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Canadian Michael Downey inherits enormous task of converting the popularity of superstar Andy Murray into increased tennis participation across Britain. (STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS)
Canadian Michael Downey inherits enormous task of converting the popularity of superstar Andy Murray into increased tennis participation across Britain. (STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS)

TENNIS

Britain asks Downey to breathe new life into Lawn Tennis Association Add to ...

A Canadian has been tasked with revitalizing British tennis.

Michael Downey, Tennis Canada’s president and CEO of nine years, was introduced Tuesday in London as the new chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association.

“We set out to recruit a CEO with true success in business, with exceptional leadership credentials and ideally with significant knowledge of tennis,” LTA chairman David Gregson said. “Michael demonstrably fits the bill perfectly.”

Downey, 56, inherits enormous tasks along with the high-pressure job, namely converting the popularity of superstar Andy Murray into increased tennis participation across Britain.

The LTA’s outgoing chief executive, Roger Draper, has resigned after seven-plus years on the job. He was criticized for not being able to grow the grassroots game in a place that plays host to the most prestigious annual tennis tournament in the world.

From 2007 to 2012, participation in tennis across England dropped despite interest-generating opportunities, such as Murray becoming Britain’s first men’s singles Wimbledon champion since 1936. The LTA is counting on Downey to reverse those numbers – or it risks further slashes in funding from Sport England.

“The opportunity that Andy Murray is now a Wimbledon champion, two-time Grand Slam champion, is immense for tennis in Britain,” Downey said Tuesday at the LTA press conference. “Andy Murray’s biggest contribution to tennis in Britain is winning. That’s when you want to write about him, that’s when people want to follow him, that’s when kids are going to go out, pick up racquets and want to be Andy Murray.

“This sport has far more importance in Britain than in Canada. The expectation will be higher of myself in this position.”

Under Downey, tennis participation in Canada has seen yearly increases of at least 3 per cent from 2008 to 2012, according to annual surveys done by Charlton Strategic Research Inc.

A total of 5,055,000 Canadians currently play at least once a year.

Recent successes by Canada’s Davis Cup team and rising stars Milos Raonic, Vasek Pospisil, Filip Peliwo and Eugenie Bouchard have helped bolster the sport’s national profile, along with introductory tennis initiatives, a capital funding program to help build more tennis facilities and an ad campaign trumpeting, “Not every kid in Canada wants to play hockey.”

Some United Kingdom tennis experts admitted they had to look up Downey on the Internet when they got wind of the hiring, which had been kept quiet before Tuesday. But they were impressed with his résumé.

“Given that we have a Grand Slam in the U.K., and the guy who just won it [Murray] could be a star for another few years, and took our Davis Cup team back to the World Group, it was probably irresistible to test yourself with this job in this bigger market,” said Andrew Castle, a former English player and now a tennis commentator for the BBC. “Downey looks to me like he has the business background, and we were all very happy to see that. Coming from the outside with a fresh perspective, I think that’s very healthy.”

Observers agree it’s a big job.

“I think it’s a positive hire. People might say, ‘Well what’s wrong with British Tennis? We have Andy Murray, we have Laura Robson.’ But you have to look beyond that. It’s like a struggling [soccer] club in England right now. If someone can get it right, they will become incredibly popular here, but it’s a very difficult job,” Barry Cowan said by phone from Britain. Cowan is a retired tennis player who once served on the LTA and is now a Sky Sports broadcaster.

“The old blueprint they produced in 2006 was too much about top-end winning and there was no mention of participation. [Downey] will inherit a good mini-tennis program, but he has to keep those kids involved in the sport, especially in the teen years.”

Downey’s annual salary will be £300,000 ($494,000) with the potential for bonuses should performance goals be met. The LTA said it is in line with what other sports executives in the U.K. make, yet it is less than Draper’s £400,000 wage (which swelled to some £640,000 with benefits and drew some criticism from the British public and media).

In 2012, the LTA invested £73.2-million but saw little in the way of reward. Baroness Billingham, chair of the All Party Tennis Group, called the LTA’s lack of success in increasing participation numbers a “disgrace” earlier this year.

British tennis has little top-level talent outside Murray, the only man in the top 150 of the ATP world rankings. The 38th-ranked Robson is the only Briton among the WTA top 50.

Downey leaves his current post on Dec. 31, and starts with the LTA on Jan. 6.

Tennis Canada hopes to have the new leader in place by year’s end.

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