England is home to what many consider to be the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, but that hasn’t stopped 28% fewer people playing since 2016.
The number of people playing tennis in England has fallen from 889,300 in 2016 to 641,800 in 2021, as per Sport England. Though the pandemic will certainly have affected the latest figure, there have been consistent year-on-year drops in the years leading up to Covid-enforced lockdowns.
There are 24,046 tennis courts in England and Wales, according to TIA UK, as of 2019 across 5,273 clubs and venues. That equates roughly to one tennis court for every 2,333 people in England and Wales using the latest government figures. That number is up on where it was in 2016, with 23,000 tennis courts across Great Britain at various venues.
That means that the country is in the curious position of having more tennis courts but fewer players – so, what has happened?
Over the last decade or so, British tennis has enjoyed a successful period. Andy Murray won three grand slam titles (including two Wimbledons) and two Olympic gold medals, while also spearheading Great Britain to Davis Cup success in 2015.
The Scot certainly isn’t the only Brit to have enjoyed success during this time with his brother, Jamie Murray, winning seven grand slam titles across men’s and mixed doubles events. In wheelchair tennis, Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid are dominant, having recently won a 10th consecutive grand slam title at Roland Garros. Emma Raducanu’s incredible win at the US Open in 2021 marked the first grand slam singles success for any British woman since Virginia Wade’s 1977 Wimbledon win.
There has been plenty to shout about for British tennis in recent years and that success you would rightly expect should develop into increased interest in the sport. According to the numbers, however, that does not appear to be the case.
The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) offers a quick access loan scheme for clubs and venues, providing interest-free loans from £25,000 up to £250,000 to renovate facilities. In addition to this, to help offset the effects of the pandemic, a £30 million package – made up of a £21.9 million government contribution and £8.4 million from the LTA – was announced in 2021 to refurbish more than 4,500 tennis courts in the UK’s most deprived areas.
The funding is there for tennis, having received much more than many other sports in the country. In 2021, despite restrictions on crowds due to social distancing guidelines in place, the All England Club still reported a £44 million profit for that year’s Wimbledon Championships. Though that was down on the previous championships in 2019 (£50.8 million), as the 2020 event was cancelled, that is still a healthy figure from which the majority of those profits are received by the LTA.
Does Tennis Need to be More Accessible?
Every year, the LTA receives the majority of profits generated by Wimbledon to put back into the game. However, the exclusive image of Wimbledon has been partly blamed for the dwindling participation – sentiments echoed by Andy Murray.
He was quoted as saying by ESPN: “If your image is that it’s a rich person’s sport and it’s too expensive to play, I’m sure that it potentially puts people off, parents as well, getting their kids into it.”
For a Centre Court ticket at Wimbledon in 2022, the cheapest price is £70 (adult) for the opening round. That rises to £230 for the men’s and women’s finals. Ground passes, granting access to Wimbledon’s outside courts, are considerably cheaper at £27 for the first eight days of the Championships, dropping to £20 (days nine, 10 and 11), £15 (days 12 and 13) and £8 on the final day.
Watching a first-round match on Centre Court at Wimbledon costs more than two-time the average price of the cheapest ticket for a Premier League football match (£29.63, based on 2021/22).
Raducanu’s Radical Effect
While the reported participation numbers up to 2021 don’t make for great reading, there is hope that 2022 will see a significant increase. According to data from Spond, a grassroots sport management app, around 100,000 Brits picked up a racket in the two months after Emma Raducanu lifted the US Open.
The data shows an increase of 119% year-on-year in 2021, with 42% of that growth coming after Raducanu’s against-the-odds victory. Spond CEO Trine Falnes said that further investment is needed for grassroots tennis to capitalise.
He said: “Raducanu’s impact on British tennis has been nothing short of remarkable, creating a unique opportunity for the sport to move forward at the grassroots level.
“Investment is needed from the government, the LTA and individual clubs to ensure British players are regularly competing for Grand Slams titles in the future.
“With investment comes opportunity – for clubs, coaches and organisations. As we’ve seen in the many media interviews in recent weeks, thousands of hours went into that match point at the Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“Without investment, coaches are unable to support and develop players to a point where a professional career is even a consideration.”
He added: “Grassroots sport provides more than a pathway to a career. For some, it’s an opportunity to remain physically active, improve mental health and make connections in the community.
“Regardless of what motivates people to play, investment will ensure that grassroots sport is able to provide a pathway for promising young talents and also a safe, enjoyable environment for casual players.”
It remains to be seen as to whether Raducanu’s triumph will be the catalyst for participation levels to increase in the UK, but the last few years show that the sport needs more than grand slam success to turn things around. Hopefully, the thousands of clubs and venues up and down the country will enjoy a busy summer with plenty of new faces – both young and old – taking to the courts.