Groundsmanship may not be a career that many people in the tennis industry would consider when it comes to working within sport. But Geoff Webb, Chief Executive of the Institute of Groundsmanship (IoG) says it is a path that the industry should care about.
The IOG has over 4,000 members consisting of individuals and organisations with responsibility for maintaining sporting facilities around the UK. It is a trade organisation that brings together individuals and businesses from different sports including football, golf and tennis along with multi-sports venues.
According to Webb, the UK is “the hub of world leading advancements in turf technology.”
All the major UK grasscourt venues are IOG members including the All England Club and Edgbaston Priory. “The community of groundsmanship talk well across all sports and where there is innovation or something that can further improve the approach, then the techniques are adapted and transferred,” says Webb.
Neil Stubley, Head Groundsman at the All England Club says: “A lot of things we do in tennis are taken from football and golf. Our renovation programme is geared around how they do it in the Premier League, where they strip the turf and start again every year. Because we are also a fine turf, like in golf, a lot of our machinery during the playing season is what they would use on the golf green, so we combine those two different practices”.
Providing a community for the exchange of ideas is an important part of the IOG offering, as is providing opportunities for members to learn new skills. Over 1000 people a year receive some training and the IOG offers both vocational and non-vocational training and is an Ofsted-inspected provider of apprenticeships.
Young people have been a particular focus for the organisation. Six-week courses aimed at 14-year-olds have been delivered in schools, such as Ashton on Mersey School in Manchester, which is linked to the Manchester United Academy. The course saw 40 students working on pitches at the Manchester United Training Ground, Lancashire Cricket ground and local facilities, as well as the school playing field. “The project was highlighted as a success by the school for its innovation and attendance level,” said Webb.
Young people make a significant contribution to the IOG. “We have an excellent group of young ambassadors,” says Webb, “Our Young Board has grown from six youngsters to 12. The nominated Chair of the Young Board sits in as an observer to the IOG Main Board and puts forwards suggestions for strategy and can fully engage in debates in our Board.”
Webb, who has been at the helm of IOG for 10 years and previously held positions as Director of Stadia and Development at the Football Foundation and Head of Major Projects at the LTA, sits on a new interim body called the Parks Alliance. One of the things it is lobbying for is a minister for Parks.
“Tennis needs to ensure it lobbies hard for investment as many redundant courts in parks can be turned around, whether this be an asset transfer or re-investment, they can be an asset in the economics of servicing and investment in parks,” says Webb. “This is partly attitudinal. For nearly three decades such facilities have been largely ignored or at best had minimal investment. This should be reviewed and a clear plan identified to open up them up.”
According to statistics from the LTA, there are currently 399 public grassourts in the UK. With the strategic focus of the LTA on delivering more tennis through parks, Webb says there are some new projects being discussed. “We expect to see some emphasis around grass courts as a result of the new dates for Wimbledon and extension of the grass court season,” says Webb.
Webb says tennis venues do have groundsmen, but they don’t really get the profile or support they fully deserve.
“They are often in the background but vital to the sports outcome,” he said. “For too long there has been a disconnect and at times patronising outlook to this profession. Groundstaff work incredible hours have a lot of stress and do not get the recognition they deserve, that’s why we launched our own IOG awards seven years ago, which has helped to address this. I am pleased that both the LTA and AELTC support this alongside other sports National Governing Bodies”. Nominations are open for the 2015 Awards.
The IOG estimates that in 2007 the UK turf industry contributed £500 million to the economy and Webb believes that the tennis industry has a part to play in growing this and in raising the profile of groundsmanship within the sport.
“The All England Club are being proactive and we have enjoyed good interaction and support over the years,” he said. “We engage with a biannual seminar for ground staff at Wimbledon.
“The IOG really is a facilitator of knowledge but we know that in tennis you have great ground staff who probably should be used more, heard more and understood more.”