By Mark Lamport-Stokes
RANCHO MIRAGE, California (Reuters) - An ageing core of recreational players and plunging sales of entry-level rackets are the biggest concerns facing tennis in the United States, according to experts.
Though the U.S. tennis economy grew by 3 percent last year compared to 2013, based on data compiled by the Tennis Industry Association (TIA), much still needs to be done to lure the 18-35 age group to the sport.
"One and a half million fewer people bought entry-level rackets in 2014 than they did in 2008, and that's staggering," TIA president Greg Mason said state in his state of the industry update at the annual Tennis Summit.
"Are they buying them used? Maybe. But to me 1.5 million fewer rackets is a very concerning stat."
Mason, who with his TIA colleagues organized the two-day Tennis Summit held at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa, told Reuters the slowdown entry-level racket sales was one of three major concerns he had for the health of the sport.
"If entry-level racket sales are down, it means fewer people are coming into the game, and that's a big concern," said Mason.
"Secondly, as we look at the average player, they're getting older so we need to make sure that we do more to attract younger people.
"And third, we also want to bring people into the business of the game at a younger age so that we have fresh ideas, fresh approaches. Those are three biggest things we need to address."
Mason felt the United States Tennis Association was already doing a good job at trying to lure younger people into tennis with the organization of pilot programs across the country targeted at the 18-35 age group.
USTA chairman, CEO and president Katrina Adams, who won 20 doubles titles on the WTA Tour, agreed that millennials were a big concern for the growth of the game but took great comfort from the number of under-10 players taking to the sport.
"We do have pretty good growth in our 10 and under population," Adams told Reuters. "It's really the teenagers that we are trying to keep in the sport because they have interests in other sports or they are just couch potatoes.
"That's why we are trying to make the sport as exciting as possible with shorter courts and red, orange and green balls for the kids.
"So then if they are introduced to tennis, they're going to have a lot more enjoyment playing it and hopefully they can really elevate and stay with it."
Adam, who also works as an analyst for Tennis Channel, has pinpointed the Hispanic community in the United States as a potential game changer in the sport's future growth.
"It's the fastest growing population in America and if we don't really latch on to that culture, bring them into the game, our numbers will decline in 20-30 years," said Adam.
Adams is greatly encouraged, though, by what she sees at the highest level in U.S. tennis, especially on the WTA Tour.
"There's a lot of electricity about our young players coming up ... Madison Keyes is emerging, Sloane Stephens seems to be back on track, and there's also Taylor Townsend and Christina McHale," said Adams.
"Obviously at the top you've got Serena and Venus (Williams), so that shows that the diversity in the sport is really high here in America with these kids emerging and having a great stride. I think the sport is growing."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)