Around the World in 50 Courts – Looking Forward

According to Yogi Berra, a malaprop-prone former catcher for the New York Yankees, “it is tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Fortunately, predictions are usually passive. They tell you what might happen if all you did was extrapolate from current trends. The better view, it seems to me, is to ask what you would change to nudge the outcomes in the right direction. Assuming, of course, people could agree on what that direction might be.

The last half century has been a good one for court tennis, but it took considerable effort on the part of many people. Surely, another successful half century will require the same.

Here is a laundry list of suggestions that the next generation of court tennis leaders might well add to their own ideas. Some will be better than others. Some will have higher priority than others. Some might simply resonate with the leaders themselves.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this story will be the comments it elicits. Please add your own ideas and offer your observations about the ones following.

Interaction

It feels safe to think that communication will improve. Players throughout the world will more readily interact with each other. Friendships should strengthen and ideas for new and better ways to enjoy the game will germinate.

The Boomerang in Melbourne is the first truly global event drawing winter travelers from the northern hemisphere to Australia’s January summer for a two-week festival of team handicap tennis.

That idea gave rise to the “Trois Tripots” played in the Basque country of southern France. Few seem to mind that the courts merely approximate today’s court tennis courts. They are close enough and the players enjoy being with their international friends in a delightful atmosphere.

Covid notwithstanding, the trend in airfares has been steadily downward, making it possible for more people to afford to travel more often. Airbnb has also contributed to the decline in travel costs. I applaud both as I favor the international friendships that are so much a part of the game.

The idea of local players being welcomed in clubs throughout the world was a key feature that made a relationship with Prince’s Court attractive to Westwood Country Club.

Multisport Venues

I can imagine increasing opportunities for combining sports around court tennis. These would primarily be summer sports like tennis, golf, pickleball and padel as there is little geographic synergy with winter sports like skiing.

Most venues have but one court and that either limits the number of people who can play in a weekend tournament or lengthens the time needed to accommodate a larger number, while providing sufficient play. Combining events like tennis and golf or court tennis and lawn tennis will be appealing to those who don’t like to spend too much time sitting around.

The new court at Westwood Country Club near Washington will join Tuxedo as the world’s only venue that offers both court tennis and golf in the same place. Such multisport opportunities are worthy of replication.

Economics

The economics of the game change substantially when court usage increases. In the airline industry, as soon as the plane takes off, the empty seats are gone forever. They can never be sold again, and the revenue is irrevocably lost. So it is with unused court hours.

The easiest way to enhance the economic aspects of a career for a professional is to sharply increase court usage.

Understandably, clubs are loath to own up to small membership bases and low court usage, but both phenomena put additional pressure on philanthropy to bridge the gap.

Philanthropy can only go so far, and it is needed for capital costs rather than shoring up deficits.

Communication

If there is a need for paper communication anywhere in the game, it is lost on me. For a time, it was justified because “older people were not tech savvy.” While that might once have been true, the actuarial tables have taken their toll, and those who are today’s older people are tech savvy.

Only the Tennis & Rackets Association reliably publishes an annual report. It can do so because it has a paid staff that knows how to do it with tolerable levels of pain.

The US Court Tennis Association soldiers on with volunteers and recently published a “three years in one” edition. I suspect this will get worse as producing glossy magazines is not generally a task associated with volunteer efforts. Australia and France don’t even try.

I doubt paper communications will extend far into the future. In the interim, the T&RA could offer to produce a worldwide annual report and the other countries could chip in their share of the cost.

With but 12,000 players throughout the world, communication can be centralized. In the United States, there are youth soccer programs that have 12,000 players and all communications emanate from one place.

The Real Tennis Online handicap system is the best source of player data and the most logical source of communication.

If it is possible to design, price and order a Mini on a website (I choose the Mini because it is the automobile with the most variables and the largest number of options), surely it is possible to design one worldwide website that enables people to see what they want and need to see while ensuring that electronic communications go only to those who should receive them. Though there would be an initial outlay to design it, the long-term savings would be substantial to say nothing of increased accuracy at lower cost thanks to greater efficiency.

