TENNIS is one of Britain’s greatest inventions. It was codified in the nineteenth century and exported all over the world. Yet, while many of us love the strawberries and cream side of Wimbledon, the undoubted financial success of the tournament has failed to produce a British champion since 1936. And more importantly, it has failed to arrest the long-term decline in amateur participation in the game.
It is a staggering paradox that last year the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) – the sport’s national governing body – posted record revenues of £69m while, according to Sport England, the number of people playing tennis once a week hit a new low of 375,800. This is a 30 per cent drop since 2009.
It wasn’t always this way. The golden age of British tennis – in both performance and participation – was the 1930s. At this time there were around four times as many courts, 1,000 more clubs and three times as many people playing on a regular basis. This was the environment that made it possible for Fred Perry, and many others from relatively ordinary backgrounds, to reach the top.
With the huge rise in land values, many tennis courts have been developed into car parks and housing estates. While the membership club system fails to garner enough members to create a sufficient pool of competitive depth in skill.
So today, a professional’s formative years have to be in Spain or Florida – the two world capitals of professional tennis. It is no accident that Britain’s top player, Andy Murray, was made in Barcelona, where he moved when he was 15. In Spain, he was surrounded by other top junior players from all over the world.
The LTA’s current professional coaching budget should be reduced by 90 per cent to £1.3m. The remaining funds should be used to finance much cheaper and more effective four month summer camps for the 100 best juniors in Florida and Spain, where there are many tournaments and skills-compatible players.
Instead of focusing on the top of the game, the chief question for British tennis must be: how do we boost amateur participation at the least possible cost, with the highest possible outcome of active players? The answer is simple – by lowering the barriers to entry for those who have never played tennis before. That means using the money to fund more free programmes that provide rackets, balls, coaching and competitions on free public courts and in schools throughout the country.
The Wimbledon tennis championships have become a resource curse for British tennis. This free supply of capital has subsidised the top of the game. The All England Club – the private members’ club that hosts the Wimbledon championships – should open up the surplus from the tournament to competing tennis organisations that rival the LTA.
The LTA still believes it can create champions from the top down. But champions emerge randomly, from all over the world, and never by central planning.
Dan Lewis is chief executive of the Economic Policy Centre (EPC) and is author of Rethinking Tennis for the Big Society.