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Tennis market | current state of tennis | developing the tennis market
July 2014

How healthy is the

tennis market?

Tennis is a sport that can be enjoyed by everybody from 8 to 80, male or female. The potential of the market is therefore huge. JOHANN DU TOIT questioned some experts about the current state of the tennis retail market, and what could be done to grow it

The loss of the Sowetan Open, our Davis Cup team’s continued relegation to Europe/Africa Zone Group II and Tennis SA’s failure to attract a big corporate sponsor, could give the impression that tennis is on a decline in South Africa.

This is not necessarily so.

Over the last three years the imports of tennis equipment have been growing steadily. Imports of tennis rackets and balls in 2013 have increased annually since 2011, according to trade statistics from the Department of Trade and Industry*. Last year, the year-on-year growth in the import value of tennis rackets was 21%. Tennis ball imports have also grown considerably.

This, however does not automatically translate into increased retail sales volumes, as South Africa also exports a substantial number of tennis products. Around 10% of all tennis equipment imports are exported to other African countries.

Sales growth or not?

Some South African tennis distributors and specialist retailers confirm that the tennis market has been growing.

“We have definitely seen a sales increase in the last three years across all tennis categories,” says Brad Summers from Golf Racket, distributors of Wilson. “Normally, we use tennis balls as a gauge of the market and in that category we are trading approximately 42% up units wise. I have looked back at our sales since 2004 and every year, including the recession year of 2009, has seen growth. The market is buoyant and was not really hit by the recession.”

Craig Sander from Tennis24seven, a specialist tennis retailer, agrees with this sentiment: “Agents are also expanding existing ranges and importing new or other brands.”

Others are more cautious. Tony Jackson from the specialist racket sports retailer Tony Jackson Sports, says that he thinks the reason why he has seen an increase in sales over the last few years is because “people realise they are getting better help from specialist shops.”

Other distributors and retailers have been experiencing the opposite: a slow decline in the market.

“We have actually seen a steady decline in racket sales over this period. Retailers are carrying less rackets than in previous years as they are not selling the volumes,” says Andrew Wentzel from WET sport, distributors of RoxPro.

“Part of the problem is that coaches are selling rackets directly and the retailer is being bypassed. Brands are sponsoring coaches, and in turn they supply that brand only to the children and adults they coach. Retailers are therefore less inclined to carry a range of rackets from the brands as they are unable to sell the products.”

Jackson agrees with this sentiment. “We feel that this selling direct is slowing down the racket sales through retail shops.”

Tennis is a declining sport in South Africa, believes Trevor Borthwick from Eric Sturgess sport, which used to specialise in tennis equipment. “Young children are exposed to so many sports at school level, and aren’t choosing to participate in tennis.”

Due to the lack of facilities tennis is also not very popular in poorer communities, where the potential for mass volume growth lies, he says.

Price points

When comparing the past five year trend of import value per unit, it does seem as though the average unit prices are increasing for both tennis rackets and balls.

In terms of sales volume, entry level tennis rackets and balls are generally the biggest sellers. “The majority of sales are done at entry level, for both the junior and senior markets,” says Wentzel. School level junior tennis players also form the bulk of his customers.

“Junior players are definitely driving the market. Some older players (30-45) are coming back into the game but this number is small,” agrees Summers.

“Typically, a price point under R1 000 seems to sell better, which is aimed at a more social tennis player,” adds Steve Gallienne from Brand ID, distributors of Dunlop.

But, due to many factors, like a weaker currency and increasing fuel prices, rackets are getting more expensive. A top end racket that used to cost R2 000 now costs R3 000. He believes that players are therefore now taking better care of their rackets, and not buying them as frequently as before. “Many players are servicing their rackets more often. Tennis accessories, such as grips and strings, are, however, selling better.”

When looking at margins, higher priced premium rackets aimed at serious tennis players are more profitable. “If we are talking units, most sales are being made at the junior level. But, because of the high value of our premier rackets, the greatest turnover is at the premier racket range,” says Summers.

Developing the tennis market

Because the junior tennis players form the bulk of the market, the best way to grow the market would be to increase school-level participation. Retailers and distributors also want to sell higher value rackets and the more accomplished tennis players will be more likely to purchase more expensive rackets and equipment. It is therefore important to create opportunities for promising young tennis players to develop and keep them in the sport.