There is a risk that a single worldwide site could stifle creativity. This should be avoided though the tendencies toward rule making, and bureaucracy are difficult to overcome.

Replicating Successes

Chris Ronaldson observes in “Marking 50 Years” that the number of courts has essentially doubled since his career began. If the trend where to continue, the next 50 years would bring the game to about 100 courts and 20,000 to 25,000 players. I am doubtful that will happen without effort or, perhaps more importantly, without purpose.

Other games like lacrosse in the United States, pickleball, squash and, more recently, padel, have grown even more quickly. What do these games do that ours does not?

First, it seems to me they provide economic incentive to enable hard-working entrepreneurial people to create careers for themselves in the game.

Promoting lacrosse as a college sport encouraged high schools to create teams that would feed players into the athletic scholarship system. This in turn led to the creation of non-school-based programs to teach more children the game at the highest level. Though there is a nascent professional league, lacrosse is not really a game for grown-ups.

Pickleball seems to thrive because it is easy, and older people, whose mobility might be in the past, can remain active at something. It seems to rely less on money making as a proposition, but it is also far cheaper to create vast numbers of pickleball courts than even lawn tennis courts let alone court tennis courts.

Squash seems to have grown in a way that might be most effective for court tennis. Colleges have teams, schools have teams, the game is played for life, there are money making opportunities for both coaches and developers of multi-court facilities. It has also touched the “giving back” impulse by creating programs for disadvantaged children.

It seems to me a worthy project could be created and funded to hire a sports management firm like IMG (or perhaps a smaller and hungrier one) to determine how to move from where the game is to where it might want to be. That is too much to ask of volunteers, both in terms of skill and time commitment.

Capital

 Court tennis courts are expensive and, as yet nobody has figured out how to provide a suitable return on investment for the capital cost. The best they have been able to do is manage courts effectively enough to cover the running costs while putting enough aside for periodic maintenance.

This leaves charity as the only source of capital. Both the United Kingdom and the United States have tax favored charitable vehicles that make fund raising possible. France has one that is now being tested, but I am not aware of any in Australia.

These vehicles solve part of the problem, but the game is not yet sophisticated in the management of donors at all levels. “Round up the usual suspects” when funds are needed is not a long-term strategy.

Leadership

In the past, global initiatives have been hampered by travel costs and time commitments. That concern is significantly decreased thanks to Zoom. Would a group of thinkers from throughout the world participate in thoughtfully designed discussions of various aspects of the game, with a view toward improving them? I suspect people might, though such efforts might well feel threatening to the existing governance structures of the various countries.

Were I in a leadership position on one of the governing associations, (nope, I am not volunteering), I would be concerned that there is nothing keeping separate groups of individuals from getting together to think for themselves.

If that were to happen, I doubt any of the governing bodies would be able to get in the way. Considering that, perhaps the governing bodies themselves would like to get behind the idea of a global rethink?

Prosperity

Likely, the most important variable in the future of the game is prosperity. The game is not going to be cheap even if we come up with printed courts. If prosperity persists, the values inherent in the game – good sportsmanship, respect, no cheating, good fellowship, and perhaps even life learners – should be sufficient to attract more of the sort of well-educated, fair-minded individuals who presently play the game.

Not a bad goal.

25 Responses to “Around the World in 50 Courts – Looking Forward”

Richard Meyer, October 23, 2021 at 6:33 pm said:

Excellent thoughts, Haven. Obviously the cost and intricacies of a court tennis facility as opposed to the other racquet sports is a prime consideration. But the enthusiasm of court tennis fans and players, sometimes bordering on fanaticism, is a factor in the sport surviving and possibly thriving.

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Haven Pell, October 24, 2021 at 8:01 am said:

Indeed, it is, Richard

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Peter W. Bragdon, October 23, 2021 at 8:45 pm said:

Quality attracts quality, Haven — so, in these times which feature a shortage of refs because of the behavior of coaches and parents, the magnetism of Court Tennis involvement will only increase. The future looks promising. Just keep the flame going with essays like this most recent one.

