Michael Downey was back behind his desk at Tennis Canada’s offices Wednesday, jet-lagged after a whirlwind trip to London, where he did some house-hunting and was introduced to the media as the new chief executive of British tennis.
Downey will leave his post as Tennis Canada president and CEO at the end of 2013, after nine years on the job, and start 2014 in one of the most high-profile positions in the sport: head of the Lawn Tennis Association.
The 56-year-old says he’s “euphoric” about the appointment and credits the current health of Canadian tennis for earning him the opportunity.
Impressed by a business résumé that includes leadership roles with what is now Molson Coors Brewing Co. and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., the LTA hired Downey to undertake huge tasks in the market he calls “the cradle of tennis.” The biggest will be converting the popularity of superstar Andy Murray into increased tennis participation across Britain.
“The results of Tennis Canada are why I’m getting this job. Fundamentally, it’s Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard, Canada’s Davis Cup success and the growth of participation numbers that opened the door for me,” Downey said. “I had to go get it, but I would have never been asked to interview if the world wasn’t saying, ‘Wow, look at tennis in Canada. What’s in the water over there?’”
He leaves with a heavy heart, as Tennis Canada is enjoying the fruits of its labour, starting with increases of at least 3 per cent per year in participation since 2008 (more than five million Canadians currently play the sport once a year, and 1.2 million play frequently). Montreal’s national training centre, established in 2007, has churned out players such as Raonic (currently ranked No. 11 in the world), Bouchard (No. 46) and rising junior star Filip Peliwo. Canada’s Davis Cup squad recently made its first World Group semi-final appearance in the open era.
Downey says one major project he didn’t finish at Tennis Canada is an initiative that would unite the country’s registered players.
“I wish we had gotten to pursue a national membership program with our provincial partners,” he said. ”It would be a great opportunity to bring these people together. And I’m not just talking about a way to raise money for tennis in Canada, but a way of communicating and pulling them together in a common interest. We’ve done research on it but haven’t put the meat and potatoes behind it. That will be left to the next leader.”
In his new role, Downey will make £300,000 ($497,500) per year and says he’s not bothered by the fact his predecessor at the LTA, Roger Draper, drew £400,000 plus benefits .
“While I wouldn’t want to be behind the industry, I believe what I’m being compensated is very fair and competitive, but this is about a lot more than money for me,” said Downey, whose partner, television writer/producer Jinder Chalmers, is moving with him to London. “This is an incredible opportunity to live in one of the most magnificent cities in the world at age 56 and to lead an organization where tennis is close to a religion.”
He has some advice for the next president and CEO of Tennis Canada:
“I don’t play tennis, but I have phenomenal passion for it, and I love to go out and talk about it. The colleagues here at Tennis Canada want to see that passion in their leader and they will follow it. We are just scratching the surface with tennis in Canada. Whoever gets this job will be very lucky.”