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Silver linings: The growth of tennis in 2020

Peter Francesconi | March 01, 2021

As we begin our second year dealing with the coronavirus and its impact on our lives and on our businesses, we get some good news about the state of our sport. It seems that in 2020, while Americans have been locked down, forced to curtail most activities and told to keep a very tight circle of family and friends, the sport of tennis has actually been growing.

 

The USTA released the news in mid-February, under the headline “U.S. Tennis Participation Surges in 2020.” And it truly did “surge”—a rather unprecedented 22 percent increase in overall participation from a year earlier, which translates into about 4 million more players—bringing total tennis participation for 2020 to 21.64 million players.


Significantly, 6.78 million of the total tennis participants last year are considered new and returning players—the 2.96 million new players in 2020 is a 44 percent increase over new players in 2019; while the 3.82 million Americans who returned to the sport is a 40 percent increase.

 

These great numbers come to us from the Physical Activity Council (PAC), which monitors more than 120 sports and activities in the U.S. for its annual Participation Study.

 

But the numbers also come to us as a result of this tragic and challenging pandemic. We all know that tennis has incredible health benefits, but the very nature of the sport means it’s the perfect social-distancing activity. Americans, cooped up in their homes for months, have realized this, and despite the pandemic, they’ve been flocking to tennis courts across the country for health, fitness and fun. It helps, of course, that the USTA was able to offer financial assistance to facilities along with recommendations and guidelines for playing safely.

 

A year ago, many of us in the industry were thinking the pandemic would be devastating for tennis equipment sales. In fact, 2020 second-quarter racquet shipments from manufacturers to retailers were down by more than 100,000 from Q2 2019.

 

But equipment sales, too, have rebounded, with a fourth-quarter sales surge that, according to Sports Marketing Surveys, has offset coronavirus losses earlier in 2020, resulting in annual increases in U.S. tennis racquet and ball sales. In total, across all of 2020, racquets enjoyed a 21 percent boost in shipment units to retailers compared to 2019, while ball shipments achieved single-digit growth.

 

All of this is great news for the sport, of course. But I can’t help but think it’s tinged with sadness. Would these increases, especially in participation, have been possible had it not been for the pandemic that kept us all at home? The reality is, probably not. We’ve been trying to grow tennis participation for decades, with mixed results—certainly nothing near a 4-million-person increase in participation in one year, which we’ve managed to achieve during this pandemic.

 

We need to capitalize on this momentum surrounding participation with effective programs, initiatives and advocacy that capture the local, grassroots nature of this sport. We owe it to tennis, we owe it to our businesses—and we owe it to all who have been suffering through this pandemic.

 

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Peter Francesconi is the editor of Racquet Sports Industry magazine.

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