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Changing the Model for Playing Tennis in Australia

Changing the Model for Playing Tennis in Australia

Having read this very interesting post about declining participation in tennis in the UK and been part of similar conversations in Australia, I thought I'd leave behind my usual academic geekiness and give my two cents worth on why tennis in both countries is struggling. Although I will generally refer to the Australian system, I believe much of what I say still pertains to the UK. 

I was one of the lucky few invited to participate in the Tennis Australia Places to Play conference in 2012, from which I took away a lot of inspiration and excellent information. I also met lots of people extremely passionate about tennis in Australia. The conference was fundamental towards my building a working relationship with Paul Hoysted, once a board member of Tennis NSW and, in my opinion, one of the best and most innovative tennis coaches in the country.

I've now been working with Paul for a year and a half and am awed by his dedication and creative approach towards developing an environment conducive to the playing and learning of tennis at all levels and for all ages. 

Critiquing the Mission

I'm hugely supportive of Tennis Australia's mission to have the following by 2020:

  • ONE million engaged fans 
  • ONE million registered players 
  • ONE Grand Slam Champion 

It's a fantastic set of goals. I am, however, worried that lessons haven't been learned from LTA failures in engagement and that TA is potentially going down the same track. For example:

Re-Branding: As the post on UK tennis discusses, things like Cardio Tennis aren't a magic button that will reboot tennis. There's certainly a market for innovative forms of tennis and Paul and his coaching team have developed a quality and fully booked Cardio Tennis programme. It all sounds funky and fun, but in all likelihood, engagement will be faddish at best. Fast 4 Tennis is less convincing still. One of the things that makes tennis special is its unique scoring system. Taking that away in order to quicken things up seems self-defeating. If you want to play tennis you'll find time to do so. Furthermore, you don't have to fit in a full match to make playing tennis worthwhile. Having a fun hit is often enough. 

Reliance on Technology: It can be difficult to find and book tennis courts. Clubs and centres don't really know how to market themselves in the vital online space, so TA has is developing a court booking system. While this could be beneficial, it still requires clubs and centres to be organised enough to take advantage and receptive enough to their visitors to get a second and third booking. As many studies have proved, technological change without related socio-cultural change is, at best, a half-way fix and, at worst, a total failure. While I applaud TA for their energy in trying to fix this problem, I do have concerns it might end up a white elephant. 

Drowning in Content: Nobody can accuse the online content team at Tennis Australia from being lazy. TA's website is one of the most comprehensive overviews of a business and sport I've ever seen online. But that's the problem. I'm so overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of information on the site I never use it. It has an identity problem. Who is the consumer, the casual tennis watcher who wants to check up on the week-by-week performance of their favourite player, or the active player who wants to enjoy and play as much tennis as his/her busy lifestyle will allow? Or somebody else entirely? It's not clear to me.

I'm only being critical here because I think Tennis Australia has been forced into assuming the marketing mantle for a sport in which its core business units, the associations, clubs, centres and coaches (bar a few notable exceptions, who will hopefully be nodding their heads as they read this), seem to be totally incapable of selling their services and the benefits of tennis to the public. TA is doing the best it can in a bad situation. I do, however, think they are applying sticking plaster to a gaping wound. Something far more core needs to be fixed. So, how to do that?

The Social Reality of Playing Tennis in Australia

The article on British tennis I referenced in my opening paragraph suggests taking tennis out of the clubs and into the parks, giving local councils the responsibility for getting people playing. While I accept they have had some success, and good on them, I feel that in general the only institution more difficult to deal with than intractable tennis clubs is local government. I just don't see how focusing on council courts solves the core problem of making playing tennis attractive to the modern generation. Courts are usually substandard and facilities non-existent. Furthermore, for many council facilities, the lack of floodlights means no evening tennis, which kills the chance of playing for the vast majority of full-time employees. It's just not fun to play tennis at such places, and therein lies the problem. 

For me, the key is to deliver an enjoyable experience from top to bottom. Before explaining what that means, I hope you don't mind a quick segue into some bad experiences I've recently had. At one centre, in which poles were covered in rust, paint was peeling from the walls, there were no shade cloths and you had to hop over the tears on the playing surface to avoid twisting an ankle, my tennis team and I arrived early and went onto a vacant court to warm up. We were quickly turfed off by the administrative staff because we hadn't paid. Never mind that they knew they were hosting a club v club match, that the clubs had booked out two courts for three hours each and nobody was even considering using the court we were hitting on, we had to pay more. We did eventually argue our cause and got to warm up, but we lost 10 minutes and were left feeling we'd burdened the centre. Net result, we'll never play there again. 

