Dan Lewis is Chief Executive of the Economic Policy Centre.
Growing up in the South London suburbs, not far from Wimbledon and long before I became interested in policy, tennis was my abiding passion. I even used to queue up with friends overnight for tickets, longing to get onto Centre Court – and sometimes succeeding. So it was with special interest that I undertook research into the long-term decline in participation in and national performance at tennis since the high watermark of the 1930s, and to explore new and innovative ways to revitalise the game.
That is the theme of our new paper, Rethinking Tennis for The Big Society – reversing decline, broadening the base, unleashing social enterprise, which is published today, on the eve of Wimbledon, by the Economic Policy Centre.
We all have an interest in this because since 2009, tennis has become a state-funded sport, to the tune of up to £26.8 million over the period 2009-2013 from Sport England, which itself is around 50% funded by HM Treasury.
And there are new stakeholders other than the Lawn Tennis Association – the de facto trade and governing body. These are Central Government, which is funding Sport England with grant-in-aid and driving the big society agenda, and local authorities who still own a large number of under-utilised park tennis courts, often in deprived areas.
The inalienable facts to get to grips with are these:
- The number of clubs peaked in the 1930s at 3,220, today there are just over 2,000;
- The number of public tennis courts in the post-war period has dropped from at least 33,000 to 10,000 today as they were sold off for development or turned into car parks;
- The latest Sport England participation survey showed a decline of 50,000 to 437,500 – a reasoned estimate would suggest there were at least a million playing in the 1930s when the population was much smaller, 47 million;
- And other than Andy Murray who was made in Spain (no thanks to the LTA), there are no other British male players in the top 150 and no women in the top 50, which ill-compares to the 1930s era of Fred Perry, others and many Davis and Wightman Cup wins.
These facts must raise two questions:
- How did this decline in courts and participation come to be, despite the professionalisation of the sport in the Open era and the massive pot of resources that consequently became available from Wimbledon, the world’s leading championships, and now from Sport England?
- Is the decline in participation related to the decline in performance?
The answer to first question is a long-term misallocation of capital. At some point in the post-war period, the LTA decided that the best way to increase participation was to invest in future champions who by dint of their success would encourage others to pick up a racquet. You can’t say it has worked. Today, nearly one quarter of the £60 million British Tennis annual budget, £13.3 million is given over to “Developing and Supporting Talent” compared to just £200,000 to Hotspots, Beacon and Self-service sites (Public courts) according to the Tennis Foundation 2009 accounts.
The trouble is that Tennis champions are like black swans: they emerge completely unexpectedly, not as a product of a national system, but much more often thanks to driven, tennis-connected parents matched with exceptional talent and hard work with many other skills-compatible players in a competition rich location like Florida or Spain. So they can’t be bought and it’s harder to do it in England.
This leads to the second question. The decline in participation does relate to the decline in performance. That’s because to advance, tennis players require a large supply of skills-compatible players in a competition rich environment. But as Andy Murray in his autobiography, Hitting Back, of the £40 million National Tennis Centre:
“I turn up at the National Training Centre in Roehampton, the multimillion pound headquarters of British tennis and no-one is there”.
What else could you have done, for growing the game, with £40million?
To be fair, the LTA have been making some new and belated efforts to democratise the sport. AllPlay is a new initiative – just a week old – to replace the failed www.eparktennis.com website for matching players of similar standards in the same areas in different clubs and parks. But it will take at least a year to build up and it would be interesting to know what is being spent on it and how and if it can succeed where they have failed before.
The Aegon schools initiative is not bad either and has reached youngsters with racquets and balls they wouldn’t otherwise have.
But the pace of change could be so much faster if the funding emphasis was switched from the élite to the grass roots.
It’s time for a reset. We need a public debate about the direction of funding for tennis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the LTA are very cross with me – I’m sure they’d much rather I saw only good in everything they did. But there has to be room for different opinions, especially where public finance is involved.
It is my firm belief, that the greatest growth at lowest cost for the game and for society as a whole will come from subsidising the bottom, not the top.
This is exactly where the Big Society comes in – unleashing a large range of social enterprises, NGOs and companies all competing for funds to do the job, often in deprived and untouched areas. As the excellent report by the Centre for Social Justice, More than a Game – Harnessing the power of sport to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people, showed, sport – including tennis – can play a big part in that.
The opportunities – were they to be exploited – are immense.