“Two [five-a-side] football pitches the same size as two tennis courts, generates £50,000 a year. Nine tennis courts generates £30,000 a year,” says Steve Riley, founder of Will to Win, the largest provider of public tennis in the UK.
“If you charge £8 an hour for a tennis court, if you have 17 sessions a week per court for 35 weeks a year, you make £4,700. A football pitch the same size generates £32,000. So if you are a business person, who in their right mind would build a tennis court?”
When Riley started Will to Win in 1995, his vision was to create tennis centres that made the sport affordable and accessible for everyone. By working with local authorities, the Lawn Tennis Association and the Royal Parks, Will to Win now runs 130 courts in Greater London, which represents a quarter of all public tennis courts in the capital.
“I’ve been at the coalface of tennis for the last 20 years,” said Riley. “We have now got 130 courts and I feel as though we’ve gone a long way to developing parks tennis, we hope eventually in Britain, but at the moment it’s just in London.
“But we had to diversify or die. It’s not rocket science. We had to expand into football and netball. It’s very easy to rent out a football pitch for £45 an hour. We don’t want to do that but sometimes we have to make those decisions.
“There are two key things in our business: a coffee machine and deck. You’ve got to sell coffee. In one of our latest centres, the coffee sales are 500% higher than what we thought they’d be; the tennis sales are up 25%.
“Without the coffee we would be in big trouble. We found the best coffee machine and people come just for the coffee. We’re also doing tennis session for dog walkers.”
LTA chief executive Michael Downey has made the provision of tennis in parks a priority and Riley believes it is a worthwhile focus.
“Parks are a very important part of the tennis playing market,” says Riley. Stats from 2013 show that 32% of people played tennis in parks, compared with 14% in clubs. The peak is during the summer, particularly during the Championships. My job is to keep those people playing beyond Wimbledon.
“We’re getting new players, new venues and enabling them to play tennis for the rest of their lives. A lot of people they come, play and they stay. We thought that they’d join as stepping stone to a club but they like it so they stay.”
As a private company running public facilities, Riley is often challenged for charging the public to use the courts, but with councils struggling to operate public facilities with shrinking budgets, he believes working in partnership with local authorities is the best solution.
“The perception is that Will to Win is making money from parks tennis and that I’m a multi-millionaire and I’m off to my private yacht,” said Riley. “I’d just tell them to look at Companies House at our accounts. We are totally transparent in everything we do.
“We are a private company but we run public facilities. We turn derelict, useless courts and buildings into beautiful facilities. The two words we don’t have are private and membership. We give back to the community.
“We change communities; we get planning permission we build a sporting hub. These things take time. When we took over Ealing there was a squatter living in the building, there were trees growing on the courts and the council messed up the lease.
“Should parks tennis be free? The first experience should be free; if kids come along with their parents they can play for free. But not everything has to be free, there has to be a value to it.
“We are helping to create new players, sell rackets and balls, build new courts, lessons, we are increasing the tennis business in the UK.”