Meg Munn: Why tennis should go back to grass-roots

Maria Sharapova. AP
Maria Sharapova. AP
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TENNIS is a sport open to all. It is played by children, as soon as they can hold the racket, through to the older generation to maintain agility, balance, flexibility and strength.

It can be enjoyed by two people competing for victory or by groups and families for leisure. It is flexible and fun. Unfortunately, the country suffers from low participation.

Sport England’s Active People survey shows that tennis participation has fallen to 402,000 regular players – way short of the 550,000 target for September 2011. Shockingly, the number of courts has declined in the past 10 years from 33,000 to only 10,000.

Research shows that the public are keen to play more tennis. Nearly half of the people surveyed last September would be more likely to play tennis if facilities were free to use.

It also found that 69 per cent of people think that local facilities should be free and 84 per cent believe that they need to be more accessible.

The serious lack of interest in the grass-roots level is a missed opportunity. Getting more Britons inspired by, and involved in sports, was a pledge that helped London to secure the 2012 Olympic Games, but that cannot happen unless we invest in small organisations that promote grass-roots sports.

In December 2008, Sport England announced a £480m investment to provide grass-roots opportunities and a lasting Olympic legacy of one million people playing more sport.

Through the four-year whole sport plan, tennis received a block grant of nearly £27m for 2009-13 – the fourth largest grant given to any sport – from Sport England.

That money is channelled through the Lawn Tennis Association. It was originally built on a club structure, but there has been a shift to include more local authority-run parks and school sites.

Almost 200 park sites, which offer affordable tennis, are accredited as beacons of excellence and the LTA also invested £200,000 in revenue funding last year to support free and affordable activities. Sport England targets tennis funding at three areas, for which it uses the terms: grow, sustain and excel.

For those of us who do not like such short descriptions, they mean increasing the number of people playing tennis, sustaining their number through measuring existing participants’ satisfaction and helping young, talented players to progress and excel.

The LTA has undertaken significant work in the past 18 months to accelerate growth in participation in park tennis sites, schools and through its “allplay” campaign, launched in summer 2011, to help more people play tennis. The campaign includes a free website to help people to find someone to play against, a local place to play tennis, of which there are about 20,000, and coaching to help people to improve.

The LTA investment also reaches beyond traditional clubs – £7.9m has gone into community facilities, such as parks and education sites.

But I am sceptical that the LTA can achieve the surge in participation that we all want.

In my experience, lasting involvement is often achieved by local people coming together and deciding to do something, by people getting involved for not just two weeks, during Wimbledon or when Andy Murray is reaching the Australian Open semi-final, and doing something that continues and enables people to take up a sport which they can keep on playing well into their 60s, 70s and even 80s.

An organisation that has set out to change things is Tennis for Free, which starts from a simple point of view. If children want to play football, they get their ball, find a patch of grass, put down a couple of jumpers and start playing. It costs them nothing.

Charging to use tennis courts has helped the decline in participation, by making tennis too expensive for many people to play, and councils need someone collect the money. The result across the country has been poor-quality tennis courts that become under-used and fall into disrepair.

With Tennis for Free, we are seeing a way of opening tennis to even more people, by providing free equipment and a free two-year coaching programme and, at the end of the two years, a friends community group is created to provide a free coaching programme with the same inclusive and welcoming ethos.

Such community-based techniques have been shown to work. Tennis for Free’s approach offers value for money and is, importantly, sustainable. It has had more than 16,000 attendees at its coaching events over the past year and is now embarking on a programme of renewing and renovating courts.

A vital part of Tennis for Free’s activity is persuading local councils to make access to tennis courts free of charge. That improves value for money, because the maintenance budget is helped by the fact that well-used courts are less likely to become overgrown and vandalised. Investment in tennis is crucial. As such, Sport England funding from 2013 should be channelled to organisations dedicated to grass-roots development and allocated on the principles of transparency, accountability and value for money.

By concentrating on grass-roots tennis and getting more people playing, we increase the number of people who find it an enjoyable and worthwhile activity in its own right. Ministers should, therefore, consider guaranteeing that a proportion of tennis’s future funding goes directly to grass-roots organisations such as Tennis for Free, rather than being channelled through only the national governing body.

*Meg Munn is the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley and secretary of Parliament’s all-party group on tennis. This is an edited extract of a House of Commons speech.