After signing a five-year, £30 million deal with the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), Otto Thoresen, chief executive of life and pensions firm Aegon, declared: “British tennis is at a breakthrough stage in its development."
He added: "It is a very exciting time to be involved in the sport. Aegon is delighted to become the lead partner of British tennis and our investment over the next five years will enable the sport to grow from grassroots level, encouraging more young people to take up the sport, through to elite performance level, where we can support our leading athletes as they seek to make an impression on the world stage.”
Roger Draper, LTA chief executive, added: “We share a joint desire to grow the sport at all levels from our major international events to improving facilities and access across the country and Aegon will play a vital role in this.”
This mutual back-slapping took place in September 2008, since when the millions poured into tennis by Aegon have seen little in the way of returns likely to impress the company’s investment managers.
A week ago, the LTA suffered a £530,000 cut in government funding, money distributed through Sport England, after the sport’s latest participation figures once again proved disappointing.
Between 2008 and mid-December 2011, the numbers playing tennis once a week fell from 487,500 to 375,800, a drop of almost 23%. The initial target was to have 550,000 regular players by September 2011.
The LTA, and Roger Draper in particular, is no stranger to criticism. In 2006, former Great Britain David Cup player Mark Petchey called for the body to be reformed as it was “not allocating resources well enough”.
More recently, David Lloyd, the former David Cup captain suggested the LTA resembled “a communist state in a capitalist world”.
Big-spending sponsors rarely enjoy being associated with a sport in decline and Aegon will be mindful that, despite tennis’s falling numbers, the LTA continues to employ almost 300 staff at an annual cost of £12 million.
Meanwhile, sports such as cycling, running and boxing have experienced significant surges in participation and been awarded more money by Sport England as a consequence.
It seems odd that despite the fine words which almost four years ago appeared to encourage grassroots participation in tennis, a comparatively small amount of monetary resource is actually spent developing the game at its most basic level.
Much of this has to do with what could be called the deterioration of the sport’s local infrastructure.
Under the last government, the number of tennis courts available in public parks fell from 33,000 to approximately 10,000.
Only around a quarter of these (2,622) are free courts, although not surprisingly, these are the most heavily-used facilities.
According to the Charter for Tennis (CFT) group, the ready availability of free tennis boosts participation in the game. Not only do free tennis courts increase the numbers playing the game, but, as a CFT spokesman points out: “Unused courts are actually more expensive to maintain because they are more likely to be overgrown and vandalised. Many local councils have also found that they spend more collecting fees than they actually take in.”
This assertion is borne out by international evidence.