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The Leader: Michael Downey

Michael Downey, the Canadian businessman in charge of reviving British tennis as CEO of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), on taking on the old guard and why his organisation is not having an identity crisis.

Right or wrong, all I have tried to do since taking on this job [in January 2014] is tell the truth. I just tried to give people the facts – and the fact is British tennis is in decline.

Who’s to blame? It’s years and years of not paying enough attention to growing the game and increasing participation. I’ve found that people in and outside of tennis have been receptive to that honesty.

It’s easier to orchestrate change by telling people exactly what the truth is, that’s just common sense. You are sitting back and saying, ‘If this is a sport you love, in 10 years do you really want to be struggling to keep your club going because the average member is over 50?’

Tennis competes with other leisure activities, and it competes with other sports in the UK, so we need to start treating it like it is a product and a brand. That means we need to have marketing and positioning strategies; we’ve done segmentation research and we need to bring in people and expertise over time so we can actually look at marketing being the key component in driving growth.

I come from a school of thought of R&D – rip-off-and-duplicate  – and believe that’s what you have to do in this  business

Identity Crisis

One of the problems we face at the LTA is something that I also faced at Tennis Canada [as CEO from 2004 to 2013]. A lot of NGBs (national governing bodies) look at marketing as something they don’t need to be good at, whereas in actual fact, they need to be really good at it.

We’re not talking about something that is a pure brand like Coca-Cola, we’re talking about marketing an entire sport. We have to be good at this, as people are attracted to buying into brands.

The discussion about whether to rebrand the LTA has taken place. I’m sure it has been taking place long before I got here. However, I believe that a name is just a name, it’s how you act that counts. Whatever name we have is not important, it is whether we are acting in the best interests of British tennis. When I talk about marketing a brand, I’m not talking about the LTA, I am talking about tennis. The brand is tennis.

Neighbourly Approach

I don’t think we are doing enough to inspect other sports rights-holder strategies. Naturally, we’ve had a look at what a few other tennis federations are doing and also some other sports bodies in the UK, but quite frankly, I do not feel like we are doing enough.

I come from a school of thought of R&D – rip-off-and-duplicate – and believe that’s what you have to do in this business. I look at the grand-slam countries of tennis: France, the United States, Britain and Australia. We’ve had some preliminary discussions with them and we all have the same goal; we are all routed in a mission to improve participation. We don’t compete in participation in our countries, so we should be looking at jointly-funding initiatives.

It simply doesn’t make sense for four major nations to work on improving team tennis independently of each other. Why should we spend a ton of money on participation research and the Aussies spend a ton of money on exactly the same thing?

What we want to do is move towards getting a greater dialogue with our external partners to look at whether we should be doing more together. We sent two of our competition guys out to the summit that the USTA (United States Tennis Federation) was running on participation and, guess what, the issues are all the same from a participation front.

Dad’s Army

Has everyone in British tennis been receptive to my vision? Absolutely not, but I don’t think that is unique. I also had some of those issues with tennis in Canada.

There are certain things people within tennis probably think are sacred and shouldn’t be changed. But in Canada we made those changes, and got plenty of calls from people asking me why we were doing it. I think what helps is that while I am not a complete outsider to tennis – I’ve been doing it for nine or 10 years now – because I come from outside of Britain I don’t have all of the history. So when people say to me, ‘Oh, you’re going to get into trouble for changing that’, I just say, ‘Why should I?’

 

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