Tennis in the US: Association and Industry May Overstate Sport's Popularity

Cliff PotterCorrespondent IMarch 24, 2011

It seems unlikely that Nadal and Djokovic are the answers to better tennis TV viewership.
It seems unlikely that Nadal and Djokovic are the answers to better tennis TV viewership.Al Bello/Getty Images

There continue to be many tennis players in the United States. There are many tennis associations in the US, including the strong USTA. There are reports that the number of high schools with tennis has increased over the recent past. And from all appearances, tennis continues to thrive in this country.

But there are few US players of any note in international competition. More importantly, a general decline in tennis in the US may be underway.

The following reports on information gained from a number of sources. What is readily obvious when one begins to search for facts on tennis is that, despite the fact that the USTA is a nonprofit organization, it reports on very little membership information. In fact,the USTA appears to have only one general statement about membership. According to its website, USTA has "More than 700,000 individual members and 7,000 organizational members, thousands of volunteers, and a professional staff dedicated to growing the game."

Information on the sport is available from the US Census Bureau. Interestingly, the information there comes from the Tennis Industry Association (TIA). Thus, we see to begin with that largely self-interested organizations report on the health of the sport in the US.

An industry study undertaken by sports equipment manufacturer associations (including the TIA) and the USTA noted that participation in tennis had grown by 46 percent since 2000. Where did this figure come from?

In 2005 USTA estimated there were 25 million players in the US. This fact appears to have come from the tennis equipment manufacturers, who claimed the figure was nearly 25 million in 2005 in a report to the United States Census Bureau. This includes everyone who had picked up a racquet once during each of the reporting years. How the manufacturers had any idea that someone had played one game is nowhere to be found.

One might think, why bother? After all, as long as tennis is flourishing at the membership level, who cares?

Yet, information about USTA membership on a year-to-year basis could tell us something about the sport.

We hear every year about how well tennis is doing in the lower age levels, how there are up and coming players about to break into tennis. We see many come, but just as many go.

In fact, participation in organized tennis could be doing well in the United States. But the statistics suggest otherwise. Especially when you drill down to see what the statistics mean.

Sure, you can point to great crowds in New York during the United States Tennis Open. But the stands are filled with foreigners. In fact, interest in tennis in the US is down substantially over the past few years, and continues to decline.

Some of the evidence of this decline comes from television ratings. Surely, if there is such an enormous number of tennis players in the US, TV viewership would have increased.

It did not. Instead, over the last ten years, viewership of the US Open is down substantially. In an excellent statistical review, The New York Observer noted that ratings were down even for the Rafael Nadal 2010 Wimbledon match against Tomas Berdych which scored a 1.8 rating, its lowest rating since 1988 and one of the lowest in history.

Most of the losses in fans comes from the absence of tennis on television. In many if not most systems, you have to buy The Tennis Channel. And in some, The Tennis Channel is not even available. But there is no need for tennis on television if there is no interest.

The need for better US players is considered critically important to the sport's success in the US. After all, if the NFL and NBA were in Europe, would US fans follow them much if at all? Thus, the USTA developed USTA Strategic Directions in 2007, with one goal that required dramatic change: to "dramatically increase efforts to identify outstanding young athletes to play tennis, encourage them to play tennis and nurture more American players into the world’s top 10."

There is little evidence that this has been successful so far. We certainly have a few US players who seem to be better than the rest, but none appears ready to take over a top-five world ranking. And none appear to have the talent to do so.

Although the statistics offered by recent US Census Bureau statistics suggest there have been changes in the demographics of tennis players, the fact that those with lower incomes seem to be playing the sport more could have its own debilitating effect. After all, the corporations who pay for the TV commercials are the Mercedes, Audis and Rolexes of the world. Not the Wal-Marts.

If the double-whammy of both continued lower ratings and the lack of important US tennis players continues, we are likely to see less interest in tennis over the next five years. And this is more critical than anything else.

There could be ways in which this could change. But this would require the nurturing of the best athletes in the US who will have to be convinced that they can pursue this sport and end up being able to earn millions in greater numbers than are currently available. Without this, the best athletes will continue to go to other sports.

In the end, if tennis is in decline, can it be saved? Your guess is probably better than mine.