From Strength to Strength: Tennis BC Succeeds in Staging the 89th Annual Leith Wheeler Stanley Park Open

From Strength to Strength: Tennis BC Succeeds in Staging the 89th Annual Leith Wheeler Stanley Park Open

Talk about a gametime decision. As with nearly all elements of daily life, the 2020 Leith Wheeler Stanley Park Open (LW SPO) was a casualty of COVID but Tennis BC CEO Mark Roberts wouldn’t, and didn’t, count out 2021.

Fast forward to late June 2021. Infection rates were falling and vaccination rates were rising. Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer, had laid out a 4-part plan to re-open BC and it left a crack open for North America’s largest community tennis tournament to return for its 89th year. Mark jumped on it.

“We worked with the Park Board, who were awesome, to try and find a way to make it work,” Roberts said on a recent call. A few hoops remained to be jumped through, but with the permit in hand only six days before the tournament launch, he called the team at Leith Wheeler to say, “We’re back on.”

Four-time Men's Singles Champion (and 2021 finalist), Henry Choi.

Spectators along the 17 courts in Vancouver’s scenic Stanley Park will notice a few differences this year. Because the okay didn’t come through until so late, Mark and his team had had to make plans for a summer without the Leith Wheeler SPO. Tennis lessons were booked through August, including on the six “Hub” courts that Tennis BC now manages (more on that below), so it’s fallen to tournament director Max Korkh to tackle the logistics of a tourney that runs not 17 days, but nearly eight weeks.

Tennis BC team onsite at the 89th annual Leith Wheeler Stanley Park Open.

The Open portion of the tournament was staged over the first week, and the rest of the “NTRP” classes are completing their mini-tourneys during the evenings and weekends. The final day of play is August 29. With Stanley Park Brewing immediately adjacent to the courts, it makes for a great time sitting in the beer garden or grass, taking in the action.

Doubles action.

2020: A Year of Growth for Tennis BC

Aside from getting the tournament back on, Mark led Tennis BC to two significant milestone achievements in 2020, right in the midst of the storm. “For years and years and years, Tennis BC has been trying to get both an indoor facility and any access to public courts outside that we can, in order to promote and grow the sport by offering high-quality teaching in a non-club environment,” he said.

When Steve Nash pulled out of a facility in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, Mark and the team jumped on the opportunity to manage the courts. To be the first of Tennis BC’s “Hub” locations, their opening date was March 1, 2020. They shut down again March 15. Roberts is very grateful to the Gaglardi family, who owns the facility and offered rent relief to get them through until they reopened September 1. The hub was sold out to capacity on day one and has run over 97% full, since.

The courts at Stanley Park presented another, simultaneous Hub opportunity right at the outset of the pandemic, when visibility was at its lowest and fear at its height. Historically managed by a for-profit organization, the Park Board put six courts nearest to the Stanley Park Brewpub up for tender and Tennis BC got the nod. Scheduled to assume control April 1, the team took over two months later, with two days’ notice. Again, the courts then ran full through the end of October, when the contract ended until the spring.

Tennis BC CEO Mark Roberts and Jeannie Rohr, Head of Community Development, Coaching Certification, and Leagues.

For Roberts, the Hub model represents an opportunity to expand the mandate of Tennis BC. “Typically, these provincial sports organizations are really just advocates for the sport. And for years, Tennis BC has been an advocate,” he said. “But now we're really adding two different dimensions to our advocacy. One is operations; we're actually in the operations business with real bills to pay and real income and managing people and all that stuff, just like any normal business. And then we're also into the public court arena, which is... a new avenue, a new channel for tennis to be operating in. So it's a much more robust organization now.”

Now in their second year with the Hubs, Tennis BC has put over 3,000 people through court bookings and lessons. “There is a huge demand for lessons,” Roberts said. “And [with all our pros certified] we're bringing a very high quality of product to the public courts where typically there might have been independent community centers offering those programs, with varying levels of quality and quality control.”

Roberts added that the International Tennis Federation estimates tennis play is up 50% globally over the last year. Further, the model of a not-for-profit governing court bookings and lessons has been proven in Australia, where growth has exceeded even these lofty levels.

“I'm going to take that model to the park boards, or any municipality, and show them the value of providing access to programming to people who don't necessarily have the money to join private clubs, or even know if they like the sport enough to join a private club,” he said. “The vast majority of our lessons are for newer, beginner players, and the only way to improve in the sport is to get some coaching and some lessons. I think giving the public access to quality programming really, really is proving to be successful so far.”

(Photo credits: Tennis BC)

By Mike Wallberg, CFA, MJ
Vice President, Marketing & Communications