Tennis is an old sport and for years was always played outdoors. It is steeped in tradition and has often been characterized as a game for the elite. Up until 1968 all the significant tennis tournaments around the world were “amateur status” events – meaning that professional players were not allowed to play. Things changed in 1968 with the dawn of the “Open Era”. Tournaments like Wimbledon, the US Open and the Canadian Open (Rogers Cup) began offering prize money and allowing pros to play. The result was that tennis fans could see the best players in the world compete in the biggest and most prestigious tournaments around the globe.
Mayfair West Racquet Club, 1972.
Over the next few years, increased fan interest translated into increased participation in the sport. The tennis “Boom” was underway. No longer a sport just for the wealthy, players from all walks of life began to show up at clubs or public courts to give the game a try. Throughout the ‘70’s and ‘80’s people flocked to it. It was a golden age for the sport, spurred on by exciting players like Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, Billi Jean King, Chris Evert, Ille Nastase, Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe.
At the grassroots level in Ontario, things were happening too. During these boom years, many community clubs were either formed or, in the case of existing clubs, re-invigorated by increased membership and countless dedicated volunteers who upgraded facilities and programming to satisfy the players demands.
Around the same time, another phenomenon was also occurring in Ontario - the construction of indoor tennis facilities. There were one or two indoor clubs in existence, but they were either private clubs like the Queens Club in Toronto which opened in 1957 or maybe a school gym or two with hard wooden floors and makeshift tennis nets. For the most part players played outdoors from April until October and then packed their racquets away for the winter.
The first permanent indoor commercial tennis club built in Ontario, Mayfair North, was opened in Thornhill in 1970. Shortly after that, numerous other permanent tennis structures were built around the province. Mayfair added 4 more indoor locations in the Toronto area in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s before closing the North in 1987. Other brick and mortar clubs like Wingfield, Castlemore and Cobblestone in the GTA and Pinecrest Racquet Club in Ottawa, sprung up across the province. Around the same time a relatively new concept, seasonal bubbled indoor courts began to appear.
In the years after the first few indoor courts appeared, there were numerous commercial, private, not for profit and even municipal permanent and bubbled indoor tennis facilities built, with many existing community and private clubs adding domes for year-round play. The demand for indoor play was increasing and new and expanded indoor facilities were keeping pace. Supply was meeting demand. But after 2 decades of growth, new construction and expansion levelled off and by the time the ‘90’s arrived there were very few new facilities being added. What was more concerning was the number of clubs, particularly permanent structures, that were reducing the number of indoor courts or shutting their doors for good.
The OTA currently counts over 50 clubs and academies with indoor tennis courts amongst its members, but over the years over 25 indoor tennis facilities have shut their doors for good for various reasons. Here’s a partial list:
Tennis had experienced 20 years of growth but enthusiasm for the sport was waning in some sectors. The fitness “Boom” was happening and some clubs felt that in order to survive, they needed to add gyms, pools and other amenities to their location. Sometimes that was at the expense of a tennis court or two. After all, on a per square foot basis, a gym can generate a lot more revenue than a tennis court with four people on it. As well, many of the permanent indoor clubs were dead in the summer when people moved outside to play. They were also sitting on valuable land and were constantly under pressure to sell their property; either for re-purposing the building for another business or frankly, making way for a new housing or commercial development.
A quick count shows that over 25 indoor facilities representing approximately 160 indoor courts have been closed across the province over the years and another 10 or more have reduced the number of indoor courts available. To put this in perspective, Tennis Canada, who recently launched a covered courts initiative, has identified 73 indoor facilities in Ontario with a total of 398 indoor courts - 1 court for every 34,000 people in the province. Of these, 311 are accessible to the general public. To be sure, new clubs such as the Milton Tennis Club bubble and the Marilyn Redvers Tennis Centre have been added recently, but the net loss of indoor clubs and courts for general play is profound.
The Ontario Tennis Association has been keenly aware of this concerning decline for a number of years. A portion of the organizations revenues are tied to how many clubs are part of its membership so it has seen first hand when a club ceases to operate. As well, it relies on member clubs, including many indoor clubs, to host over 600 tournaments per year, so any time a potential host club closes it’s doors or reduces the number of courts available, it affects the OTA’s ability to provide the necessary sites for the provinces competitive adults and juniors – the next Bianca or Denis. To that end, the OTA is in the process of planning for its own indoor facility which will help serve the competitive and community needs of its players.
So… what’s the solution? That’s the million-dollar question. Actually, the multi million-dollar question!
