Over the past month, AusPlay released its 2022 calendar year data for national sport and physical activity participation across Australia.
The survey led by the Australian Sports Commission produced a series of concerning trends for junior tennis with more and more kids opting to play alternative codes.
The percentage of children (classified as 0-14 year old’s) participating in tennis through a club or association has fallen to 3.4% in 2022 – the lowest figure since AusPlay began recording data in 2016.
However, more worrying is the corresponding rise in participation for competing sports such as basketball and Australian rules football (particularly among girls).
The key takeaway from the graph is that tennis and basketball – which achieved similar participation in 2018 – have since gone in opposite directions, with the number of juniors associated with a club for each sport shifting dramatically:
270,205 – Basketball
247,953 – Tennis
356,193 – Basketball
170,527 – Tennis
But why is junior tennis struggling?
And while it could be put it down to a variety of reasons, I’ve pinpointed three that particularly impact participation for those aged 5-14 years old.
Firstly, other sports simply do it better.
Having been a junior tennis coach for the past year, I’ve seen the decision which every child and family must make – being what sport are kids going to play competitively?
They may want to play them all, but the reality is, basketball, netball, tennis, and many others all occur on Saturday mornings – and it naturally becomes one or the other.
Around the ages of 7-11 years old, children typically start playing for a club and once a sport has been chosen, they rarely change.
In 2022 and moving into 2023, basketball, among others, is consistently winning that battle – and understandably – as the skill level required for each child to compete is significantly lower.
In tennis, an 8-year-old must be able to serve into a full-sized court to play competition. Comparatively, any young boy or girl – regardless of ability – could be competing on a basketball court or football/soccer field and still enjoy playing and winning with friends.
Additionally, junior tennis players are still graded on skill level as opposed to age – so those of greater ability are quickly moved higher up and away from friends.
But what can tennis do?
There simply must be a revised standard of competition for 7-11-year old’s to entice more kids and parents to join teams and clubs.
Smaller courts, underarm serving, and age-based grades for under 8’s, 9’s, 10’s could all help to improve participation.
Secondly, tennis is too expensive for parents.
The AusPlay data for 2022 revealed that the cost of playing tennis is significantly greater than alternative junior sports.
The weekly price of lessons/training far exceeds sports such as basketball and football, and competing players at all ages must buy their own racquet.
An average one-hour private lesson may cost $70-100, while junior ‘Hotshots’ programs are approximately $200 per school term – an understandable price given the player to coach ratio is far lower than in other team sports.
However, tennis must look to innovate and incorporate more children into group lessons – as well as hosting team trainings for those playing competition – to both reduce costs and boost collaboration.
Finally, there is a lack of tennis coverage in Australia.
Naturally, 5-to-14-year old’s want to be like their sporting idols – those they see on television or watch live at the MCG.
The AFL and AFLW are particularly successful in drawing families to games through programs such as Auskick, and ultimately create an experience that is enjoyable to kids.
Likewise, the recent rise in junior basketball participation is in part due to the modern presence of the NBA and its athletes – as well as the NBL in Australia.
Meanwhile, tennis in Australia is inconspicuous outside of January – and very few children would see or watch any pro players for eleven months of the year.
Be it through news, streaming, or social media platforms, it feels as though Australians need to seek out tennis content – and it’s not nearly as accessible as NBA or EPL highlights, for example.
Additionally, Australian tennis has major room for growth in the promotion and marketing of local ITF events. Creating atmospheres at these tournaments with activities for families will naturally encourage more kids to want to play tennis.
Tennis often gets tagged ‘the sport for all ages’, but the reality is, kids are going elsewhere, and the problem needs attention.