By Jason Brown, USTA.com NEW YORK
– The culmination to a banner year for tennis, more Americans are picking up a racket and playing tennis than ever before, with participation numbers up markedly in nearly every age and ethnic group.
For the first time in more than two decades, tennis participation in the United States topped 30 million players, phenomenal growth compared to a steady decline across the board in other major sports.
In a survey conduced annually by the Taylor Research Group on behalf of the USTA and the Tennis Industry Association, the results show that tennis participation has grown 12 percent over 2008 and spiked 25 percent since 2003.
“Over the past several years, we’ve strived to make the game more accessible, particularly at parks and schools across the country,” said Kurt Kamperman, Chief Executive, Community Tennis, USTA. “Combine this with the health benefits of tennis, and you get surging interest in the sport.”
Several factors have contributed to this rise. A united front of industry professionals and volunteers has continued to find new ways to attract new players (7.1 million of the total) while retaining current players (16 million).
The USTA has made a financial commitment to growing and developing tennis in the U.S.
USTA Leagues are the largest leagues program in the world. Coupled with the introduction of the QuickStart Tennis playing format with an emphasis on 6-10 year-olds and programs such as Jr. Team Tennis and Tennis on Campus, the sport has opened up new opportunities to become involved in a sport that can last a lifetime.
Starting in 1995, the USTA injected $10 million into the sport, including $4 million dedicated to Tennis in the Parks.
“In the last ten years, the USTA has spend a good deal of time concentrating on growing the game. We felt strongly that we had to make financial commitments, and dedicate our staff and the sections and the districts and states to all be part of this,” said Lucy Garvin, USTA Chairman of the Board and President.
“Financially, in 2004-05, a plan for growth committee was put in place. Prior to that, we had an initiative to grow the game. And the best thing about it was working with the TIA (Tennis Industry Association). TIA incorporates all of the industry partners – teaching pros, manufacturers, and numerous others.”
“It takes time with a mass of people working towards the same goal,” added David Haggerty, TIA executive committee member and current Vice President of the USTA Board of Directors.
• The total number of people playing tennis in the U.S. is nearly equal to the total population of Canada (33.5 million).
• It is bigger than the population of Australia (21.2 million) as well as the combined populations of Austria (8.3 million), Sweden (9.2 million and the Czech Republic (10.3).
• If tennis players were a state, they would be the second-largest in the U.S., trailing only California (36.7 million) and well ahead of Texas (24.3 million).
• The total number of tennis players in the U.S. is greater than the combined populations of New York (19.5 million) and Michigan (10 million).
USTA membership has reached an all-time high with over 740,000 members.
Along with 350,000 unique USTA League players, new programs such as Tennis on Campus are experiencing tremendous growth. With over 30,000 college students participating, Tennis on Campus has greatly contributed to the uptick in the 18-24 age group.
“Millions of kids are being introduced to tennis the right way,” said Kamperman.
Following another record-breaking year at the US Open, the sport continues to shine. While other popular sports in the U.S. have suffered, tennis has enjoyed a renaissance not seen since the 1970s and 1980s when American stars like Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe dominated the landscape.
Tennis has never been easier to participate in and is a low-cost alternative to other sports, reflected by the recent results.
As kids have become attracted to passive activities like text messaging, web surfing, and television, tennis has continuously found new ways to engage them.
In age groups comprising the greatest percentage of players, 12-17 year-olds comprise more than 6 million players, 18-24 year-olds are at more than 5.5 million players, and 6-11 year-olds at 4.9 million players.
Among ethnic groups, each saw a rise in the participation survey, notably, among the African Americans and Hispanics communities, up 19 percent and 32 percent, respectively.
While people will continue to be inspired by star American players such as the Williams sisters, Andy Roddick and precocious teens like Melanie Oudin, fluctuations in tennis participation does not necessarily correlate to individual achievements in the pro game, rather, from grass-roots programs, parental involvement, and a fluctuating economy.
With backing from the USTA and TIA, schools adopting tennis into their curriculums have increased participation, helping to mirror the changing demographics of the United States.
“If you want tennis to look like America, go to the schools,” said Kamperman.
With a bold new youth initiative and talent identification and development program underway, the USTA still has much work to do, but the signs are encouraging.
“For the future, we’ll definitely want to keep this pace up if we want the game to continue to grow,” said Garvin.