Over the last two years I have been lucky enough to work with the LTA, the governing body for tennis in the UK, at a time of major transformation. It’s been a fascinating journey, particularly for someone who, growing up on a housing estate in Luton, always felt that tennis wasn’t a sport for me. My involvement, as for the vast majority of people in this country at that time, started and stopped with watching Wimbledon, and knocking a ball over a fence with an improvised racket with my mate next door.
Tennis has benefitted from being one of a small number of Covid-safe sports, with the number of people playing the sport rising significantly post lockdown with an increase of 372 per cent in court bookings from the beginning of May to the end of July this year, compared to the same time last year.
In Leeds, for example, park court bookings in the two-week period post-lockdown approached 7,000 compared to 700 for the same period in 2019. And, perhaps most significantly, there’s been a strong increase in families and people playing the sport for the first time. This summer has seen the most Google searches ever for “Tennis court near me”.
The groundwork for this rise in interest was already in place. In 2019, the LTA made a major commitment to open up the sport – making it more inclusive, accessible, diverse and fun. The size of the prize is significant, with over 29 million fans in the UK, four million adults and kids playing regularly, a membership base of nearly 700,000 and a position as one of the few truly gender equal sports, all of which are music (or sport) to the ears of this Lutonian and former chair of Women in Sport.
This upsurge in interest has also been helped by the LTA’s recent Play Your Way campaign, and the sport is now appealing to new, diverse, younger audiences. The campaign was designed to dispel a few of the myths that surround tennis, and inspire people of all abilities, ages, shapes, sizes and location to pick up a racket and play where and however they want. It’s really cut through, with 51 per cent of 14-to-15 year olds and 34 per cent of 16-to-44 year-olds now saying they would take an action such as playing or signing up to the sport after seeing it. Visibility of tennis on social media among fans is at its third-highest point ever measured, despite having no Queen’s or Wimbledon Championships this year.
Opening up the sport extends far beyond this summer. Making courts available everywhere, opening up parks, getting tennis into all state primary and secondary schools so that it reaches at least 10 per cent of the population, modernising clubs and national competitions so they inspire the next generation of fans and players, are all work in progress for 2021 and beyond. And in doing so, the sport is starting to push the boundaries for new types of brand partnerships – with a shared purpose, recognition of the reach and impact of the sport, and a joint ambition to bring tennis to life in communities all over the country, together.
The new world order in which we now find ourselves is requiring a re-boot of the way brands and sports interact. There are still many brands for whom sponsorship is largely a two-dimensional exercise, with a primary focus on brand visibility, tickets and hospitality, but savvy marketeers are increasingly seizing the opportunity to engage, through partnerships, with the things that matter the most – diversity in all its forms, community impact, sustainable living, physical health, mental well-being and better life chances for young people.
So, in many ways, the role of tennis in my life has truly gone full circle. It’s now perfectly acceptable to knock a ball over the fence with your neighbour, bang a ball against a wall, and play this sport any way you like!