A second experience, at one of the better centres in Sydney, was even more bizarre. Similar situation, club v club match. We'd forgotten to bring plates for the after match food. The centre wouldn't lend me plates. I had to pay for their use. 5 cents a plate! The cost obviously isn't an issue. I didn't even ask for change for the 50 cents. The issue is we'd already paid $150 odd to use the facility, which was repeated for 14 weeks,  and were experiencing this terrible customer service. Crazy!

Transforming the Tennis Playing Experience

So, what would an enjoyable holistic tennis experience be?   I think it needs to inform the life journey of every tennis player. 

Learning: There's no getting away from it. Tennis is a technically difficult sport and if you are going to get lifelong enjoyment from it, you'll almost certainly need some form of coaching. For the younger ages, I think Tennis Australia has nailed it. Tennis Hot Shots is perfectly adapted to the technical abilities and coordination of the average child and is a fun and colourful way to learn tennis. I am in awe at the levels of motivation and joy that coaches such as Paul Hoysted, Ben Jones and James Farge get out of their students and how quickly they improve. With the right coach, things like Cardio Tennis, Ladies' Clinics and Adult Classes can also motivate older players to learn the game. With the right structure, these players can get integrated into a club system and continue to enjoy tennis for the rest of their lives. 

Competing: While many players just enjoy playing socially, tennis clubs and centres are reliant on competitive players for their continued existence. They tend to be the more passionate player, willing to volunteer to run clubs and pay regular money to play at centres. This is where I think things begin to go wrong. For some reason, competitive tennis in Australia for many players has become a chase for ranking points at federation and association run tournaments. Representing clubs has become removed from the equation. The social element of team based club tennis gets taken away and what is already an individual sport becomes hyper individualistic. For people in this ranking race, social fun and playing tennis do not correlate. You play to win, get those extra few points, move up a few places, rinse, wash, repeat.

While this may be a great way to develop world class players (frankly, I doubt it as the top kids win 6-0, 6-0 on a regular basis, which is no help to their development), it doesn't encourage the vast majority of the kids to remain in the game after it becomes apparent they won't make it and their parents stop forcing them to play. Having failed to appreciate that tennis can be fun and social as well as competitive as they've not experienced such an environment, they give up. Tennis clubs lose a generation of player and end up struggling for money as membership drops, volunteers get old and tired,  facilities rust and decay, the skill sets vital for marketing tennis in the modern space don't get injected into the club and a vicious, downward spiral ensues. With less and less quality places to play, the ranking system also begins to stutter as it is reliant on this infrastructure to thrive. 

Coaching: Tennis doesn't survive without good coaches. Coaches need to feel loved. Australia has some of the best tennis coaches in the world. There is, however, a disconnect between coaching and providing the wider tennis community the services that will keep tennis healthy. The disconnect is between the coaches' businesses, which are usually private enterprises, and the facilities they are using, which are generally council courts or member clubs. If the coach's business isn't directly utilising the court, then he's not maximising his earning potential. Members and social players can struggle to find court time as the coaching team have all the courts booked out for lessons. With no money going directly into the facility other than the coach's rental contribution and social playing time reduced to a minimum with little flexibility, playing numbers decline, facilities decay and that vicious downward spiral is in play again. 

Outside of the money they make, the perception of coaching quality is pretty much determined by the ranking points coaches' young proteges earn, which yet again takes potential long-term players away from the environment that is most likely to nurture a lifelong commitment to the sport. Coaches need to be rewarded for making the facility they coach at lively and vibrant, family friendly and welcoming to all, catering for social and competitive players. The facility might not be able to house a bar or cafe, but it can still be spick-and-span, well-painted and well-cared for, with a courteous welcome to all wanting to play there. Narrowing the focus of a facility to just the provision of coaching ultimately undermines the long-term viability of the very business the coach is trying to build. Coaching at a centre/club needs to treated as a holistic business that includes skills towards maintaining and growing the club/centre and its role in the community, not just hitting balls and selling tennis equipment. 

