Much has been reported about golf’s resurgence as a result of the COVID pandemic, but tennis clubs have benefited as well. Studies show that U.S. tennis participation surged 22% in 2020 from the year earlier, adding up to 21.64 million players hitting the courts. “People have been coming out of the woodwork,” says Jon MacMillan, Controller at Mulholland Tennis Club in Los Angeles.
Like golf, tennis experienced a “COVID bump” as people looked for safe ways to stay active through the global pandemic. At the same time, there’s been a coast-to-coast corresponding boost in tennis clubs—members-only and private, large, and small, Barron’s reported.
At Mulholland Tennis Club, a private facility in Los Angeles, new memberships are on a roll, Barron’s reported. They’re being initiated at twice the typical rate, according to club Controller Jon MacMillan.
In a typical year, the club welcomes two- to three-dozen newcomers, Barron’s reported. “We’ve already hit that mark,” MacMillan told Penta [Barron’s quarterly publication aimed at pentamillionaires—people with $5 million in assets] in July. “People have been coming out of the woodwork.”
As they emerged, they served up the club’s $30,000 initiation fee and agreed to pay the $315 monthly dues and other fees, Barron’s reported. “Our fees put us about middle of the pack for private clubs,” MacMillan says. Membership has its privileges, yes, and price tags.
In Forest Hills, N.Y., the West Side Tennis Club has seen a membership surge estimated at around 20%, according to Jason Weir-Smith, Director of Racquet Sports at the private facility, Barron’s reported. It has bragging rights as the former longtime host of the U.S. Open.
A few miles away in Flushing, Queens, from August 30 to September 12, the U.S. Open finals slate is currently set to run at 100% capacity at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Barron’s reported.
At West Side, as at numerous private tennis clubs, new members must be recommended by current ones, Barron’s reported. The initiation fee ranges between $5,000 to $10,000, depending on various factors.
“Without a doubt, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in memberships,” said Weir-Smith, who’s connected to the network of tennis facilities around the country. “I would say it’s the case for the majority of tennis clubs.”
Figures drive home the fact that tennis is having a new day in the sun, Barron’s reported. In 2020, U.S. tennis participation surged 22% from the year earlier, based on the Physical Activity Council’s Participation report done by the research agency Sports Marketing Surveys.
That added up to 21.64 million players hitting the courts, up by 4 million from 2019, Barron’s reported. Nearly 3 million players were new to the sport, a boost of 44% compared to new players in 2019. Participation figures aren’t available for 2021. Tennis insiders are seeing evidence that tennis continues to court increasing interest.
“What we’re hearing anecdotally now from tennis clubs and coaches and parks is that the demand is incredibly high,” says Craig Morris, Chief Executive Community Tennis at USTA.
The high demand, he added, has meant that teachers, pros, and coaches have been squeezed tighter than a professionally strung racquet, Barron’s reported. Another metric that tennis is flourishing: Racquet sales for April 2021 rose 27% compared to that period in 2019.
“What we’re seeing so far this year is that premium, higher-end racquets that are in the wholesale range of $50 and above are doing very well,” says Adam Hile, Senior Research Analyst Sports Marketing Surveys USA. Sales of balls are up, as well as strings, he added.
Tennis’s smashing popularity uptick traces directly to Covid-19 and the fact the sport is healthy exercise in more ways than one, Barron’s reported. It’s an activity that can be played outdoors, which is regarded as a safer space than indoors. As the Delta variant looms large, that’s a consideration.
But even inside, the sport is socially distanced, Barron’s reported.
“That was one of our pedestals as we strategized last year and continue to do so,” said Mike Woody, Vice President and National Tennis Director at Wichita, Kansas-headquartered Genesis Health Clubs, which joined forces with the USTA to advance the sport.
“You’ve got a huge space between players on the courts,” he added. “That’s been an encouraging factor for people to play.”
That tennis is healthy, socially distant, and able to be played outside “has been a perfect storm for increasing interest in tennis,” Chris Dudley, Tennis Director at Querbes Tennis Center, a public facility in Shreveport, La., told Barron’s. “We’ve had an 80-year-old that started playing for the first time. We’ve had 3-year-olds who’ve picked up a racquet.”
Safety and uncertainty are two compelling reasons behind why new memberships “have been snowballing” at CityView Racquet Club in Long Island City, Queens, according to Larry Hong, Managing Partner of the members-only facility.
Since the pandemic, the club’s increase in ranks thanks to referrals from existing members has been dramatic enough to have them looking at capacity limits at the club, where fees include a $1,500 initiation plus dues, Barron’s reported. “It’s a good problem to have,” Hong said. “We’re not there yet but it’s a reality.”
“There’s still some uncertainty with Covid,” Hong says. “When people ask, ‘Where am I going to play?’ they’re looking for a place that they feel safest. We are following all the CDC and New York State guidelines for vaccination and testing.”
While tennis is built to be socially distant, tennis clubs offer a social element, Barron’s reported. Ask Jeff Zeller, Director of Entertainment Marketing and Partnerships for ESPN, who joined West Side Tennis Club in May when he moved from Manhattan with his family to Forest Hills.
Raised in Colorado and schooled as an undergraduate at Stanford University, where he was the captain of the tennis team, Zeller has lived in New York for five years, Barron’s reported. West Side is his first club membership in the city.
“As a former collegiate player, I like to play with people around your level. It’s a lot of work to set up individual hitting sessions,” said Zeller, who figures that between court time and social time he’s at the club about four days a week.
“In a post-Covid world where we’ve been craving that kind of socialization, it has been wonderful to have that built in social network,” Zeller said. “I like meeting new people and going beyond the transactional nature of just playing tennis.”
At a time of personal pods and bubbles, tennis clubs are another containment chamber, Barron’s reported. It’s not a come-one, come-all affair. “One thing that a private club does is that it restricts the public,” said Mulholland Tennis Club’s MacMillan. “There’s only a certain number of players.
“For about five years it seems like it was a slow decline in interest,” he added. “For the last two years, especially during Covid, things started picking up. People were kind of sitting at home—they’re looking at things to do.”