Britain is a nation of passionate tennis supporters. When Andy Murray won Wimbledon for the first time in 2013, it was widely expected that tennis would take off like a firework in clubs and parks around Britain. Yet according to Sports England, participation for over-16s actually declined from 1.1% in 2005-6 to 0.9% in 2015-16. Nor has our enthusiasm for tennis on the screen translated into a factory line of juniors ready to burst into the professional ranks.
This isn’t for lack of money. The LTA’s income of over £60m – from the profits of Wimbledon, corporate sponsorship, Sport England funding and subscriptions – dwarves the £10m received by Badminton’s governing body (participation 0.97%) or the few million euro received by Spain’s tennis governing body (participation 1.9%; top 200 ATP players: 15, compared to Britain’s four).
Unsurprisingly, the LTA has been the butt of much criticism over the years. Common threads are the lack of a long-term direction for the sport and the effective use of resources. As our successful Davis Cup team captain Leon Smith said in 2015, ‘there has been so much change. Every time you change, you have to start again.’
The LTA’s last two CEOs, Roger Draper (2006-13) and Michael Downey (2013-17) had very different philosophies. Draper tried to tackle junior competition performance by distributing funding to high performance centres in clubs across the country. The pressure to compete was extended even to juniors of mini tennis age, the under 10s. At National level, a training centre at Roehampton was built, a move which proved unpopular with the public because it was usually empty of players.
Opinion varies as to whether Draper’s approach could have worked given time or was doomed to failure from the start. Either way, when Downey took over, the existing programme was abandoned, the stockpile of top juniors which used to be a strong point of British tennis dwindled, and the emphasis in the LTA switched to developing grass roots. Most notable was the Tennis for Kids programme, which put mini tennis rackets in the hands of over 13,000 youngsters in 2016. Each kid gets a free racket, free six-week course by a qualified coach and a follow-on offer of a discounted course or a free annual membership at the participating venue. The trouble is that prices soon revert to the norm.
In London, that norm is around £12 per hour per child for a group lesson, be it at club or public park. Over the last 10 years, prices for coaching and competitions have risen by a factor of two to three times. Set against the disappointing participation figures, it is surprising that the LTA has chosen not to highlight pricing as a key issue. Now that Downey has gone back to Canada for personal reasons, Scott Lloyd, who founded the Next Generation racquets and leisure group and served as CEO of David Lloyd Leisure until 2015, will take over. Doubtless many in the tennis industry will be wondering which way the LTA will swing next.
The challenge facing the LTA
Devising a strategy involves first of all asking where you want to be and how you’re going to get there. The LTA hasn’t articulated a clear vision since it published Blueprint for British Tennis in 2006 (it called for more ‘winning’ at a professional level). It needs to do so again.
In the business world, the next step after establishing strategic intent is to decide how to compete. The LTA may not be a business in the true sense, but with his commercial background Lloyd must realise that players (and supporters, parents and other stakeholders) will be judging the value of their tennis experience against what they pay and against their experiences in other sports, to decide whether it’s worthy of their time and money.
The challenge here is that there is no single offering for the tennis product up and down the country. Many of the public parks tennis courts have disappeared and will not come back quickly. Others are run by private contractors who profit from both court fees and coaching. Still others are so run down that no-one wants to play on them. While this low-cost route is disappearing fast, at the other end of the scale David Lloyd Leisure operates in the high price, high quality segment of the tennis market. Unsurprisingly, prices in the ‘middle market’ consisting of the majority of clubs up and down the country have risen to match the new reality.
Furthermore, perceptions of quality by junior players with dreams of stardom are going to be different to those of older players looking at the quality of swimming pool, gym and restaurant options that complement the tennis playing part of the experience. The availability, pricing and perceived value of coaching are very important. So too is a competition structure which meets the needs of players at all levels.
For example, I have a 13 year old daughter who would like to compete this summer to improve her player rating. The current reality is that the risk of a competition being cancelled due to not enough entrants is high. The chance of finding another girl in the draw with a similar player rating level is low. At club swimming galas in the same age group, you would typically see over a hundred girls competing in any given event. In this instance therefore, the perceived value of the tennis experience is low, while the cost of the experience is high. In any business, this means death.
Whatever the LTA’s future direction and the next set of changes it makes, success will depend on making appropriate use of its resources: financial, human, organisational and relational.
The most obvious resource category is financial. While the LTA is undoubtedly well-endowed, it is not big enough to make tennis free for all or to guarantee its implicit intention of controlling all the outcomes of tennis in Britain. Conceivably a well-funded new entrant could arrive, promising a shake up and attract sponsorship for setting up a parallel organisation. For example, well run academies founded by current and former players including Emilio Sanchez, Sergi Bruguera and Rafael Nadal define the Spanish system. Who is to say that the same might not happen here in the UK?
The second resource group is human. In the 2016 Annual review, there was much talk and praise for the coaches, volunteers and officials who in association with the LTA are responsible for delivering the tennis experience. However, LTA employees themselves barely get a mention. The ability of the LTA to deliver any strategy depends on the skills, capabilities and morale of their own people. Writing them out of the success stories is not a smart move.
The third resource group is organisational: the LTA’s rules, its competition structures, its coach education methodology, the ways it funds projects, its IT systems, its intellectual property, its products, initiatives and other means by which it brings tennis to the public. The main observation is that there is no shortage of systems and structures, which have included Short Tennis, Mini Tennis, Touch Tennis, Street Tennis, Cardio Tennis and Tennis for Kids. What is unclear is how all these systems are meant to add value to tennis players, given the fragmented nature of tennis.
The final resource group is relational. These resources are those not wholly owned by the LTA and include volunteers, officials, coaches, players including top players, parents, fans, club committees, local authorities, corporate sponsors and even national government. The quality of the relationships depends on trust, contingent on an understanding that the LTA knows what it wants to achieve and knows how to get there. However, trust is at a low point.
As Adrian Rattenbury, Head of Registro Profesional de Tenis (RPT) Europe, a coaching organisation that trains the majority of Spanish coaches puts it: ‘The LTA are the caretakers of our sport. Unfortunately, they are not taking very good care of it.’
Successful management will mean combining all these resources in such a way as to add value for British tennis players and then put in place the measures to monitor progress. The Board of the LTA need to be held to account for the state of British tennis. There will, no doubt, be many changes in the LTA over the next few years and it will feel like starting again from scratch.
The question remains: does the LTA have the capability to change before its stakeholders lose all remaining patience? If they don’t do it, someone else with the capability and capital may come along and change British tennis around them. More so than at any time in its long history, the LTA needs to act with true purpose and fast.
John Peters is head coach at a South London tennis club, and a former senior consultant at KPMG.