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Canadian Milos Raonic during the first set of a Davis Cup tennis quarter-final singles match in Vancouver on April 7, 2013. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canadian Milos Raonic during the first set of a Davis Cup tennis quarter-final singles match in Vancouver on April 7, 2013. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tennis Canada ads take light-hearted shot at hockey Add to ...

A despondent little boy emerges from the penalty box, picks up a puck, and chucks it into the stands. A goalie sighs as a shot glides pathetically slowly into her net. Tennis Canada’s new advertising campaign is part of a longstanding effort to get children involved in the sport, and it is doing so with a friendly jab at our national obsession.

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The punchline of the ads, which begin airing nationally this weekend during Rogers Cup broadcasts, is that “not every kid in Canada wants to play hockey.”

Tennis is not among the top sports that parents consider for their kids, so Tennis Canada is trying to rebrand, using marketing to fight off the sport’s image as a hobby reserved for the country-club set. In fact, according to Tennis Canada, 80 per cent of participation happens on public courts.

“There’s a perception of the tennis whites, and the formality of it,” said Josephe Bonnici, creative director at the ad agency behind the ads, Bensimon Byrne. “You just need a racquet and a ball.”

But that’s another challenge for the sport: Those racquets and balls have traditionally been the same size for kids as they have been for adults. Five years ago, Tennis Canada created a kids’ tennis program, selling kits with smaller equipment and nets that could be put up anywhere, and has been working to get equipment into schools. It wants to persuade parents to give children tennis lessons at a younger age, when they are more likely to develop a lifelong love of the sport.

According to Tennis Canada, only 24 per cent of Canadians age six to 11 have played the game. (The study had 1,400 respondents, weighted to reflect the demographics of Canada’s population.) And tennis does not even make the top 10 most practised sports among children, according to data from Statistics Canada. (Soccer is No. 1.)

The new ad campaign taps into Canada’s passion for hockey to grab viewers’ attention. “We know it’s going to get some attention, – and that’s good. We’re standing up for our sport,” said Michael Downey, Tennis Canada president and chief executive officer.

Like many athletic associations, the organization is not-for-profit, and Mr. Downey noted that its ads need to make an impact with the small amount of media time they have.

Since it began the Kids Tennis effort, the organization has seen participation rates improve, especially among children. About five million Canadians of all ages play tennis, Mr. Downey said, up about 3 per cent in the past year.

The ads come at a sensitive time for Canada’s most heralded sport. Concerns about concussions have cast a pall on all contact sports, especially hockey. According to research published this week by Bauer Hockey Inc. and Hockey Canada, there are other barriers to entry, including the cost of hockey participation, and the time commitment. The report cited “historically low participation growth rates over the last few years,” and the fact that 90 per cent of families and kids choose not to play hockey.

To address the challenge, last October Hockey Canada launched a loyalty program. It sent out about 1.3 million cards to families in its database, and engaged sponsors to offer benefits to members who registered their cards.

“The goal is to increase participation in amateur hockey and reduce the cost,” said Steven Hoffman, president and CEO of Boston-based Exchange Solutions, which operates the program.

As Tennis Canada continues its advertising, it sees an opportunity of courting new Canadians, from countries where hockey does not have as high a profile. Tennis, by comparison, is played in more than 200 countries, Mr. Downey said. The low-cost message, as well as stars such as Daniel Nestor and Milos Raonic, who were once new Canadians themselves, could give the marketing effort a leg up, Mr. Downey believes.

“As our population continues to change, we think many of those new Canadians will have had some association with tennis,” Mr. Downey said.

Follow on Twitter: @susinsky

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