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Collaboration key to keeping kids keen

Making tennis more accessible remains a major priority for the tennis industry, with improving facilities, embracing technology and retaining young players some of the key solutions discussed at the 2014 Tennis Summit.

Getting more people playing more tennis (and more often) is arguably the biggest challenge facing the British tennis industry, a mutual dilemma all stakeholders in the sport, whether a tennis club, racket manufacturer, construction company, media group or travel agent.

The Sport England Active People survey in October 2013 revealed that 424,300 adults in England play tennis at least once a week, a figure that is 20 per cent lower than the peak in 2009, when 530,900 were regularly participating in the sport.

This does not take into account the participation figures amongst children, and it was the ten-and-under age group that was highlighted as a key area to increase participation.

Lawn Tennis Association chief executive Michael Downey, who oversaw significant growth in participation at grass roots level (as well as notable success at elite level) during his nine-year tenure as president and chief executive of Tennis Canada, said the LTA needed to focus on “sustainable growth in participation”.

“I don’t play tennis, but I look at Mini Tennis and while it has got its issues, it has made the sport fun for kids,” Downey suggested. “Mini Tennis it is the right size tennis for kids. If you can’t rally you are not going to find this sport fun.”

Downey believes that improving council facilities could help boost participation, although he remains cautious.

“We know that this is where many players play and they are not playing enough. I really do believe there is an opportunity in parks but it is trying to replicate what is happening in clubs and making experience broader than just being able to play tennis.

“But we shouldn’t move ahead until we know what we are doing. I think you can waste an awful lot of money in parks too because they are so different from local authority to local authority.”

Downey revealed he had spent time visiting various clubs and park programmes around the country during his first three months in office.

“I went down to Eastbourne and saw a programme called Tennis in the Park, where we invested some money in the courts but it’s run by a couple alongside the local authority,” he said. “For them in that park it was all about having a café. It was all about replicating what you have in a club. The café was an enormous amount of their revenue but they ploughed that revenue back into tennis.”

Steve Riley, Director of Will to Win, which has become one of the leading providers of public tennis in London, believes clubhouses and pavilions should be a priority for making tennis accessible.

“What I am trying to do is make the first experience for a new tennis player welcoming and friendly. But there’s no point having a friendly and welcoming experience if they have got nowhere to go when it rains. The weather is not great for tennis all year round in Britain so we need great facilities which provide shelter from the rain, where we can talk about tennis to these new players and get them to engage to play all year round.”

Chris Trickey, chief executive of the Sports and Play Construction Association (SAPCA), the trade association representing businesses in the sports construction industry, said that potential new players would be unlikely to be enticed by second-rate facilities. 

“Facilities need to accessible and welcoming and they need to be good quality facilities that need to be attractive to players. Obviously tennis is competing across various sports to get people to play their sport. People are looking for higher standards; maybe indoor courts, good quality pavilions. Attractive facilities, good quality well-maintained courts, are key to get new players and keep them there.”

Speaking on behalf of manufacturers, Mike Ballardie, CEO of Prince Global Sports and TIA UK vice chairman, said that the UK tennis industry could learn from France, where mini tennis has been a huge success.

“There is a huge amount of investment going into Mini Tennis and the brands collectively are researching the right equipment for the different age groups, even as young as four or five now,” Ballardie said. “I think our challenge as an industry is making sure that equipment is available at the right time, whether that is in schools, in parks, or within a club environment.

“Believe it or not it isn’t that easy, there are not many retailers that want to buy this kind of equipment, so I think the more we can open our minds to accepting there is the right kind of equipment for different age groups and make the distribution of this equipment as easy as possible then that will help and aid the growth of tennis at a young age.

“I think we need to learn from Belgium and France in that respect; they have been employing Mini Tennis equipment for so many years now you look and you see that France has got 15 or so players in the top 100 in the world now so it is successful.”

While the Mini Tennis Red programme, for ages 8 and under has had reasonable success, TIA UK chairman Steve Matthews voiced his concern that those children lacked the same opportunities when they moved up to Mini Tennis Orange and Green.

“I think the biggest problem is retention, keeping players, certainly in the commercial sector and also local clubs,” said the former Sales and Operations Director of David Lloyd Leisure. “We have been successful in getting children in and playing the game in recent years, particularly Mini Tennis Red.

“However, the real problem area is the transition when they move to Mini Tennis Orange. Clubs, both indoor facilities and local clubs, don’t provide enough courts to maintain the Red players into Orange.

“At Bromley [Tennis Academy] we have 300 children on the Mini Tennis Red programme but we haven’t got the facilities to put 300 children into the Orange programme, yet there are empty courts at schools.”

The questions surrounding participation are not new, nor are the proposed answers. However, Matthews believes collaboration from all areas of the industry will help bring more people into tennis, and keep them playing the sport.

“We have got a big problem in retention and it needs to be a joined-up approach from all of us,” he said. “We all have a role to play but we need to be more transparent about joining that together.”