“I think quite a bit is being done at the moment, with programmes like the KDA Schools encouraging kids to play,” says Summers, referring to the Kids Development Academy (KDA) which aims to introduce foundation phase children (grade R to 3) to tennis. “There is always room for improvement, but at the moment I think more is being done at school level than ever before. Also, the whole “Play and Stay” junior programme is not only introducing kids to tennis, but it is making it easier and more fun for them.”

The Play and Stay initiative is a global campaign aimed at providing a fun and active introductory tennis training course.

The implementation of these training programmes is, however, proving to be difficult. One retailer says that some coaches are not using the latest and best coaching techniques, and that this impacts on the participation levels of junior players.

“Coaches are not using the Play and Stay course, which is the foundation course across the world. Many coaches insist on using old techniques, old balls and recommend the incorrect rackets, mostly for juniors, as they have not been on the first level training course Tennis SA (TSA) introduced.”

Retailers also need to sell the right kind of racket for the right player, adds Sander. “My estimate is that over 60% of players that are general club players and 70% of juniors are using the wrong racket. Of course this is going to affect your game,” says Sander. This can impact the enjoyment of the sport if your equipment is holding you back. “We need to make the game fun.”

Many tennis specialist shops have closed down, says Borthwick, which meant that bigger general retailers have grown market share – but they don’t always employ qualified sales people to sell the correct tennis equipment.

Too exclusive

Others in the tennis industry feel more could be done to nurture young players who perform well. “There is not enough being done, and if we do not have growth in tennis from a young age with the necessary support and backing, how do we expect to be competitive in the world arena?” says Wentzel.

The mother of an up-and-coming junior provincial player also has some concerns about the way tennis is being developed. “Grassroots development is very poor, with the result that it is becoming an elitist sport because it is very expensive to play competitively.”

This can be linked to the lack of big corporate sponsorship in tennis. “If you want to play tennis of a decent standard, you need to go to the best coaches, who are expensive, you need good equipment to prevent injuries, which is expensive, and you need facilities to participate, which do not exist everywhere.”

In addition to these fees, there are many fees attached to tournaments, which are essential to compete in if you want to increase your ranking. “Apart from tournament entry fees, you have to pay the travelling costs and accommodation. Therefore, if you don’t have the money, you can’t play tennis at a decent level,” she adds. If you wish to increase your international standings, it becomes even more expensive, as you need to compete against international players.

“Kids that are ranked in the top 10 per age group usually get sponsorships from equipment companies. But those that fall just outside the top rankings don’t have sponsors and the parents have to pay for everything,” she adds.

This exclusivity of junior competitive tennis is worrying for the industry. “You see the same faces at every tournament, which means that there are no new players joining, and many regulars no longer compete.”

Sander agrees that tennis should be more accessible. He says: “Every tournament that you enter costs a minimum of R250. TSA need to rethink that levy.”

International exposure

The lack of international tournaments in South Africa is also worrying. The last SA Open was held in 2011, and recently the 2014 Soweto Open was also cancelled. “The fact that the South African open was cancelled was bad for the industry,” says Gallienne.

Seeing more South Africans making a global impact in the sport would also help encourage young players. “South African tennis needs role models youngsters can aspire to,” says Wentzel. “More sponsorship and television coverage is needed to allow more heroes to emerge from the talent pool.”

Since the days of Kevin Curren and Wayne Ferreira, South African tennis players have not made a big impression on the international tennis circuit. We only have Kevin Anderson (#20) and Chanelle Scheepers (#96) among the Top 100 singles WTA and ATP players on circuit. In doubles, Raven Klaasen is ranked #30. The recent loss of the South African Davis Cup team against Lithuania means that they will stay in the Europe/Africa Zone Group II in 2015, after nearly qualifying for the World Group in 2012.

Efforts should also be made to keep older players active in the sport. “If we could get more tournament sponsors, even for smaller senior tournaments, then we will be able to keep 18-30 year olds in the game. Tennis also needs the senior tournaments to give the juniors exposure to the better senior players,” says Summers.

Financial support

Lack of finances remains a big issue in the tennis industry.

“We need more backup from TSA, we rarely see any money flowing into our area (Durban),” says Jackson. This affects local clubs, as they cannot afford to maintain facilities.

“The clubs are still struggling. Quite a few have closed down over the last 10 years and club membership is down with a lot of clubs struggling to field league teams,” says Summers.

“At the end of the day, money drives everything,” says Gallienne. “More investments from either sponsorships, or government investments, will help grow the sport, else it will basically remain static.”

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