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Michael Downey

Tom Walker speaks to the man charged with reinvigorating British tennis – the new CEO of the Lawn Tennis Association 

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management 2015 issue 3
Downey transformed Canadian tennis during his nine-year tenure as CEO / GettyImages
Downey transformed Canadian tennis during his nine-year tenure as CEO/ GettyImages

I love a challenge,” says Michael Downey, CEO of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) when asked for his motivation in leaving Tennis Canada and accepting the task of rejuvenating British tennis. “The UK is a bigger market than Canada and tennis is more important to people. I was keen to see if I could leverage what I’ve learned and use it to make a difference here.”

Downey’s nine-year stint as CEO of Tennis Canada was impressive and he has been credited with transforming the fortunes of Canadian tennis. Grassroots participation has grown by at least 3 per cent each year since 2008 and more than 1.2 million Canadians now play regularly – with another 3.8 million identifying themselves as “occasional players”. Meanwhile, Milos Raonic (ranked number eight in the world) and Eugenie Bouchard (No. 26) are quickly becoming household names as a result of Tennis Canada’s rejuvenated elite performance programme, which included the construction of two national training facilities in Montreal and Toronto.

LEAVING IT BEHIND
A Canadian himself, Downey’s background is a mixture of corporate and sporting experience. Before becoming CEO at Tennis Canada he held leadership roles at Molson Coors Brewing, the world's seventh largest brewer, as well as senior executive roles at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment – owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey (NHL) and Toronto Raptors basketball (NBA) franchises. The decision to leave his native country and jump across the pond wasn’t an easy one – partly due to his success. “It was a tough decision as Tennis Canada is full of great people and we were doing great things,” he says.

“There’s an old saying, however, in which I believe – ‘move when things are good’. I felt the organisation was in a good place and we’d seen great results across grassroots participation and the elite programme. Even though I think I was a good leader – the board believed in me, I had a great relationship with the staff and players – I’m sure they’re going to benefit from fresh leadership. I genuinely think no one should stay in these leadership roles forever and 10 years is a long time.”

ENTERING THE LTA
Downey took the reigns at the LTA at a time when the organisation faced intense pressure to reverse a steep decline in participation numbers and to improve its elite performance programmes. Sport England was threatening to cut its investment in tennis by £10.3m, while questions were also being asked over an elite performance programme that had failed (Andy Murray aside) to produce players who could break into the world’s top 50. Downey says walking into that environment wasn’t easy.

“I felt for the colleagues here, because there was a lot of external pressure and that can sometimes cause you to lose focus on what you’re doing,” he says. “One of the first things I wanted to do was to shift the focus back on to the job at hand and for the staff not to worry about what the external world was saying. There was good work being done at the LTA and I think there just needed to be a calming voice saying ‘hey, look, these are things that every organisation goes through and we will come out of it okay’”.

Downey recognised the size of the task at hand and while he was keen to shield staff from external pressures, there was no escaping cold hard truths about the state of tennis. Sport England's figures showed that the number of people playing tennis once a week had fallen nearly 5 per cent (from 445,100 to 424,300) between 2011 and 2013. The decline mirrored a longer-term problem – 530,900 people had played tennis once a week between October 2008 and October 2009. “Looking at the figures it’s obvious that tennis isn’t currently a growing sport in the UK,” he says. “It hasn’t been growing for years and we’ve got to accept that it’s going to take time to turn it around. No business can turn fast if it’s suffering from a long term decline.”

SETTLING IN
Downey has now been in his role for just over a year and, while accepting that there’s a long journey ahead, he believes the work is already well underway in laying the foundations for the LTA to improve as an organisation – and for tennis to benefit as a result. His emphasis, he says, will be to build from the bottom up and create sustainable growth in grassroots participation and improve the development of elite players.

A crucial part of the process has been to identify what actually needs to be done – to determine a mission statement. “When I took up the role, the LTA’s mission was to get more people to play tennis more often,” he says.

“That’s fine, but you also should be able to answer the question ‘why’? Why is it that we want to get more people playing tennis more often? I don’t think anyone had that answer, nor had even truly thought about it. One of the first things we did after I started last year was to come up with a purpose statement which answered that question – which is that we want to get more people to play tennis because it will enrich their lives physically, emotionally and behaviourally.”

Once the vision statement was established, the first step was to make sure every member of staff was fully briefed and felt a part of it.

“I believe every organisation needs a set of values which dictate how it operates. After asking our staff what they saw as the LTA’s core values, we identified them as passion, excellence, integrity and teamwork. So for us, outlining our values wasn’t a top down exercise, but a collective effort. We’re now embedding those values to ensure they are reflected in everything we do.”

Downey believes his previous experience in the corporate world has helped him to plan a new way forward for the LTA. “To get more people to play tennis, we need to operate like a business, with strategies and objectives and all the discipline that goes into it.

“The LTA had gone six years without renewing its strategic plan before I arrived, something I wanted to tackle in my first year. I’m a firm believer that every member of an organisation needs to know not just what they are doing but why they are doing it. These things may not be sexy, but they are all fundamental to running a really good organisation. It’s crucial for each staff member to understand where this organisation is going, what their role is and how they are going to be measured.”

CREATING A VISION
While Downey has identified the LTA’s core values and provided it with a clearer vision, he has also begun working with the more concrete aspects of the task. In March 2015 Downey revealed a four-year strategy which included increasing the budget for participation by more than 50 per cent, adding £9m by 2018 and taking the total to £26m. That figure, however, doesn’t include all of the investment planned for facilities, so the funding earmarked for participation is, in fact, even more substantial.

“Some grant programmes will be included in the £26m, but we also have initiatives – such as the no-interest loan programmes for clubs who wish to improve their facilities – which do not come out of the operating budget. So facility spending is largely outside the £26m, which we are planning on investing mainly in people and activators.”

The strategy published in March can fit on a single sheet of double-sided A4 paper – an intentional move which Downey says will “force people to focus” –  but is rich in detail and ambition. Two areas stand out as having central roles in rejuvenating tennis – clubs and parks.

“Clubs are the bedrock of tennis and what we want to do is become a better service organisation for the country’s 3,000 clubs. We want to help them not only attract but retain members.

“I also believe that parks will play an important role. It is easy for us to reach and engage with the clubs because they are populated by people who are fixated on tennis and they’re part of an existing network. But we need to start building a greater provision in parks, a network of courts, because at the moment that simply doesn’t exist. We plan to do that through partnerships with the local authorities which own the parks.”

It is clear that Downey has created a strong vision and strategy for the LTA to work with and his business-like approach has already scored some early wins. In January 2015, Sport England announced that it had been “convinced” by the new focus on increasing participation and as a result the LTA has secured its current funding levels until March 2017.

The corporate approach is likely to continue too: “Tennis is a product, it’s a brand,” Downey says.

“And we need to build an image for tennis because consumers love brands. That will help us use marketing to create a demand for tennis.”

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