The Future of Tennis Hinges on Getting Kids Off Their Phones and Onto the Courts

More than 3.3 million Americans tuned in to watch last month’s nail-biting Wimbledon men’s championship between tennis greats Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic — the highest ratings since the 2012 final pitting Federer against Andy Murray. Overall, Wimbledon viewership in the U.S. soared nearly 30% over the tournament’s two-week run.

But while tennis fans remain glued to their TV screens to witness the continued brilliance of star players such as Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams — not to mention the exciting buzz surrounding breakout newcomers like teenage phenom Cori “Coco” Gauff — local courts across the country aren’t seeing quite as much action. According to research by the Tennis Industry Association, participation in the sport among core players (those who play 10 or more times a year) has slipped 15% since 2009. Play occasions, meanwhile, have decreased by 22% over the last decade, reflecting a growing shift toward more casual participation.

Considering that it’s core players who drive the $6 billion tennis industry — they buy about 90 percent of all apparel, shoes, equipment, lessons and court time — the trend is concerning, said TIA executive director Jolyn de Boer.

“Unfortunately, it is not only affecting tennis but the majority of sports in this country. In our constantly evolving society, people are faced with an unprecedented amount of options for activities, and we’re finding that they increasingly prefer to sample multiple activities and experiences rather than commit or dedicate time to one sport,” de Boer explained, also citing the emergence of smartphones and other digital entertainment as a significant factor behind declining participation rates.

So with an eye on the future, the tennis industry is ramping up its efforts to attract new players to the game.

Children are a prime target — not surprising considering research shows that people who begin tennis early in their lives tend to stick with it long into adulthood. Currently, 4.64 million youth are getting their swing on, but the industry is on a mission to reach millions more. “It’s all about the pipeline and getting kids engaged early,” de Boer noted.

USTA Chris Evert Kids Tennis
Tennis Legend Chris Evert mentors kids at a USTA Foundation clinic in 2019.

The United States Tennis Association is putting some serious muscle behind the cause with its Net Generation program, which launched in 2017 and marked the first time the sport has had one unified initiative aimed at kids. Through a dedicated online site, Net Generation brings together players, parents and coaches, offering a platform to locate and register for tennis programs across the country and access teaching and learning resources, and a digital app even lets kids track their training, complete challenges and earn badges for skills mastered. (Registered coaches are required to complete a background screening in compliance with the USTA’s Safe Play policy.)

“Our goal is to make tennis accessible and get as many kids involved as possible,” said Leah Friedman, Net Generation’s national manager. “We know that if we can provide kids with a safe, welcoming and fun environment to play and learn the fundamentals of the game, we will keep them in our sport longer.”

And the need for these efforts is about much more than teaching kids the perfect serve or slice shot. “Tennis is a sport that goes far beyond the boundaries of the court. There are so many life lessons to be learned through playing tennis,” Friedman noted. “With Net Generation, we’re investing in the future. If we do this well, these kids will be our future players, our future coaches, our future industry leaders.”

Already, Net Generation is off to a strong start. Registration numbers show the program is well on its way to its initial goal of providing tennis participation opportunities to half a million kids.

The program is also spreading tennis beyond its typical demographics. “We are seeing barriers being broken down and more inner-city neighborhoods embracing tennis programs,” Friedman explained. “With the nets, tape and other equipment we provide, coaches can easily set up play in their communities. You don’t even need a court. You can do it in the street, on the basketball court — any flat surface.”

Also helping to ignite kids’ interest in the game are the inspiring young tennis talents who are making noise on the pro circuit. Take 15-year-old Gauff, for instance, who stole the spotlight at Wimbledon when she became the youngest player in the professional era to qualify for the U.K. tournament, and then pulled off a stunning upset against veteran Venus Williams in the first round. Even before her fairytale run at the All England Club, she caught the eye of Boston-based New Balance, which signed her to a multimillion-dollar
endorsement deal last October.

Cori Gauff during her Ladies' Singles third round match, new balance, wimbledon
Cori Gauff during her Ladies’ Singles third round match.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Evan Zeder, sports marketing manager for New Balance Tennis, said the brand is banking on Gauff to attract more youth to the sport. “Young stars definitely lead people to play the game — we’ve seen it across every sport out there. And because Coco is 15, she is incredibly relatable to younger people. She’s also very active and engaged on social media, and that will help invigorate and excite young fans.”

Zeder likened Gauff to tennis icon Andre Agassi, who shook up traditional tennis culture in the 1990s with his flamboyant style and flair for showmanship. “When you look back at the history of tennis, it’s players like Agassi who drove young people to the sport not only because of their performance but their fashion risks,” he said. “We see a similar spark in Coco. She has told us she wants to take risks with her on-court looks, so we’re excited to see what she can do.”

In addition to the youth demographic, another significant growth opportunity for tennis is the more than 16 million Americans who have expressed a general interest in playing — so-called “latent demand.” Whether they’re enticed by the much-touted health benefits of the sport or the impressive performances of today’s pro players, this segment has swelled in numbers for five consecutive years. But the big challenge, de Boer said, is figuring out how to convert this basic interest into actual play to boost the coffers of the tennis economy.

USTA's National Junior Tennis Learning Kids
USTA’s National Junior Tennis & Learning network aims to connect with 180,000 under-resourced youth.

A major push is underway to modernize tennis with savvy digital tools, from apps to smart court technology, to help make the sport easier and more fun to play.

“We’re also excited about the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality. [They can help] non-players and youth to get a feel for tennis within a gamified environment and help create connections to the tennis court and immersed play opportunities,” de Boer added.

Also key is making sure a new player’s first experience on the court is a positive one — and that begins with good coaches and instructors. To get industry stakeholders and everyday players engaged on the topic, the TIA last month organized an 11-day online Idea Rally, inviting participants to come up with “novel, disruptive, even downright crazy ideas” for how to get more people to pick up a racket. “We had hundreds of people sharing and exchanging,” de Boer said.

Still, there is no denying that the industry faces a tremendous challenge in reversing the downward participation trend.

One lingering issue is the higher cost of tennis relative to some other major sports, such as basketball. For instance, lessons with a pro can run from $20 to $100, and some private clubs charge upwards of $150 a month for regular access to courts and facilities.

USTA is making efforts to improve affordability: Since 2017, it has supplied nearly $2.5 million worth of much-needed new equipment to community organizations, schools and coaches. In fact, it will send coaches who register on its site 15 to 20 rackets for group lesson use, plus balls, nets and tape to set up a court anywhere. Meanwhile, TIA believes it’s important to make tennis available at more schools and other facilities that don’t require hefty membership or program fees.

But in the long term, as Zeder pointed out, tennis has some distinct advantages working in its favor. In addition to incredible athlete role models and health and wellness benefits, “tennis is quite unique in that it’s one of the only sports you can play your entire life — and that’s never going to change,” he said. “It has a lot of pluses over other sports that will help ensure that it continues to thrive long into the future.”

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