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New LTA chief targets participation growth

In late September when LTA President David Gregson introduced Michael Downey as the new chief executive of British tennis, he said that the current CEO of Tennis Canada had been the unanimous choice for the job. Gregson outlined the three key criteria set for the appointment of a new CEO; first that this person had experience running a business, secondly that he had shown true leadership in a sporting environment and thirdly that the candidate also had experience in tennis. In Downey the LTA had found the best person.

Downey, who held a series of executive positions including regional president for Canada’s largest brewery, Molson, and for the past nine years as CEO of Tennis Canada, led a sport with 1.2 million participants (that is people who play at least twice a month in a season). He revealed that his focus would not be on the LTA as an organisation, but on British tennis and achieving the mission “to get more people playing tennis more often”.

To achieve that, he will focus on three areas, the first of which he identified as partnerships “trying to engage others to help us to collectively grow the sport”. Secondly he highlighted kids’ tennis as being a priority: “I believe a lot of resources should go into mini tennis so we can engage kids earlier because one of the advantages of our sport, it is truly cradle to grave.” Thirdly, the 56-year-old identified facilities as a long-term plan, but as being key to growing participation. In Canada there are only 120 indoor facilities in the whole country and 80% of those are in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal, so facilities has been one of Tennis Canada’s key strategic pillars.

So, how will he go about tackling this task? Having settled himself and his partner in London, Downey intends to be out and about listening to people, “I believe you have to talk to everybody. If I go and just get a list of people who are friendly with the LTA then I’m just getting one perspective.”

But Downey’s focus won’t be just about participation as he recognises that Andy Murray’s success can be a huge driver in raising interest and enthusiasm for the sport. “I also believe a critical part of that mission is continued high-performance success from British Tennis, because high-performance success is inter-related with the mission of getting more people playing more often because high-performance success delivers the emotive side of tennis,” he explained.

Commenting on Downey’s appointment, TIA Executive Director Brett Watson said, “I was pleased to welcome Michael to his role heading up the LTA. He brings extensive business experience as well as nine years working to improve both participation and performance tennis in Canada. In his press conferences there was an emphasis on partnership, on listening and on the importance of facilities together with an early engagement with children to bring them into the sport. All this is great news for the TIA and our members and I have every reason to be optimistic that we will work together extremely well for the benefit of the whole of tennis.”

One person who will be hoping to get the ear of the British tennis chief is Keith Sohl, founder of The Sports Village, which incorporates Sutton Tennis Academy. Sohl, who launched his facility in Surrey 20 years ago with a solely tennis focus, says back in the 90s he had a genuine partnership with the LTA forged at a regional level, but since then, and in 2006 having also seen a long-term agreement with the governing body dissolved, he has had to evolve his business to include other sports, most notably gymnastics, dance and a future project involving football.

Although the Sports Village remains one of the biggest tennis centres in the country, as well as being accredited as an LTA High Performance Centre, with a thousand kids going through the doors each week and staging over 100 tournaments a year, Sohl believes that it is not easy to develop a sustainable facility as tennis, particularly performance tennis, does not pay.  “To make these work, partnerships are important,” he told TIA UK News. “The LTA don’t seem to understand the commercial realities that we, and I’m sure others, have to struggle with.” Facing a potential £80,000-a-year increase in business rates from the local council means that Sohl is looking to drive his revenues in the coming months and believes the governing body should help, particularly as at The Sports Village the mandate has always been giving priority to juniors. “Over 90 per cent of tennis balls hit at our facility are hit by people under 21” he added.

With Downey not due to start in the job until January 6, 2014, it may be some time before new policies and strategies are introduced, but TIA members, like Sohl, should be some of the people who the softly spoken Canadian listens to as he eases into London life and his role at the head of British Tennis.