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Andy Murray and the White Elephant Tennis Centre

Andy Murray and the White Elephant Tennis Centre

After GB's tennis team won the Davis Cup last weekend, there was a quick flurry of reporting before the UK media's interest tennis quickly dropped back into its default position of "almost non-existent". Other than the excellent success of the team, the one thing that did stand out in the brief spurt of activity was Andy Murray's reason for not working more closely with the LTA.

"I feel like you waste time because nothing ever gets done and I don't like wasting my time"

Murray also said that he had twice walked into the LTA's flagship project, the National Tennis Centre (NTC) at Roehampton, looking for a hit and found it completely deserted. He said:

"I was there on a Monday at about 3pm and then on Tuesday, at the same time. There was not one person using any of the indoor courts and not one person in the gym. I took photos of it because the place cost, like, £40m and there are no people. There is nobody to train with when I am at home, nobody to practise with any more, which makes things frustrating. You want to have the best possible practice and training to prepare for the biggest events and we don't have that anymore.Why is this a problem?"

Andy Murray obviously doesn't need the NTC. He can find hitting partners elsewhere on the tour. However, it does provide some excellent insight into the structural problems of British tennis. How?

The LTA has repeatedly stated it is investing in grassroots tennis. Now, there's nothing more grassroots than a tennis club. The NTC is the LTA's tennis club. And they've failed in managing it. Which is concerning for the infrastructure of the game in the UK.

The current narrative is that the NTC was built in the wrong part of town (Roehampton is difficult to get to on public transport) and the blame for its failure can be laid squarely at the feet of the previous CEO, Roger Draper. Now, I have no compunction in letting broadside after broadside hit Mr Draper, but is it entirely his fault? The new incumbent, Michael Downey, has had a couple of years to make an impact. I'd like to know if he has made any significant difference or whether the white elephant location chosen by Mr Draper is the sole reason for the centre's failure.

Why the NTC Failed

Notwithstanding my qualifications in management and communications, I do know how to run a tennis club. Making tennis clubs the kind of places I want to play tennis at is a passion of mine. I put a lot of time into transformational efforts in this space, at my own club and others. I won't go into exact figures, but at the three clubs I've directly got involved with during the years a 400% increase in business is pretty much the trend. So (deep breath), here goes...

There is no unique online presence directly connected to the NTC. You cannot build a £40m venue then fail to do even the basic level of advertising required towards making it a success. Having having a page buried in the national LTA website doesn't count I'm afraid. It needs to have its own unique website supported by a social media strategy that drives traffic to the site, illustrates its activity and energy, and acts as a central selling point for the business. This is very possible at a small tennis club, so it should be a breeze at a multi-court complex backed by the LTA's funds.

However, not only is there no unique website or social media presence, the NTC isn't even a claimed Google business. Online communications 101 missed by a country mile!

The text on the NTC page I finally found buried in the middle of the behemoth that is the LTA website tells me the centre has the following:

  • a state-of-the-art gymnasium, outdoor sprint track and hydrotherapy and ice bath.
  • a range of flexible meeting rooms, Lecture Theatre, a Boardroom, and even 'Centre Court'.
  • numerous meeting rooms available of varying sizes, catering from 2 to 120 people with audio visual equipment provided, and packages flexible enough to meet your needs.
  • a fantastic, healthy restaurant.
  • a purpose built accommodation block of 22 bedrooms, with a mix of single, twin, triple and accessible rooms, all with en-suite bathrooms.

This all sounds very lovely and, now I've finally found the website, I'm thinking of playing tennis there and maybe catching a bite afterwards. I might take the corporate team down for a two-day break, or even the family and friends for a weekender. However, there are a few problems the site has in terms of completing the sale:

  1. No pictures of the facilities other than a tennis court or two. I'm sure the rooms are nice. Likewise the meeting facilities and the restaurant. I could see at a glance if you showed me though.
  2. No menus. It might be healthy, but what are my choices? Can I just sit down and have a beer with a mate after playing or do I have to commit to a meal?
  3. No prices. How much is all of this going to cost me? I don't have the first clue.

OK, despite me not knowing what it looks like, having no idea of the costs and being completely unaware of the menus, I'm going to try it out because it is, after all, the LTA Flagship National Tennis Centre, so it must be good. How do I contact you? Oh, great, a long-form contact sheet, requiring me to fill in 16 boxes. You're just taking the piss now, aren't you! This is actually a surreal post-modern comedy sketch aimed at illustrating exactly how you shouldn't run a contemporary sporting facility. You got me! Sides splitting and all that. So, how do I actually play there? What? You're serious? A bloody 16-box application form!

What if I just want to get some coaching there? It is, after all, the National Tennis Centre, so there must be the chance to get some high-quality coaching. Hang on a second? It seems to be the coaching headquarters for the Annabelle Croft Tennis Academy. You mean to tell me you built a £40m tennis facility and then rented the courts out to a secondary coaching provider. You're not even providing the core business of a tennis centre yourselves? You're letting somebody else make money from it!!!!

For once, I'm lost for words!

The End

I actually wanted this piece to be very forensic, but it is impossible to look at how this place was managed without becoming polemic. Why would those running the grassroots infrastructure of UK tennis listen to you at all if you run your own flagship club so badly that it could be used as a poster-child for how not to run a tennis centre or club?

And, as I said earlier, these elements aren't even where the criticism was. I'm struggling to even imagine how bad the rest is.

If the marketing and structure are of this standard, how the hell can the CEO even begin to justify his wage? Why would top players even think about listening to the LTA about anything? Why should we expect them to bring good governance or coaching excellence if they can't even run a tennis facility properly? Why should clubs take any advice from them at all when they've illustrated they don't have the first clue about how to run the very type of institution they are there to oversee? Answers on a postcard, please.

It's absolutely farcical.

Irony | Voltaire
Socrates and Emotional Intelligence. Or not!

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Saturday, 17 August 2019

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