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Turning casual players into regulars

John Bushell believes that one of the key drivers in generating future success for the tennis industry will be through enticing occasional tennis players to pick up their rackets more regularly.

The eighth annual Sport England Active People Survey, published in October 2014, revealed that 384,000 people played tennis at least weekly in the previous 12 months, representing 0.9% of the adult population.

However, despite this figure falling by 16% in the last decade, Bushell believes there is reason for optimism.

In his presentation at the 2015 Tennis Summit, the managing director of SPORTS MARKETING SURVEYS INC. explained how these Sport England ‘once-a-week’ reported numbers does not show the full picture of players in England.

Bushell explained that the data is based on people who have participated in moderate intensive activity for at least 30 minutes four times in the last four weeks, which equates to someone playing tennis once a week throughout the year.

“That’s a pretty tough definition for the sport because tennis is a seasonal sport,” said Bushell. “Whilst the number looks pretty negative it is not a reflection of the total tennis playing population or the potential tennis playing market. Sport England do record less frequent players – but due to comparative funding priorities, these are the numbers most often quoted.”

An international participation study conducted by SPORTS MARKETING SURVEYS INC. with the International Tennis Federation, subdivided players into four categories, from ‘casual’ (playing 1-3 times a year) to ‘avid’ players, who play at least once a week.

Measuring participants in the United Kingdom aged 6 plus, there are 900,000 people who play ‘occasionally’ (4-11 times a year), as well as another 1.54 million who play ‘regularly’ (at least once a month) – whilst these players exist, they do not take part frequently enough to be included as an active participant by Sport England’s definitions.

“The core players in the UK, those who play at least once a month, equate to 2.12 million,” said Bushell. “That means that 3.6% of the population played tennis at least once a month last year. By including all casual and occasional players alongside these core participants, you have 4.18 million people in the UK who picked up a racket last year.

“As an industry we want to grow the casual players into occasional players, the occasional players into regular players and the regular players into avid players. We want to get them playing more often.”

Getting more people playing more often is the primary focus of the Lawn Tennis Association. Sport England slashed the LTA’s funding from £24.5 million to £7.1 million in December 2012 based on the Active People Survey data.

Although participation figures are still down, the LTA was praised in January for its progress in putting participation at the heart of its strategy and focusing on its customers, as well as its work with the Tennis Foundation developing disability tennis.

Bushell added: “If you go back to one of the key measures on how Sport England determines its funding: ‘four times in the last four weeks’, if we can just get those people out there who are already playing, trialling or exposed to the sport to play more often that is going to have a huge impact.”

While major brand racket sales have dropped by 23% in the UK in the past decade, there has been a 74% increase in equivalent tennis ball sales in that time, from 798,000 dozens to 1,389,000.

“There are two things that may have happened,” he said. “One is that balls have got cheaper and so players are more likely to ‘pop’ a new can when they play, but maybe it also means that those who are playing are playing more often.”

The 2014 international Tennis Core Players Study undertaken by SMS INC. found that more than a third of those surveyed (6,549) were playing more often than they had in the previous 12 months.

While 36% played more often, almost half of respondents (47%) played about the same amount, while only 17% said they had played less often, with work commitments the most common obstacle to playing more frequently.

Bushell ended the presentation by highlighting some of the issues facing the tennis industry, such as keeping youngsters in tennis and competing with work, education and other sport and leisure pursuits for players’ free time. However, he closed by stressing that tennis players recognise the sport has great values, offering fun, fitness and competition for all ages.

“There are some issues in the sport – but they are not unique to tennis – including competing leisure time priorities, facilitating increasing play frequency and there has been a fall in UK racket sales,” said Bushell. “But ball sales are up, which is positive, and there are some strong values that we can work on as an industry and as a sport.”