Tennis industry shows strength in face of coronavirus pandemic
While the US Open is a perennial showcase for the world’s best tennis players, this year’s event also put the world’s best social-distancing sport in the spotlight.
As one of the first major sporting events held following nationwide coronavirus lockdowns, the 2020 US Open showcased—on the world’s largest tennis stage—that the sport could indeed be played safely.
“When we proved to the world that we could have over 13,000 COVID tests and 99.97% of them were negative… I think we demonstrated that if you do it properly, tennis is absolutely a safe sport to play,” said Michael Dowse, USTA Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director. “I thought that really helped send a message.”
It’s been a message that’s resonated across the country, and aided by the creation of “Tennis Industry United” in March— a collaboration of the USTA, TIA, USPTA, PTR, ITA, ATA, major endemic media partners and others—tennis has continued to thrive across the U.S., in the face of the pandemic. Indeed, people have taken to the sport in impressive numbers in this pandemic-plagued year, that surge continuing even into the colder fall months.
The numbers prove the point: Year-over-year data shows significant growth in racquet sales and tennis participation throughout the nation.
According to the Tennis Industry Association (TIA) Quarterly USA Wholesale Equipment Census, racquet sales in the entry-level category have seen significant growth in the third quarter of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. This July-September time frame coincides with the period when much of the country began to reopen for business following the initial wave of COVID-19. The increase is seen in both the youth and adult demographics, with shipments of youth racquets up 40.9% and shipments of adult racquets under $50 (entry-level) seeing an increase of 43.3%. For all price points, racquet shipments are up 37.7% in that same time period.
In addition, the Physical Activity Council reported 10.08% of the U.S. population playing tennis over that span, compared to 6.75% in the third quarter of 2019—an increase of nearly 50%. With the U.S. population now over 331 million, the 3.33% jump represents roughly 11 million tennis players.
Genesis has seen increases in tennis revenue across their 14 tennis clubs, with 2020 financials doubling 2019 numbers in Lawrence, Kansas.
“The thing we heard most is that people wanted to be able to play tennis with their friends,” said national tennis director Mike Woody, highlighting the social aspect of the sport.
Activity has increased through a combination of new players and an increase in the rate of play from returners. Genesis clubs saw more than 1,500 registrants for various adult camps across the last four months, with programming for all levels, in addition to competitive events like USTA tournaments, on offer.
“The people who played, played more because it was a safe outlet for them and they felt safe,” he explained, as facilities took great care to follow all CDC and USTA recommendations to ensure a safe playing environment.
“We haven’t seen a lot of positive cases or outbreaks,” he said, referencing not only Genesis, but other large-scale facilities in the industry. “The percentage is way low for the amount of check-ins we’re doing.”
ClubCorp, with more than 200 country clubs nationwide, has also seen an uptick in 2020, even with closures in the spring and variances in state ordinances to comply with. By cross-promoting their tennis offerings to fitness members, they’ve created a new stream of tennis players.
“In some clubs, the fitness and tennis departments are partnering,” said Michele Meleski, Vice President, Fitness, Racquet and Recreation.
“They’re bringing people from the fitness center out onto the tennis court, because they feel safer outside. They can do cardio drills on the court and get introduced to the sport of tennis. You don’t have to have a skill level to get some exercise in, so that cross-promotion has been successful in some locations as well.”
“We’ve always had a very large program,” added Billy Freer, ClubCorp National Tennis Advisor at the Brookhaven Country Club in the Dallas suburbs, which boasts nearly 50 on-site courts. “But we’ve seen our numbers exceeding prior years’ numbers by far.”
At Cliff Drysdale’s 25-plus clubs nationwide, the record-setting addition of 700 new adult beginners helped fuel a revenue growth of 47% since reopening in April. Continuing a record-breaking year, one-third of their junior players have participated in two or more regular sessions at their home club.
Even smaller, self-contained facilities, like public courts at Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park or the Querbes Tennis Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, are booming.
The facility in Shreveport celebrated a grand reopening in late February after major renovations, aided by USTA grants. After just two weeks of play, the center shut down due to the coronavirus. But any concerns about revenue loss were quickly diminished once it opened again in May.
This single, 11-court tennis club has seen roughly 250 new players since reopening, including more than 150 kids. In both July and August, over 2,000 players took to the hard and clay courts in Louisiana’s northwest corner.
“It’s really been a perfect storm,” tennis director Chris Dudley said of the combination of the brand-new facility and tennis’ boom as a social-distancing sport.
As COVID-19 began to rage across the U.S. in March, the USTA announced the creation of Tennis Industry United (TIU), which was charged with assessing overall industry needs and making recommendations for how to best assist industry sectors in need of help.
“TIU was originally formed to help combat and get us through COVID,” said Dowse. “Now it has pivoted towards advocating for tennis as a collective group, and driving diversity and inclusion in our sport. When we all work together on the exact same initiatives, it’s so much more powerful than when we go out and try to do it on your own.
With monthly meetings set for the foreseeable future and a more formalized structure, TIU will remain a driving force behind the growth of tennis, even in an eventual post-pandemic world.
Shortly after the formation of TIU, the USTA committed in April to $50 million in coronavirus relief for the tennis industry. This included $35 million committed to community tennis programming, nearly $5 million in facility grants, $5 million in NJTL chapter support through the USTA Foundation, $2.5 million in grants for certified tennis teaching professionals, and a variety of other services and resources to help local tennis programs, facilities and workers continue to remain viable throughout, and following, this pandemic.
“We are now seeing the outcome of putting those measures into place, with tennis surging,” said Dowse.
The USTA’s first strategic priority is to attract, engage and retain a new generation of diverse tennis participants. With tennis’ inherent social distancing helping attract these new players, the engagement and retention of these new players becomes paramount. To that end, the USTA—through TIU—is focused on working with the USPTA and PTR to increase membership and get more qualified coaches and teaching pros to serve this new client base.
“Ultimately, that’s how people get engaged with the sport,” said Dowse. “As beginners come in, if they have a positive experience with their first coach, the data bears out that they’ll stay with the sport much longer.
This sort of industry teamwork, at many levels, is the major takeaway for the new USTA CEO as he looks back on a challenging, yet productive, first year in the role.
“When things got tough, everyone came together,” he reflected. “Both within the USTA—and that includes the volunteers the sections, the districts, the national staff—and then it expands even broader outside the USTA family to the whole tennis industry, as demonstrated by Tennis Industry United.
“You can even take it even to the next level, the ATP and WTA and our Grand Slam peers. We’ve had more communications with them in the last year than any other year in the recent past.”
With COVID-19 vaccines potentially on the horizon in the coming months, we can begin to look forward to a post-pandemic world — and while much about it might look different than we remember, the forecast for tennis looks bright.