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Racket growth
February/March 2011

Tennis, squash & badminton

Good growth in racket sports

The growing popularity of tennis, the biggest racket sport in SA, resulted in solid growth in racket sales. The same is true for squash and badminton, especially for the market leaders in these sports, reports FANIE HEYNS

In SA, the popularity of tennis locally has soared, and the splendid growth in the sales figures of tennis rackets and balls over the past two years is an indicator of the healthy state of the sport.

Sales of squash rackets the past few years have mirrored the growth of the tennis racket industry locally, according to some local suppliers interviewed by Sports Trader. But these suppliers indicate that interest in SA badminton, and sales of rackets and other equipment might be dwindling.

Not so, says John Abrahams, supplier of Yonex, the badminton market leader. Abrahams says the increase in the number of recreational players, as well as the growing numbers in all categories of players at national events, as well as superb sales, paints a picture of a sport that is in a healthy state. Thank you.

Globally, there are also signs of growth in all three racket sports.

According to www.top-ten-list.org, tennis is the fourth most popular sport internationally, with an estimated 100m people participating — and it is growing as the International Tennis Federation is using a significant proportion of Olympic money to develop the sport in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Badminton has about 14m members in the 140 nations affiliated to the international governing body, Richard Eaton said in an article on the website www.squashplayer.co.uk. According to Andrew Ryan, a former executive of the Badminton World Federation, the total number of players could be closer to 100m. The growth was most rapid in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Korea. This agglomeration of top players, big tournaments, and screamingly enthusiastic fans in the Far East caused badminton to become the most viewed sport on television for the first five days of its Olympic debut at the 1992 Barcelona Games, with an estimated worldwide viewing of 1.1 billion.

Eaton says the most obvious mistake made by squash was in not reacting to the expansion of the Olympic schedule as quickly as the other three rackets sports, causing it to miss out on a lot of high profile publicity and funding. But the decline of squash has bottomed out. Deals from Bermuda, Manchester and the Middle East have ensured that the World Open will continue to increase its prize money each year up to a record R3 million plus in 2011, while the Women’s International Squash Players Association has expanded to a record 220-plus members.

The popularity of tennis in SA has soared over the past two years, confirms Ian Smith, CEO of the SA Tennis Association (SATA). That is due partially to the increase in the number of development initiatives by SATA, as well as the acceleration in tennis tournaments.

For most of the SA suppliers of rackets, tennis is their biggest category, accounting for roughly two-thirds of their sales — except where the brand’s focus is mainly on another category, where they would normally be the market leader, like Yonex in badminton or Dunlop in squash (see table).

The widespread sense we got from suppliers to the tennis industry is that the sales of rackets and balls have increased dramatically.

A factor that has contributed to the popularity of tennis has been the highly publicized rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, arguably two of the greatest tennis players of all time, says Brad Summers of The Golf Racket, local distributor of Wilson rackets, Federer’s sponsor.

Federer and Nadal have won 25 Grand Slam-singles titles in tandem. Both are extremely popular globally.

According to Forbes magazine, Federer is such a marketable commodity that he earns more than $35m annually, while Nadal, who is yet to penetrate the American market, earns more than $15m dollars annually.

Wilson sales worldwide got a tremendous boost after Federer appeared on the scene in 2005-2006, and has been growing ever since. Last year, after the publicity surrounding Federer’s record-breaking 15th singles title win in 2009, they had their best year ever as far as tennis rackets are concerned says Summers.

The global recession is another factor that has been mentioned as a reason for the increase in tennis sales, as many people who could no longer afford to play golf, switched to tennis.

Statistics from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) show that between 2000-2009 the value of tennis racket frame imports into SA more than tripled from R4.6m to R14.3m (see table). There was a sudden peak in import value in 2002 (from R8.9m in 2001 to R14.3m), which could probably be attributed to the boom caused by the introduction of titanium rackets, and a dip in 2004 (R6.1m from R8.7m in 2003). In 2006 there was another peak with the value of imports growing from R8.8m in 2005 to R14.2m, which coincided with a global renewal of interest in tennis and the appearance of Roger Federer.