There is no one answer and there is no one person who can affect the outcome by themselves. Tennis has seen a small but steady increase in participation over the past few years in Ontario. The success of Milos, Denis and Bianca have drawn new players to the game, particularly young junior players. Amazingly, in spite of COVID-19, or maybe because of it, some summer clubs saw a significant spike in membership in 2020 as families, faced with a short-list of things to do, decided to give tennis a try. Some of these new players decided that they liked the sport and want to continue to play indoors in the winter – only they can’t – most clubs are already full and are turning new members away!
The solution will have to come from all stakeholders; tennis associations like the OTA and Tennis Canada, clubs, academies, corporations, private doners, schools and even the individual player.
Tennis Canada started the ball rolling with it’s covered court strategy, but in light of the cancellation of this year’s Rogers Cup and it’s associated revenues, it is unclear how much impact the organization will have for the next while. For more information on Tennis Canada’s initiative, click here.
The future growth of indoor courts might lie with the cities and towns across the province; particularly those that are experiencing growth. Tennis is hot right now. When city planners are designing new communities, citizens need to make sure tennis, including indoor tennis, is fairly represented in their recreation plans, the same way hockey rinks, baseball diamonds and soccer fields are. For mature communities whose municipal courts have fallen into disrepair, upgrades are needed and zoning bylaws must be relaxed to allow for the building of domed courts. There are hundreds of volunteers across the province who would gladly help maintain a community or club-operated winter facility and a number of entrepreneurs who would be willing to build and operate new facilities if the land was made available. Universities and public or private schools with tennis courts could seek out donors or corporate partners to help build indoor courts and dedicate some of its use to the public.
Ultimately, we as individual players, need to decide how much we are willing and/or can afford to pay to play indoor tennis and how willing we are to fight for the game we love! It’s up to all of us!
Air-supported tennis domes first appeared in Ontario around 50 years ago and are now a mainstay of the tennis landscape. Bubbled courts have made winter tennis accessible to thousands of players that previously only played half of the year. We can thank Ralph Farley, founder of The Farley Group for that!
When the indoor tennis boom began in the early ‘70’s many of the new clubs and facilities that were built were permanent, steel girder, brick and mortar structures. These clubs were instantly popular and membership filled up quickly. Around the same time another indoor alternative appeared; the air supported dome or “bubble”. Stepping into a tennis bubble for the first time back then was awe-inspiring. A structure providing enough space and height for several tennis courts inside, without any support beams or walls, and requiring nothing but air for support, seemed almost counter-intuitive at first sight.
The tennis bubble phenomenon in Ontario and across North America began with one man: Ralph Farley. In the late ‘60’s Farley was a competitive tennis and badminton player and had experience as a professional in the construction industry. He is the founder of the present-day Farley Group. Farley was inspired to look for a cost-effective solution to allow tennis and badminton to be played indoors in the winter. He had seen domed sports structures in Sweden and thought there was a potential market for them in Canada. He was correct! Farley constructed the first dome over tennis courts in Canada at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club in 1970. The company went on to build several more domes across the province in the next few years, including at The Toronto Lawn Tennis Club and The Granite Club in Toronto, the Rosedale Tennis Club in Hamilton and the Newmarket Tennis Club in Newmarket. Soon enough, many other bubbles appeared across the province in cities like London, Waterloo and Cornwall, and they were being ordered by, not only private clubs, but also tennis associations, community clubs and even municipalities. In fact, creating partnerships with municipalities and third-party operators was one Farley’s special skills. By the time the ‘90’s rolled around, Farley’s companies had built and/or installed over 60 tennis domes in Ontario and over 150 across North America.
L’Amoreaux Park Tennis Centre.
Interestingly, there has been a net decline in the number of indoor tennis facilities and courts in the province since the “boom” years but a good portion of the decline has been with permanent structures. While a few clubs with bubbles have also disappeared, most of the clubs that first adopted a bubble solution continue to operate bubbles today and any new indoor clubs that have been built recently have almost exclusively been domed structures, Farley domes!
Bubbles are the ideal solution for indoor tennis clubs —both from an economic and practical standpoint. The relatively low cost of constructing a dome and the flexibility of either removing it for the warmer months or leaving it up year-round has been appealing to a wide range of tennis club operators.
When Farley boldly predicted that bubbles were the future of indoor tennis, he was not full of hot air, even though his domes were! The Farley Group is the Official Tennis Dome Constructor and Service Provider of the OTA. For more information on the Farley Group, visit www.thefarleygroup.com.