnas who don't care about anything but money. What can be done to save this sinking sport?"The opinions represented in this article have stirred much controversy throughout the industry and are both supported and dis- puted by the many working professionals and players in the game.
Despite some recent momentum at the professional level, tour players have been criticized as spoiled and apathetic and for failing to create an enthusiasm to spark the interest of the recreational player once drawn to the sport by prior tennis greats such as Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King and John McEnroe. The past influence of professional tennis on the industry as a whole may be paralleled by today's apathy indicative of baseball fans across the country. Following the longest strike in professional sports and the vigorous debate over mega-salaries, fan indifference has been manifested in dramatic revenue losses at the ballpark, a decrease in the television audience and sluggish merchandise sales.
At the club level, participation declines characterized many Illinois public and private facilities throughout 1993 and 1994. In addition to the influence of the professional tour, indoor club play has also been impacted by the
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looming popularity of competing sports like golf and soccer, new choices in recreational activities such as rollerblading, a high cost for participation, declines in discretionary income and a growing number of working mothers who once Occupied daytime courts. The latter two factors, however, have proven to be less severe in upper-middle class and more affluent communities where disposable income may not be as restricted.
In a January 1995 survey of Illinois park district operated tennis facilities, affluent clubs located in Chicago's north shore area reported overall revenues in tennis to be relatively consistent with the prior year of operation. Isolated areas of membership and court time, however, were down in most instances. Increases in prior year operating revenue were also recorded at one club. Away from the north shore, declines in participation were represented at a majority of public indoor tennis facilities. Clubs which serviced a middle-income or even blue collar community typically reported consecutive year decreases which ranged from 2% to 11% in 1993 and 1994. Membership and open court time consistently reflected the areas where reduced revenues appeared more predominant.
In response to a sobering realization among industry professionals that a need for directing greater attention to the future of tennis was essential, the national Tennis Industry Association (TIA) spearheaded an enthusiastic effort to rejuvenate the game in 1995. The TIA, and its many tennis factions, began by earmarking $5 million dollars to support the "Play Tennis America" program designed with a goal of attracting one-half million new or former players to the game over the next three years. The United States Tennis Association alone contributed to the cause by pledging a total of $1.25 million. Twenty-five cities across the United States were targeted for the program which was launched with much success in Miami and Chicago this past spring.
Leaders in the "Play Tennis America" campaign include the program director, Kurt Kamperman; vice president of Wilson Racquet Sports, Jim Baugh; Henry Talbert, USTA director of recreational tennis; and USTA executive director, Marshall Happen The program is open to both junior and adult players and consists of a free introductory lesson with follow-up classes scheduled at the local club or recreation department at a reasonable cost. Local teaching pros have been enlisted to deliver the class instruction with funding for pro-fees, local marketing and media publicity reimbursed through the Tennis Industry Association.
As an extension of the "Play Tennis America" program, a new image campaign will also be incorporated to promote the lifetime benefits of the game. The TIA and participating entities hope to further entice new players through marketing tennis as an opportunity to improve physical and mental fitness, to participate with friends or family, to "be cool" at the grassroots level, and most importantly, to have fun. The aspect of competition will take a secondary emphasis to the reinforcement of the sport's supplemental rewards. Although the final results of the "Play Tennis America" initiative have not yet been fully measured, the program should be recognized as a unique and total industry commitment from otherwise fragmented manufacturers, teaching pros, professional organizations, club owners, managers and others working together in support of a common goal.
While the immediate future of the tennis industry may still be uncertain, much optimism exists for expectation that the sport is likely to rebound. Already, the newest rivalry thriving in professional tennis, coupled with the enthusiastic efforts of those connected to the sport suggest encouraging signs of excitement and industry productivity in 1995 and beyond. Tennis in the '90s has so far somehow failed to produce the kind of rivalry that in years past gave people chills. As Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, however, have passionately battled to retain the number one ranking spot in tennis, viewer interest levels have gradually improved and will potentially translate to renewed participation on the public and private courts. Following the Grand Slam final of the Australian Open where Agassi—then the number two ranked player in the world—beat Sampras, the number one ranked player, ESPN's live broadcast of the event skyrocketed 110% from the previous year. At the 1995 Wimbledon, NBC coverage exceeded the prior year quarter- final audience by 30% and 11% during semi-final match play. HBO's daytime coverage of the event finals jumped 36% over the previous season.
Has a "sweet spot" returned to the game of tennis? The most recent status of the professional tour and optimistic industry campaigns have certainly created new opportunities for stimulating growth of the sport. Public and private facility operators, however, must continue to identify their own methods to patiently build new players while prioritizing areas which maintain or intensify the interest level of the existing one. As the economy has tightened and profit margins are squeezed, emphasis in the areas of attractive programming, improved efficiency, expense management, target marketing and high customer service orientation should continue to be essential elements of operational objectives at any facility. The future success of park and recreation tennis clubs, programs and services will undoubtedly be influenced by the level of commitment and expertise contributed through the internal agency staff.
Judy A. Julison, CLP, is the superintendent of recreation for the Arlington Heights Park District.
40 * Illinois Parks & Recreation * September/October 1995