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Rogers Communications and Tennis Canada have jointly committed $5.6-million in capital seed money over seven years. The idea is to winterize 160 tennis courts countrywide by 2029, similar to Nottingham Tennis Centre in the U.K.JASON CAIRNDUFF/Reuters

Is tennis strictly a summertime sport in Canada?

One might think so when you consider that, of the 7,500 outdoor courts available for play across the country, only 750 are winterized for year-round use. That’s just one covered community tennis court for every 50,000 Canadians, with the remainder shuttered between mid-October and mid-April.

Compared with France (one covered court per 7,000 people), Belgium (one per 16,000) and the United States (one per 29,000), access to tennis in Canada “has fallen behind from an infrastructure standpoint,” says Anita Comella, senior director of Tennis Canada.

While many communities have gradually migrated outdoor hockey rinks and swimming pools to indoor facilities, tennis “has stayed [outside] in the park,” Ms. Comella says. “We’re trying to keep it in the park but make it year-round and more accessible to the community.”

That’s where bubbles come in. Tennis Canada is offering to help municipalities across the country erect air-supported structures, or bubbles, over existing outdoor tennis courts. The overarching goals are to get more people playing tennis more often and to help improve community health and fitness.

“It’s not about building stadiums. It’s about local facilities that really activate the community,” Ms. Comella adds.

Rogers Communications and Tennis Canada have jointly committed $5.6-million in capital seed money over seven years, with each project eligible to receive up to $200,000. The idea is to winterize 160 tennis courts countrywide by 2029.

Four clubs have signed on to the program so far, with domes scheduled to go up in time for the 2022-23 fall and winter seasons at the Ancaster Tennis Club in Hamilton, Ont., Premier Racquet Clubs in Markham, Ont., Club de Tennis François Godbout in Waterloo, Que., and the Osten & Victor Alberta Tennis Centre in Calgary.

The Ancaster Club, which leases five outdoor courts in Village Green Park from the City of Hamilton, completed construction in May, but the bubble won’t go up until the beginning of October and will only be used during cold-weather months so that members can play in the open air during summer, club president Kerry Radigan says.

“It’s not about building stadiums. It’s about local facilities that really activate the community.”

Anita Comella, senior director at Tennis Canada

The total cost to erect an air-supported structure – which includes things such as consultants’ fees, concrete work, mechanical, lighting, heating and the fabric dome itself – can run between $1.2-million and $1.5-million, Ms. Comella says.

The Ancaster construction comes in at about $1.5-million, Ms. Radigan notes, and is being financed with contributions from members, the Hamilton Future Fund and a 15-year, interest-free loan from the city. The $200,000 provided by the Rogers fund features a sponsorship component that gives Rogers naming rights for 10 years. The club is now officially called the Ancaster Rogers Tennis Club.

Winterizing tennis courts opens possibilities for growing club membership and providing new sports and recreation programming to the larger community. While Ancaster is focusing on tennis – the bubble will give its 650 members more court time and allow the club to open children’s programming to non-members – covered courts can easily be used for pickleball, badminton, basketball and volleyball, Tennis Canada says.

An additional investment in portable synthetic turf can add parent and children programming, seniors’ activities, soccer, lacrosse, baseball and ultimate Frisbee. Covered facilities can even hold non-sport activities such as trade shows, exhibitions and other community events.

Michael Downey, president and CEO at Tennis Canada at the announcement of the first four municipalities to be partnered with for Tennis Canada’s Covered Courts Initiative at Premier Racquet Clubs in Markham, Ont., on March 9, 2021.Peter Power

Because the majority of tennis courts sit on public land, Tennis Canada has identified three potential partnership models for municipalities to consider: the municipality leases land to a not-for-profit operator that oversees seasonal or year-round operations; the municipality leases land to a commercial operator; or the municipality owns and operates the covered court facility.

Clubs and municipalities can apply jointly or individually for the Rogers funding, however, tennis clubs must be a member of their provincial or territorial tennis association, have certified coaches running their programs and offer programming to both adults and children.

Tennis Canada estimates that a covered facility can generate between $20,000 and more than $40,000 in annual net revenue, per court, through diverse programming, court rental fees and leases.

“When we have this discussion with municipalities, their ears perk up because they’re used to running their other sports facilities with operating subsidies,” Ms. Comella says.

When Chris Chard first heard about the Tennis Canada program, the Field of Dreams mantra, “if you build it, they will come,” immediately came to mind.

“Or the corollary of that is, if you don’t build it, they can’t come,” says Mr. Chard, associate professor, department of sport management at Brock University. “If the mandate is to continue to grow the game, accessibility is key.”

“If they can have public-private partnerships where a revenue stream gets generated, it seems to make an awful lot of sense,” Mr. Chard adds. “Where it becomes a challenge is if the municipality is somehow on the hook. But if it’s designed in such a way that the private entity absorbs the risks then, from the municipality’s perspective, why not?”

The key, adds Ms. Comella, is to optimize the facilities with diverse and affordable community programs “that can run throughout the day and into the evenings so that you’re always utilizing your courts.”

Tennis in Canada by the numbers

• Only 2 per cent of municipally owned and operated tennis courts are covered versus swimming facilities (37 per cent covered) and hockey (34 per cent covered).

• In 2018, more than 6.5 million Canadians played the game, making tennis one of Canada’s leading sports activities.

• Canadian athletes such as Milos Raonic, Eugenie Bouchard, Denis Shapovalov, Bianca Andreescu, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Gabriela Dabrowski are inspiring Canadians to play more tennis or try it for the first time.

Source: Tennis Canada