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LTA targets youngsters and parks in mission to grow tennis in UK

Michael Downey, the LTA Chief Executive, announced a four-year strategy that aims to deliver on getting “more people to play tennis more often”

Downey’s determination to halt the slide in the numbers of people playing tennis in Britain was underlined this week when he revealed plans to increase the Lawn Tennis Association’s budget for participation by more than 50 per cent. In unveiling his four-year strategy in a media briefing at the National Tennis Centre, Downey said the LTA would spend an additional £9m on participation by 2018, taking the total to £26m.

Before outlining his plans for the future, Downey talked about the decline in playing numbers that he is trying to reverse. According to figures produced by APS (Active People Survey, Sport England), in 2008/9 there were one million people who played tennis monthly and 530,000 who played weekly. Last year the numbers had dropped to 694,000 and 384,000 respectively. “The fundamental problem that we face is that our sport is declining,” Downey said. “That is a fact that a lot of people have trouble accepting.”

Downey also pointed out the marked decline in the numbers of young people who play tennis. He said that participation is down by nine per cent in the 16-25 age group, compared with a five per cent decline across all ages. He said that one reason for the drop in numbers is the fact that what he called “doorstep” sports, like swimming, running, cycling and going to the gym, are more accessible. He said that tennis, which is more difficult to organise in terms of finding both facilities and opponents, needs to compete with these activities for people who are short of time.

Tennis clubs, which Downey said were the bedrock of the sport, have an ageing membership, but Downey believes the LTA can help them to attract younger people. Currently 48 per cent of tennis club members are in the 55-74 age group, while only five per cent are aged between 25 and 34.

The strategy, which has been five months in documentation, has three main points of participation focus. At the heart of a community focus is getting more tennis to be played in parks. “There is an enormous opportunity because that is fundamentally where most tennis players are, but they play in the summer and they peak in July,” Downey said. “We think there is not enough of a provision there.”

He added: “Parks are important because we talk about a sport that is fully inclusive. Parks are a front door to inclusion, because just about every neighbourhood in this country has a park in their backyard and it’s generally accessible and affordable.    Parks are critical in first of all slowing the decline and then growing it.”

Downey explained that there are four possible models aimed at growing participation in parks: working with a local authority; with a club that has an outreach programme; with a private operator; or with a large operator. He referenced consumer insight research, which highlighted that people not only want to play tennis in a park, they are also interested in the “welcoming facilities”. Changing rooms and cafes, he explained, are amenities that can enhance the experience of playing in a park and can encourage people to play there more often.

Downey envisages the LTA providing more assistance to help clubs attract more people. Under previous regimes, he said, the LTA had told clubs what to do. Now he views the governing body’s role as assisting with areas like volume buying. There are 2,700 membership clubs in the UK and Downey’s vision is for the LTA to offer them a better service, offering them best practice and helping them to drive membership at a local level. 

Alongside delivering great service to clubs and building partnerships in the community, the third pillar of the participation focus is education. This is about ensuring that the 28,000 schools that offer tennis for seven to 12-year-olds have a way of channelling children who want to play more tennis into a programme, perhaps after school, and encouraging them to establish links to parks and clubs.

Unlike previous regimes Downey is not yet putting numbers and targets on this rehabilitation.  He says that arresting the decline of the sport will not happen overnight. He likened it to a hockey stick in terms of the shape of the recovery of the sport, “You don’t just suddenly turn it around,” he said. “First the task is to slow the decline, then stop it, then grow it and then you have to get sustainable growth.”

The LTA have assessed the costs associated with delivering the strategy over the four years from 2015 to 2018. The £9m increase will come from a combination of new revenue growth, driven by making the pre Wimbledon grasscourt tournaments and making playing initiatives like Tennis Tuesdays and Mini tennis, more attractive to potential sponsors. This is budgeted to deliver £5m. An additional £2m will come from spending savings on high-performance programmes and another £2m by making the LTA a more efficient organisation. The precise detail has yet to be worked out, but Downey says the mantra for budget management is to “spend money like it is your own”.

As a trained marketer Downey, perhaps unsurprisingly, is planning to spend energy and money marketing the sport. “We need to treat tennis as a brand, it’s a product,” he said. He talked about the “push” and “pull” strategies of marketing, of a desire to create a “go buy it” attitude for people wanting to play the sport, not just pushing the sport out by making it available to them. “We need to convince people to go on court and play tennis,” he said. “We think marketing is an enormous tool but we’ve got to get it right. You’ve got to make sure that you have got the proposition right.”

The LTA is currently working with an agency, BBH Sport, to help them understand how best to position tennis to the consumer. The start of the process has been to identify six segments of the tennis market and to begin to think about addressing the needs of these target groups.

The so-called “Seasonal Spinners”, for example, are women under 40 who play the sport mostly in the summer in parks; they are being targeted through initiatives like “Tennis Tuesday.”

“Getting women playing on Tuesdays is not going to change the dial,” Downey said. He explained that from “Tennis Tuesdays” these players need to be encouraged to play more. The LTA will also look to grow projects like the Great British Tennis Weekend into brands and use that, for example, to attract tennis couples and young families, or “Tennis Troopers” as the segment has been labelled.

In marketing speak Downey’s sights are on “owning June”, to capitalise on the three weeks before Wimbledon. Given that tennis participation peaks in July, he sees an opportunity to flatten that spike by trying to get more people interested in May and June as well.

Downey said there would be more research and more listening to work out ways of delivering his strategy. What he is sure about, however, is that the model is one of decentralisation, of working with partners to deliver an increase in tennis participation. Creating an environment in which high-performance players can make wise choices about how to develop their talent is part of the picture, alongside looking after 30,000 volunteers who help deliver tennis in the community. Attracting youngsters to the sport at all levels is critical to this vision.