Last Thursday night I attended a meeting at Batley Sports & Tennis Centre hosted by the Chief Executive of Kirklees Active Leisure (KAL), Alasdair Brown. The meeting concerned the future of the tennis facilities at the centre, and a proposal to change them from their current use.
The reason I attended was because my son, Archie (7 years old) has been attending tennis lessons there for a few years. He’s been playing tennis since he was 3 years old. At that age we gave him a choice of football or tennis coaching, I secretly hoped he’d choose football – my sport. But this was the year Andy Murray won Wimbledon, and Archie had sat on my knee and watched Murray’s epic victory on centre court and his decision was made. We took him to Huddersfield initially, as there were no lessons for pre-school kids closer to home. But when he turned 5 the timetable in Huddersfield changed and so we moved him to Batley, to the specialist facilities there. Here he is, having just hit a lovely forehand…
Anyway, Alasdair explained last night that the tennis facilities were underutilised and that KAL felt they were no longer viable. They explained that numbers using the facility had been falling year on year and that they had some plans for repurposing the space currently occupied by the indoor courts. Their idea was that the courts could be renovated to provide two new facilities – one a 3G indoor pitch for football, and the other a soft pay area with a “clip and climb” facility that Alasdair seemed very excited about.
I am, as you may be able to infer from my tone, far from happy. One of the things most guaranteed to piss me off, other than bigotry, is illogical reasoning.
Let me explain my thought process.
There are, in Kirklees, just 13 indoor tennis courts. This change would reduce that number to 9. All 9 of those are operated independently and are in Huddersfield postcodes. Alasdair was keen to point out that the John Charles Centre in Leeds is just 6 miles away from Batley, but this is flawed for most users as:
- Junior KAL members get excellent rates on the coaching lessons which won’t be the case there
- Many people already travel some distance to Batley, this will be further to travel for some.
- Existing tennis players who play in the Huddersfield League can’t be based in Leeds.
In addition, I argued that KAL are creating a gap in the market to fill one that doesn’t exist. there are several soft-play centres in the area, and many are struggling to make ends meet. In addition, there are several football venues locally, indoor and out. Again, many of these struggle to fill their capacity. Granted, clip and climb does look like a differentiator locally, with the closest facility in Ilkley, but I was unconvinced by Alasdair’s assertion that Batley Girls’ High School, adjacent to the Centre, would use the centre with regularity. I also argued that Ilkley has a massively different demographic to Batley, so was perhaps a flawed comparison.
I was shocked to learnt that KAL were prepared to borrow £1.6m over 20 years from Kirklees council to pay for the renovations. Even more so to discover that the much needed maintenance to the outdoor tennis courts at Batley would cost £80k, a paltry figure in comparison. that’s 0.5% of the proposed borrowing.
Ultimately, the reason I’m so angry that this is begin considered is that the facilities at Batley could be excellent. The indoor facilities need little attention, the outdoor ones a little more. But tennis is crying out for youth development. The LTA are doing loads of work to try and make tennis more accessible, to all, rather than an elitist sport.
My son also attends swimming lessons via KAL, as does my 10 year old daughter. They both have dedicated coaches/teachers who follow a structured plan to track and monitor the development of the kids they teach to swim. We, as parents, can log on to an app and view the progress being made, and when all of the objectives in a stage are met, kids move up to the next stage. This is not revolutionary, not difficult, nothing new. Yet at Batley Sports and Tennis centre there is no equivalent. My son has been in the same class since he started. Progress is difficult to track. Anecdotally I can see he is a better player now than when he started, but I’m not aware of a plan, or a sense of direction for him. The group has a variety of ages, and the difference can be as much as from 5 years old to 9 years old, with one coach. Any parent will know that developmentally, these ages are typically streets apart.
In frustration, I tweeted Batley & Spen MP Tracy Brabin about this issue. Her response summed up brilliantly the crux of the issue. As parents, affording to take Archie to other venues for coaching would pose some kind of challenge, and we’re by no means an impoverished family. Demographically, Batley & Spen has real challenges – it’s an area where many people have little or no disposable income. Where do these families send their kid if he or she is a promising 6 year old tennis player? They’re unlikely to travel to Leeds or Huddersfield and pay significantly more for the service.
I also tried to get some higher profile support from key tennis figures, specifically the Murray family. My tweets to Andy, Jamie and Judy received a response which stunned me.
Judy Murray is arguably the most influential figure in British Tennis in the last 15 years. Her two sons, raised by a tennis coach, have risen to the top of the men’s game with Andy excelling in singles and Jamie in doubles. In addition, Judy captained the Fed Cup team for 5 years and has received an OBE for her work in sport. For her to instantly remember Batley as a venue that, in some small way, helped shape the future of Andy and Jamie Murray, was amazing.
And then I had a “hang on” moment. Why the hell is this titbit not being used as a marketing tool by the centre? More to the point, why was there precisely no marketing done during Wimbledon fortnight? When I was a kid certain sporting events triggered action – Wimbledon meant grab your racket and get to the nearest courts for a knock up with my mates, while Jimmy White at the Crucible meant borrow my big brother’s cue (without permission) and head to the snooker hall to try and beat my best break of 23.
It’s been a week now since the KAL meeting, and I’m still pissed off. I wanted to wait to write a blog entry to be sure that I tried to be objective. After a week I still can’t see the logic, and that grinds my gears.
So I have a plan I’m willing to share with KAL to save the centre. This plan will almost certainly require funding from the LTA, but let’s remember that they are wealthy and are, it seems, willing to fund grass roots tennis.
- Reform the tennis coaching programme so that there is clear structure and sense of direction for all involved regardless of age or ability
- Engage in regular promotion of the facilities. Host open taster sessions regularly, as well as competitions/tournaments. Make people aware the facilities exist
- Create a membership package within the KAL scheme for those who only want to use the tennis facilities, perhaps with discounts for other KAL services
- Invest £100,000 in modernising the outdoor courts to make them all weather, and add some kind of club-house facility to attract and retain competitive groups.
- Improve the booking system, which the KAL Chief Executive admits is not up to scratch
- Look at added value tennis options, such as cardio tennis fitness classes and the tennis equivalent of Twenty20 cricket – Fast4
- Provide rackets and balls free in return for a deposit
This blog has been very much written by me as a parent, but there are people of all ages who play at Batley regularly and will be “homeless” from a tennis perspective. Cleckheaton Lawn Tennis Club are only able to offer year round tennis because they utilise the centre and have expressed fears for the impact this change will have on them, and there are other tennis teams that play with Batley as a base. My fervent belief, despite all of the protestations from Alasdair Brown to the contrary, is that the decision has already been made. I’ve tried to give the benefit of the doubt but I find it hard to believe that KAL have invested in such extensive research to the point of fully costing a proposal if they’re unsure of the future. However, I will campaign against this, along with others.
If you’d like to offer your support, the simplest thing you can do is sign the petition, which is here.
Thanks for reading.