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Exclusive: Australian Open’s Effect On Tennis Participation

F
ollowing the conclusion of the 2021 Australian Open (AO), Tennis Australia chief tennis officer, Matt Dwyer, discussed with Ministry of Sport the impact the Grand Slam has on participation across tennis in Australia.

Speaking about how Tennis Australia’s approach to participation changed due to COVID-19, Dwyer said the creation and success of an online tennis court booking system at play.tennis.com.au helped local tennis clubs through the pandemic.

“We’ve been naturally fortunate tennis lends itself to the COVID environment and through two reasons, one is that its naturally physically distant, you can enjoy the sport whilst maintaining some of the guiding principles with regard to minimising the transmission of COVID,” Dwyer told Ministry of Sport.

“We’re kind of natural from the sport perspective and then there’s also the side where there’s a really informal and casual side to tennis and those opportunities for people to be able to pick up a racket at a time that suits them when they’ve only got a small window to get out of their houses, especially when you had that one- or two-hour window in Melbourne in the depths of COVID.

“It had the flexibility to book a court and find one other person, at a time when you could only exercise or connect with one other person.

“The limitations put on us thanks to COVID meant our sport naturally had an opportunity while most others were shut down in those more formal or team environments.

“That was the starting premise and what we saw then was a natural evolution of the strategy we started pre-COVID. 18 months prior to COVID, we launched a product called Book a Court.

“That was a solution that allowed you to jump on digitally, book a court, pay for it, get a pin-code and go in and play with a friend.

“We had already started partnering with clubs on that journey and we had around 150 clubs that had access to that hardware and software to make their courts more accessible for that casual play.

“People who didn’t want to become a member, or were inspired by the AO, or even COVID, were able to pick up a racket easily,” he said.

When asked about the impact the AO has on tennis participation, Dwyer said: “The AO plays a big inspiration every 12 months in Australians picking up a racket.

“We’re focused on how we can broaden that interest beyond those two weeks of the AO by making the sport more accessible for 12 months.

“That system (Book a Court) was at the start of communication with clubs, then on the back of COVID, the opportunity presented itself to do a partnership with ClubSpark, who were our digital enabler of Book a Court, and we had the technology where clubs that didn’t have the hardware could open their doors and allow for digital booking capability.

“We then partnered with 500 clubs in the middle to late part of last year, getting them to feature on play.tennis as an opportunity to book casual play at your club.

“The response from volunteers and clubs across the country was really promising.

“COVID enabled us to give the chance to use those consumer insights that people wanted to play more socially, more infrequently and not necessarily sign up to a membership with a club and drive change at quite a quick rate at scale across a high number of clubs.

“Our estimates are that 75% of the population can now find and book a court within 15 minutes of their house,” he said.

Expanding further on the measurable impact the AO has each year on participation in tennis, and how the Book a Court program has benefit from the AO, Dwyer said participation was a major driver of ensuring the event took place in 2021.

“What we know anecdotally, is that the AO has a massive impact,” Dwyer said.

“In pockets around the country where we launched the Book a Court program, we saw a significant uplift where we can measure the number of players that go out on a court.

“That was a real driver as to why we were so desperate for the Australian Open to happen, despite the significant financial impact and the logistics behind getting 1200 players and their entourage from different countries that are quite ravaged by COVID, into one of the most conservative, risk-averse cities in the world.

“No one had ever undertaken that, and for us to take that on, a lot was driven by the impact we know AO has on the sport, and those 3,500 coaches we have that run their businesses on the back of the spike the AO gives them, was a really big driver in why we felt we needed the AO to happen this summer.

“It was a big contributing factor in why we invested so much manpower and dollars to ensure the AO would happen this year, obviously doing it in a safe way,” he said.

When asked how the participation success for tennis reflect to commercial success, Dwyer said: “We’re active in the market now for brands that want to be a part of this journey.”

“Tennis has a great role to play in local communities, we’ve got a comparatively clean marketplace with regards to our participation products and partnerships.

“I think we will have a commercial proposition to take to market that will be really appealing to partners.

“Whether that’s brands that want to reinforce their community connection through different initiatives such as our diversity plans, or whether it’s a brand that wants to be involved at scale with a sport that has over a million people participating in every year.

“Moving forward, the commercial opportunity for tennis and for brands is quite significant, and we are going to be active in the marketplace looking for partners that we can not only help them achieve their objectives, but they can help us achieve ours,” Dwyer told Ministry of Sport.