Earlier this week, the LTA announced a a major drive to grow participation in tennis across parks throughout the country, supporting local authorities with cost-free opportunities to improve the health and wellbeing of their tennis communities and rolling out free technology solutions to improve accessibility and player experience, parks-based competitions, and programmed activity - all in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. To mark the launch, Sport Industry Group sat down with LTA CEO Scott Lloyd to discuss the new intiatives and explore in-depth how the changes will improve grassroots tennis moving forward.
Thanks for joining us Scott. To kick off, what ways has recreational tennis been affected by the pandemic (and consequent lockdown) and how difficult has it been?
One obvious effect of the lockdown restrictions was that people weren’t able to get out on court – which was difficult for everyone who plays tennis and enjoys its unique physical and mental health benefits. Since lockdown restrictions eased in mid-May, we have seen an approximately six-fold increase in court bookings and, although time will tell how much of a long-term impact the pandemic will have on all recreational sport, this is an encouraging sign. However, group coaching continues to be impacted by the current restrictions, as do children who predominantly play in school.
During lockdown’s early stages many of those involved in delivering recreational tennis saw their income streams severely affected and in many cases disappear completely. That is why we acted quickly to create a support package of up to £20m for venues, officials, coaches and players. This was designed to ensure clubs and venues remain viable, and coaches and officials aren’t lost to the sport. This has been and continues to be a vital resource for many.
Pre-Covid, how resilient was grassroots tennis, and how ready was it to face a challenge such as lockdown?
We were seeing early signs of progress one year into our five year strategy with increases in the number of adults playing tennis both once a month (6%) and once a week (12%), as well as an 8% increase in the number of children playing. It would have been impossible to be fully prepared for the impact of Covid-19 which has and will continue to affect all grassroots sport. As restrictions continue to ease, our offer to local authorities provides further financial backing for the grassroots game, by helping authorities make their park venues sustainable in the long-term.
Do you fear for participation numbers as lockdown begins to ease, or are you already seeing it build up again?
The recent vast increase in the number of people getting on court is very encouraging and our offer to local authorities is designed to help further drive participation on park courts. It includes the roll out of free technology solutions to improve accessibility, exciting parks-based competition and programmed activity to drive regular play, development of sustainable operating models and interest free quick access loans for facility improvements. Nearly 1.5 million people have played tennis on park courts in the last 12 months, with almost half of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. We want to work with local authorities to continue this trend and help open up tennis to more and more people.
How do you feel these new initiatives will help catalyse grassroots tennis now we’re allowed outside again?
This is a long-term strategy that was due to be announced this summer irrespective of the pandemic, but it coincides well with the recent spike in participation and there are a number of ways we hope the package will help grow the grassroots game. One example is our acquisition of ‘Local Tennis Leagues’, which offers friendly, accessible, competitive tennis for thousands of adults. Local, fun and social competition has been proven to lead to more regular play, and our plan to scale the delivery of leagues nationwide is designed to create mass participation in grassroots tennis.
Many of the initiatives are focussed on making it easier and more accessible to book courts and get out playing etc. Did you feel that accessibility was an original barrier to entry?
Our insight shows that whilst there is huge latent demand to play tennis, the key barriers to participating are finding and booking a court, and someone to play with. To address this, we recently launched LTA Rally, a free digital platform to help people search for tennis activities in their area and make it easier to book a court, book group coaching, play a match or find free events. It acts as an aggregator, bringing together booking and coaching information on one easy-to-view page so participants can easily find the right option near to them. 300 park sites around the country are already taking bookings through the site.
These initiatives will inevitably be welcomed by local authorities as we move out of lockdown, but what are the long term aims for them? What do you want these to deliver four or five years from now?
Of course we recognise the significant financial challenges local authorities across the country are facing, and the pressures present around ongoing delivery of sporting and leisure facilities. We are investing in digital technologies and gate access solutions free of charge and with no commercial benefit to the LTA to enable authorities to manage and drive demand and create revenue to self-fund the facilities in the medium and long term.
Your partnership with the Tennis for Free scheme is aiming to help those from lower socio-economic backgrounds get in to the sport – a really powerful and actionable initative. What were the reasons behind that decision?
While we want park tennis facilities to be sustainable for the future, it is equally critical that free access into the sport is provided as part of that offer. That is why we have invested in supporting the growth of the Tennis for Free scheme, which helps provide weekly opportunities to play locally, with focus on families from lower socio-economic groups. This complements our wider community work which helps to bring tennis to communities in which it’s never been played before.
What are you planning to make sure everyone around the country is aware of LTA Rally? How are you aiming to build that national engagement?
Having already done a lot of regional testing, we know the platform works well. It is at the heart of this offer to local authorities and our new marketing campaign which launches next week and will reach 35% of the adult population. Buy-in from local authorities in adopting Rally for their park venues is crucial to building on the positive start we’ve made with the platform.
How are you deploying the best practice intaitives for park operators?
Our regional teams across the country work very closely with local authorities, supporting them to help ensure their tennis courts are sustainable and to help get more people from the local community playing. Many have already seen success as a result of engaging with us. For example, Leeds City Council have seen a ten-fold increase in court bookings since adopting the LTA Rally system across nine of their park sites, and Wokingham Borough Council whose nine-court Cantley Park site has generated 7,500 hours of bookings in the first year since adopting our gate access model.
Ultimately, where do you hope tennis in the UK will be post-lockdown (both short and long term)?
As part of our vision to open up tennis, we are working towards making it more relevant, accessible, welcoming and enjoyable. In the short term, we hope to engage as many local authorities as possible to support them in implementing the range of initiatives we have made available. This will enhance their park tennis offer and consequently improve the health and wellbeing of people in their local communities through tennis. In the long term, these measures are designed to ensure that park venues remain sustainable. We hope that this, which is one strand of our wider participation strategy, will encourage more and more people to get on court as we continue to move out of lockdown and long into the future.