The growing importance of racket sports in the leisure industry

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The growing importance of racket sports in the leisure industry

European Squash Federation Vice-President Luís Ferreira shares some insights on changing trends in the leisure industry - and opportunities for squash.

Although not every Olympic sport is a popular recreational activity, a considerable number attract a diverse audience - and not primarily for competitive purposes. Among these, sports, squash, athletics, swimming, cycling, tennis, basketball, volleyball, football, skateboarding and golf stand out.

Squash, tennis and golf, in particular, occupy a unique niche, requiring substantial financial investment for participation. This factor has led to the proliferation of commercial facilities catering to these sports, with a higher proportion of participants engaging in them for leisure rather than competitive purposes. As a result, these 'Olympic leisure sports' enjoy a broad base of active participants, from which a smaller number may choose to engage in competitive play.

Recent figures from the leisure industry paint a revealing picture. The fitness industry (one of the sectors most impacted by COVID-19) saw revenues decline by over 50% in 2020, as per the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). While a return to pre-COVID-19 levels is anticipated, consumer hesitancy is likely to delay full recovery until around 2024.

In contrast, racket sports currently enjoy a market volume of USD 9 billion in 2023, with annual growth rates of 6.61% projected from 2024 to 2028, signalling a clear divergence from the general fitness trend. This trend is confirmed by the current membership numbers of the German Tennis Federation. Since its record year 2002 with 1.9 million members, the membership numbers have continuously declined until the year 2020. Since 2021, the membership numbers in German tennis have been continuously increasing again.

Graphic: Membership Numbers of the German Tennis Federation from 2002 to 2023

Why is the fitness industry struggling to reach pre-COVID levels while racket sports have been enjoying steady growth for over two years? To understand this, we must examine why people are leaving fitness facilities. According to an IHRSA report, the main reasons, besides financial constraints, include:

  • - Lack of group fitness classes: Members engaged in group exercises are more likely to retain their memberships than those using gym equipment alone.
  • - Limited interaction with staff: Members who have successful interactions with staff are less likely to cancel.
  • - Unsatisfactory results: Members not seeing desired workout results are more likely to quit

These points indicate a trend towards game-based activities over solitary fitness routines, leading to increased participation in racket sports.

Sports like padel and pickleball epitomize this shift. Their rising popularity is due to factors such as:

  • - Social interaction: They offer great opportunities for meeting new people and socializing.
  • - Ease of learning: Both sports are relatively easy to pick up, requiring no special skills or equipment, making them accessible to all ages and fitness levels.
  • - Fun: These sports provide enjoyment and stress relief.

These factors contribute to their higher growth rates compared to tennis.

In light of these developments, new potentials emerge for squash. It's time to capitalize on these for the benefit of the sport. On one hand, squash offers programs like Squash 57, which share the advantages of padel and pickleball in terms of accessibility and appeal to all ages and fitness levels. On the other hand, squash isn't just a leisure sport but also an Olympic discipline. Its fast-paced and high-intensity gameplay sets it apart from other racket sports. A German study by GfK ranks squash as the top sport for fitness, owing to its intense physical demands and strategic depth, appealing to players seeking a challenging and rewarding experience.

The onus is on us, the stakeholders in the squash ecosystem, to embrace these trends and ensure that squash enjoys significant growth rates in the coming years.

This article first appeared on the Squash Facilities Network - a working group of the European Squash Federation


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