Can Emma get more people playing tennis?

Emma Raducanu winning the US Open as a qualifier, in only her second grand slam event.

Stories in sport don’t get much more fairytale than that, and for my money it was one of the most incredible and uplifting things we’ve seen in years.

On the back of these type of things happening we get two familiar themes emerging in the media:

  1. How much money will she make through sponsorship?
  2. Will this inspire more people (especially kids) to take up tennis?

The answer to Q1 is “a lot” but it needs to be managed carefully by her team, playing the long game to ensure the actual tennis stays as the main focus.

The answer to Q2 is a lot more complex, but elite-level success or events don’t generally translate into a sustained increase in participation. Not on their own, at least.

There is a definite “Wimbledon effect” for tennis every summer – here is the Google Trends data for “play tennis” over the last five years in the UK (note the gap in 2020):

At the very far right we can see the “Emma effect” – a significant uptick but nowhere near as big as the Wimbledon effect, and it already seems to have died down. Here’s the last 7 days, with the spike coming while the final was taking place, but then dropping back to the normal level pretty quickly.

Google search is only a rough indicator of course, and it may take a little longer for people and parents to decide they’d like to pick up a racket, on the back of Emma’s win.

Tennis is actually starting from a fairly healthy place – the chart below shows an average of 28% of men and 26% of women in the UK following the sport, with the lowest levels among 16-24 and 25-34 women (this is recent GWI data but obviously pre-Emma, so it’ll be interesting to see if this changes in the next wave of research).

Like most sports, the levels drop quite a bit when it comes to participation. Only 12% of men and 9% of women play tennis (but it’s still the 4th most popular sport).

The drop-off is actually most acute among women aged 45+, so there’s an opportunity there, but there is definitely room for Emma Raducanu and the LTA to inspire more girls and young women to convert interest into playing.

Having a young, relatable and charismatic star definitely helps, but it can only ever be one part of the equation. People also need access to facilities, equipment, coaches, money and time, along with marketing campaigns that actually reach them and speak their language.

To be fair, the LTA are already doing a lot of good work and they seem to have Emma fully on board, in a way that Andy Murray never really was, so with a bit of luck we will see some movement in these figures over the next few months and years.

In short: Inspiring people to play a new sport is rarely a quick win, but relying on the star factor alone is always a mistake.

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