When Andy Murray won his US Open Final against Novak Djokovic 1.5 million people tuned in to watch his triumph. It was his finest hour and what should have been a rebirth for British tennis, his comeback victory saw him gain praise and accolades the world over. The LTA though has seen its funding cut last year because of falling participation numbers, so why for so many people does tennis start and stop with Wimbledon.
When Murray goes up against Djokovic at the all England Club the viewing figures could easily be eight to ten times that which watched his US open final win. It is a game played for most of the year and tours the entire world from Paris, Rome and Madrid to Beijing, Melbourne and New York and is watched by hundreds of thousands of people but the LTA struggles to get people to participate.
In many houses its tradition to come home from work and watch Wimbledon. Actually however very few matches are scheduled at around this time, when Andy Murray overcame Jerzy Janovic in the semi-final it was half past 9 and I couldn’t help but think that perhaps even more people would watch if all games finished at that time. The roof on centre court has definitely helped to keep the showing going and plans to add a roof to court number 1 at the All England club are definitely wise. But an intermediate solution surely would be the addition of flood lights to some of the outer courts to keep high quality tennis going later in the evening where families can gather and watch at a better time in the evening.
The LTA are quick to point out that there are over 21,000 courts in Britain for anybody to use at affordable prices and that Tennis is not just a sport for the middle and upper classes and I admire the fact that they have tried to tackle the class issue in tennis. However the class issue is not the biggest issue facing British tennis, they have a real marketing problem and they also need to find a way to tackle the great British summer. I know where there are some tennis courts if I want to go and play tennis but I happen to live near these facilities, in larger towns and cities are these facilities in accessible places, do people necessarily know of their nearest court, not necessarily I’m afraid.
This is where the LTA has gone wrong, after his triumph in the US open if the LTA had any sense in the close season he should have been touring schools and appearing on as many chat shows as possible. Andy Murray is currently the world number 2 tennis player, without doubt the best British tennis player since World War 2 and realistically our best prospect to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry’s last Wimbledon victory in 1936 but if the worst happens in his final against Novak Djokovic we will casually discard him from our memory banks until next July when we will all jump on the band wagon and there is an element of missing a trick here.
Andy Murray has achieved so much in tennis at the age of 26 and perhaps rather than focus on British Tennis they need to be explaining tennis itself and try to put into context just how good he is regardless of his Wimbledon performance to the lay person. At 26 he is 6th on the all-time list of earners in tennis and has a staggering 76% win rate, to increase participation firstly the goal needs to be to change the perception of Murray and change the gallant looser and portray the winner that he genuinely is. In their 2013 coverage the BBC have certainly worked hard to do this and his performance in the 2012 Olympics did no harm either.
British cycling has certainly taken advantage of the fact there are heroes, idols and most importantly winners. Andy Murray is that guy for but the LTA have failed to take advantage the same way British Cycling has and it’s a lot more expensive to get in to cycling than tennis!
The LTA doesn’t appear to have done too much to tackle the Great British summer either! That may appear to be a little facetious off the bat but stick with me. There are 2500 leisure centres in the UK most of which will have a good size sports hall which could fit a tennis court. The issue they face is that in the space of that tennis court you could fit 6 badminton courts or a 5-a-side pitch which realistically can bring in more money for cash strapped local authorities. So the LTA needs to find a way to subsidise indoor courts with these authorities, do deals to block book whole evenings, to jump on board with local authorities take advantage of their marketing and their footfall. Throw in some qualified coaches and you have 365 day tennis available!
Unfortunately for the LTA this is a pretty risky strategy and will require a significant outlay, but to tackle falling participation it’s going to be costly and the LTA needs to realise they need help to do it!