Playing: Tennis is a game. We play it to have fun. For me, having fun necessarily means being surrounded by family and/or friends, in an environment that makes me feel welcome, doing something that I enjoy which hopefully has the added benefit of keeping my body and mind healthy. Tennis is a perfect fit. Many of my best friends I met playing tennis. It has health benefits and a strategic component that keeps you thinking. Thanks to the wonderful staff, coaches and members, the club I play at is always buzzing, being a home away from home. A holistic experience of tennis HAS to be located around the sheer enjoyment of playing the game at a great facility with good people. Unfortunately, in my experience, that kind of thing is difficult to find. 

I understand how we got here. Clubs had become snobby, elitist and insular, refusing to let the public onto their facilities, catering for small cliques of members who ran the club for their own benefit, and ignoring junior development. Not willing to change to meet the requirements of the modern world, clubs became a hindrance to the  furthering of tennis. It made perfect sense to put tennis in the hands of tennis professionals. Encourage coaches to run their own businesses and hire out the courts from the clubs, at a stroke providing clubs with money for facility development, opportunities to non-members to play on the courts and guaranteed junior development programmes. Have the federations run local tournaments so the playing field was fair and you didn't have to make friends with the right people on the selection committee to play at the level most suited to your ability, with everything being perfectly meritorious. The concept of professionalism underlying the current situation is clear. 

But it hasn't worked. Having coaches and tournaments removed from contributing to the fundamental fabric of ongoing tennis participation, social play at good facilities, has resulted in a lost generation. Very few clubs have many members between 20 and 40, because players of this age have not ever been involved with club tennis and have all given up. If the better players from this era become coaches, they are completely removed from the needs of clubs and centres because they were never part of that fabric to begin with. They don't know how to maintain and grow facilities and memberships. They have coaching training, not business training  (although the latter is improving). By failing to act, we are not just risking a second lost generation, but the total disintegration of tennis in Australia. Current memberships will become too old and won't be renewed, resulting in less and less money to keep current facilities viable. Coaches will have to be pulling in enough money to pay for the upkeep of centres by themselves, which is a tough ask. The pool to draw from will dry up and desirable places to play will be few and far between. The cost of rebuilding infrastructure from this position will be insurmountable. 

What has worked is, of course, the development of top end players. Despite the media criticisms of some of Australia's top players, no other country in the world has so many players under 23 in the top 100. The strategy here is clearly a massive success. A Grand Slam champion is a real possibility in the next few years. The problem is that, because of the above, it won't translate into hugely increased participation, because there are fewer and fewer places where you can play and have fun doing it.You can't use an inspirational character to grow something if there's no infrastructure to grow it on and it's not fun to do it. 

Disrupting the Environment | A New Message

99.9% of those of us who pick up a racket won't make a living out of tennis either as a coach or a professional. But all 100% can enjoy the experience of playing tennis throughout their lives with the right support. Somehow we've failed to engage people with this possibility, haven't said the right things or told the right story. People play from  childhood to sprightly old age in a gender mixed environment in pretty much every country in the world. Selling the lifelong enjoyment of playing, simply for playing's sake, is the message we should be spreading.

Get people playing. Encourage and incentivise the coaches to engage with their facilities and the communities, to develop an enjoyable environment for tennis and get people playing anyway they can, not just through classes. Integrate ranking tournaments with inter-club competitions so people can experience the social environment of competitive tennis at a young age rather than having their only experience of competitive tennis being the lonely chase for points. Give people flexible options, so they can rock up and play some social tennis with players of a similar standard without having to sign up for a three-month long evening competition and struggling to find players to replace them when work or family takes precedence. Run flexible squads in interclub competitions so people can commit to playing 2/3 of the matches and not feel guilty for taking weekends off with the family. Flexibility, fun, friendship and fitness for life. They should be the key philosophies. 

Are we too late? It will take a lot of time, money and effort to get facilities across Australia up to scratch alongside a conceptual shift that brings federations, associations, coaches and clubs on board. It is possible as I've seen it happen. Seen clubs turn around from the brink and thrive again. But it has to happen soon, when there are still people around with the energy and inclination to renew club tennis, before facilities decay to the point of no repair, and before the money required to facilitate this change isn't astronomical. 

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Sunday, 21 April 2019

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