This is confirmed by the sales patterns experienced by some brands. “Our sales came off a low base in 2003, and there has been steady growth (of tennis rackets) ever since,” says a representative of Leisure Holdings. A similar pattern was evident in squash racket sales, he added. Generally, the squash sales have been fairly flat.

Not all brands agree, though.

“We found that our sales peaked in 2008, dropped in 2009 and had massive growth again in 2010,” says Kevin De Wet of De Wet Sports, local distributor of Medalist. He says the pattern was exactly the same in squash and badminton rackets. “I think it had a lot to do with the economic meltdown during 2009. Consumers simply did not have any money to spare,” he says.

There will always be a market for well-priced tennis rackets like the RoxPro range, says Andrew Wentzel of the local distributors WET Sports Importers. At the start of the tennis season, there is always a scurry for rackets, he found. RoxPro sold very well in 2010, but not as well as in 2006, when the demand was exceptionally good.

“There does seem to be an upward trend in the market, from last year and this might tie in with the push from government to promote and grow sport in the previously disadvantaged areas,” says Wentzel.

The majority of brand distributors say that squash accounts for about a third of their racket sales — except Dunlop, which has a strong foothold in squash.

“Dunlop is the #1 squash brand in the world and our squash sales outperform the tennis sales by approximately 10%,” says Steve Gallienne, of local distributor Super-Brands.

Squash growth

Dunlop is sponsoring 4 out of the current top 10 men’s squash players in the world — including World #1 Ramy Ashour (Egypt), playing with the Aerogel 4D Max, #2 Nick Matthew (England), playing with the Aerogel 4D EVO 120, #4 Gregory Gaultier (France), playing with the Aerogel 4D Elite, and #6 Amr Shabana (Egypt), playing with the Aerogel 4D Ultimate.

Two of the top 10 WISPA ladies squash players are also performing with Dunlop. Both #3 ranked Alison Waters (England) and #6 Madelaine Perry (Ireland) plays with the Aerogel 4D F120. Sarah Fitzgerald, who for many years dominated women’s squash, has announced a comeback from retirement and will be seen on the courts with a new Dunlop racket.

Gallienne says 2006 and 2007 were great sales years for squash and tennis racket sales and then it dropped off. In 2009 sales were a bit slow, but in 2010, Super-brands recorded a growth again. Their squash sales, however, had a steady growth.

Squash has seen a move to gyms among the more social players, adds Wentzel. Many of these first time players are only looking for an entry level racket that offers quality and this is where RoxPro is able to deliver. RoxPro squash racket sales in the entry level and composite rackets have continued to show year on year growth, he reports.

Badminton leader

Most SA racket distributors steer clear from badminton, leaving the market wide open for global market leader Yonex. Local distributor John Abrahams of Shuttle Sports says badminton accounts for about 90% of their sales, and tennis 10%.

“Sales (largely of badminton products) have not dropped since 2006. If anything, there has been a slight increase,” he says.

He attributes the growth in badminton racket sales over the past two years to an increase in recreational players. Furthermore, Badminton SA has indicated that there was an increased participation in all age groups in the national events in 2010. The U13, U15, U17, U19, veterans, masters and grand masters categories have all recorded growth at national events.

Badminton SA has a three year initiative cycle to develop the game in clubs and schools, says Abrahams. In 2010, there were a total of 47 teams playing in the junior and senior SA Schools tournament, which was an increase in 30% compared to 2009, he added.

Other brands have, however, not experienced the same good fortune with badminton. “Our badminton sales have taken a huge knock. It used to be a decent market, but it has tapered off completely,” says Wentzel. “We have ended up storing stock for two years, as less people play the game.”

The badminton market is dependent on a number of external factors, he says. When the badminton clubs are thriving, sales are excellent, but a lot depends on who is driving the sport in the community, and the number of venues available, says Wentzel.

If the badminton club coordinator leaves town, the clubs often fold and the members only play socially. The number of courts available also limits the number of new players exposed to the sport, says Wentzel.


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