Written evidence submitted by the Tennis & Rackets Association Ltd
Response to the Call for Evidence by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons into the impact of Covid-19 on the sector.
This response is submitted by the Tennis & Rackets Association Limited. The games of Real Tennis and Rackets are played by around 5,000 people in the UK many of them students and school children. For Real Tennis there are 24 clubs and 27 courts in the UK. All of the courts [except one in Scotland] are indoor. For Rackets there are a further 27 courts in the UK, all of which are indoor. There will be either 2 players on court – for singles – or 4 for doubles. Whilst there are slight variances in size, a Real Tennis court is a very large enclosed space and is not dissimilar to an indoor lawn tennis court. Rackets Courts are also indoor and their size is about doubles the length and breadth of a squash court.
What has been the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the sector?
As an indoor activity, the immediate impact was a total shut down of both sports. Following the imposition of the lockdown policy imposed by HMG on 23 March 2020, the T&RA advised all constituent member clubs they should close and not permit any play of the games until the lockdown restrictions are lifted or changed.
A large number of fixtures [domestic and international] have had to be cancelled resulting in loss of revenue and sponsorship.
This season has been curtailed and many tournaments have not taken place. This has lost revenue for the hosting clubs and income for the professionals (both marking and playing). In a game where tournaments are needed to decide rankings, this creates further issues and complications. The potential loss of sponsorship for some of these tournaments could put further revenues at risk.
Staff have been furloughed, both playing staff, and more broad supporting staff (all the staff at Queen’s Club, for example), with the more long-term risks to be understood and mitigated.
From a schools’ perspective, these are crucial times. With all (apart from three) schools’ Rackets Professionals furloughed until further notice, very little progress to redress damage has been achieved this term. Also, furloughing of staff means that Rackets is almost wholly removed from the mindset of Senior Management at the moment, as schools - the absolute bedrock of the sport - begin to decide how to press ‘reset’ in September.
The biggest concern is that, in pressing a sporting ‘reset’, Bursars/Senior Management Teams feel that Rackets is simply not cost-effective, when there are no fixtures/competitions etc. The role of a Rackets Professional, then, will hybridise into a ‘Sports Professional’, which is far from ideal. Schools who have ‘quieter’ courts will be particularly vulnerable. This must be mitigated against and there is likely to be some costs involved in doing so, to protect the game/its professionals and its facilities.
Sadly, if happening at all, fixtures this coming term and Queen’s in December will be hugely compromised. Schools simply will not want to manage (any sporting) fixtures in their traditional format. It could be easier to, perhaps, choose one/two courts where fixtures can take place between schools, and keep this as a sanitised, ‘behind closed doors' venue; very difficult to manage, however.
Within schools, current schools’ Rackets professionals need to be on the front foot from September. One suggestion is that 30 or 60 days of internal Rackets needs to take place on a schools’ court to ensure the game can be hygienically managed before allowing any visitors.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of the sport, it is not really possible to 'distance' while playing. As other sports are now back in action, Rackets may risk losing key supporters / players of the game if alternative pursuits are taken up.
Rackets is more of a winter sport, and it is fortunate that the summer months in lock down tend to be quieter periods. In addition, compared to other sports e.g. Real Tennis, the general age of those playing is lower.
The effect on Grays needs to be investigated further as the sole supplier of racquets to the sport in the UK. Production is currently suspended with all staff at Coton furloughed.
How effectively has the support provided by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), other Government departments and arms-length bodies (such as Sport England) addressed the sector's needs?
The arms-length approach has been far from helpful and, unless you have major sport status, there is no genuine way to voice concerns.
Mutual support from similarly placed associations, such as squash, has been pivotal. However, most associations are primarily (and unsurprisingly) fighting their own battles. The LTA have been partially helpful but more focussed on their own issues than any umbrella support.
The principle of self-determination, while providing flexibility, is not necessarily helpful when some of the messages have been confusing.
What will the likely long-term impacts of Covid-19 be on the sector, and what support is needed to deal with those?
The long-term impact may be severe. The physical and mental well-being of the tennis community has been adversely impacted.
Clubs will have reduced revenue to pay their outgoings – reserves may become exhausted. If long-term social distancing measures remain in place and mean, for example, only singles rather than doubles can be played, there will be less revenue generated for clubs. Membership levels may reduce. Ageing tennis members may be reluctant to play again having lost their fitness over lockdown. Fear of catching the virus when allowed to return may also impact membership levels (of whatever age). Elderly players may be more nervous about returning until there is a reliable vaccine or anti-body protection.
Some of the 24 clubs in the UK may become insolvent. Each club has one or more Professional who is essential for the continuance of the sport at that club through the provision of coaching, ball manufacture, equipment and general management. The Professionals are the lifeblood of the game. There is a risk that Professionals will leave the sport as either their positions become financially unviable either from their own perspective or the perspective of their club.
Sponsorship, already difficult to obtain, will be even more challenging to get. Real Tennis is also played in the USA, Australia and France, and until international restriction are lifted international competition will be accordingly limited.
Financial support is needed to ensure the continuance of the clubs and their professionals until there is a full recovery
The financial implications are harrowing. From a clubs’ perspective (including Queen’s and Manchester) the loss of several months trading puts pressure on the financial viability of the clubs. The game is dependent on these clubs continuing to run to avoid the game dying out after players leave school. Furthermore, due to the expected economic downturn, demand for memberships may fall as personal budgets are tightened, and 'luxuries' such as club memberships are foregone.
From a players’ perspective, Rackets is already an expensive game. With unemployment higher than after the financial crash of 2008, job uncertainty at a high, and with high living expenses in housing / rent, the ability to pay for the game is becoming harder. We can expect numbers to drop in the coming years as a result of Covid-19.
All of this has an impact on financial issues e.g. of Grays. e.g. we can expect further struggles to attract sponsorship as marketing budgets are often the first to go in a downturn. e.g. drop in revenues for Queen’s as a club and the income for club professionals.
At a club level it will depend on whether the season can start as normal in September. If so, the participation at Queen’s would not be too badly affected. If the amount and style of play is limited due to social distancing and lack of competition, numbers could struggle for the year, or perhaps longer.
Grays is an extremely important factor and the knowledge of how the suppliers are affected and able to provide equipment is critical.
What lessons can be learnt from how DCMS, arms-length bodies and the sector have dealt with Covid-19?
Communication needs to evolve on a sport by sport basis or, at the very least, by sporting clusters with responsibility to disseminate the information more widely.
All sports are very different and need to be treated individually. This is addressed by DCMS’s flexible approach but there is not safety feedback mechanism.
In order for the Real Tennis and Rackets communities to plan for recovery, greater clarity is needed from the government on the easing of lockdown and social distancing and timing.
How might the sector evolve after Covid-19, and how can DCMS support such innovation to deal with future challenges?
DCMS should consider sharing the leanings from other sports.
Improved communications down to at least national association level
Offer best practice recommendations for specific types of sport relating to Health Risks.
Real Tennis is putting together a programme named Investing in Professionals – to attract, retain and recruit Professionals. This programme involves partial use of the apprenticeship scheme. An increase in apprenticeships by increasing the allowances for sport training would be helpful.
Additional support to the equipment manufacturers, Grays, to ensure continuity and availability.
Grants for improvements to changing facilities. To incorporate social distancing principles some facilities will have to be completely redesigned and expanded.
DCMS should appreciate that Real Tennis and Rackets are singular sports and should not automatically be categorised with other indoor activity. A singles match in a well- ventilated court is a wholly different scenario to that in a crowded gym or of indoor football.
Tennis & Rackets Association
29 May 2020