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Haven Pell, October 24, 2021 at 8:00 am said:

Thanks, Pete. I did not know about the ref shortage but I am not surprised. I have always thought there was a market for a game that disdains the bad behaviors we have come to see in other sports.

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Richard Moroscak, October 23, 2021 at 9:25 pm said:

As always, great article and very well said. I like where you are going with the sports management angle as I see no reason why more knowledge of the great game we all love and access to it, could hurt the game in any way. I find it the most interesting racquet sport with padel a close second. The days of court tennis being covered in large cities is long gone but more knowledge and awareness of our sport would be a noble pursuit.

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Richard Moroscak, October 23, 2021 at 9:26 pm said:

Meant to say being covered by major media in large cities

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Haven Pell, October 24, 2021 at 7:57 am said:

Major media coverage has been replaced by streaming (thank you Ryan Carey) and websites. It would be wonderful if a single major website with everyone following it could remain open to innovators so that each new idea did not have to build its own audience. That would be a tough one.

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Frederika Adam, October 24, 2021 at 3:01 am said:

Hi Haven, wonderful to read/think about the what-if-future of tennis. When I’m thinking about these issues and planning events I always find myself asking “why do I play and love this sport so much? Why did that player over there get involved and become so passionate too?” Over the years I see (real) tennis as both sport and cultural activity and if I have a court to hand I don’t see taking someone on court as any different from introducing someone to (lawn) tennis or basketball – its just a matter of getting on court and there are so few and far between. As you and Chris R suggest, clubs/courts should be like mushrooms each with their own character and welcoming committee and as you say, if one club is full, another club will somehow emerge. In the UK, we had Oxford full all the time, no one could get on during term and then Radley, a school down the road, wants to build (and at first Oxford is worried but remains busy) and then another school (an hour away) Wellington decides to build to become part of the cultural-tennis geography….). Agreed, its the artificial/best kept secret conditions that holds back the sport from making potential and sustainable funds while restricting access to more new passionate players/pros/contributors. How to sell-out courts and “how much does it actually cost to play real tennis?” are things rarely discussed. Everyone I know thinks (real) tennis is the coolest, most popular sport in the world and if only everyone else knew where the court are, lived near one and could get on to play whenever they can (not want!). Good food for thought thanks again Haven. Freddy xx

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Haven Pell, October 24, 2021 at 7:54 am said:

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Freddy. You make an important point about each club having its own identity. Governing bodies tend to… well… govern, and it is easy for them to try to meddle in local decisions. That always chafes at the local level. It is also a flaw in the single website idea.

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Tim Harper, October 24, 2021 at 4:01 am said:

Haven thank you for your usual erudite and provocative thoughts. I would not worry about the future of real tennis. The nature of the game is such that it will never get boring and attracts players who can react quickly to randomness. The builders of new courts will be opportunists of which not all will be successful.Vive la difference ! Best wishes Tim Harper

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Haven Pell, October 24, 2021 at 7:48 am said:

Thanks Tim. I have always favored curiosity as the key trait to look for when trying to lure new players into the game.

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GAETANO CIPRIANO, October 24, 2021 at 6:33 am said:

Very well written . However squash is not really growing . Commercial squash clubs have died and some universities have eliminated their varsity teams . In 1988 the squash nationals had 550 participants. This year 100, and no women’s draws at all. That’s decline epitomized.

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Haven Pell, October 24, 2021 at 7:46 am said:

Thanks for the correction, Guy. We’ll have to look for another model.

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John A. Murphy, October 24, 2021 at 6:52 am said:

Wondering about the role of paddle tennis as a lead-in or otherwise helpful adjunct to court tennis. Our tennis club here in Jamestown has seen paddle become quite popular with lawners. Perhaps paddle can be used to help entice people to the court tennis.

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Haven Pell, October 24, 2021 at 7:44 am said:

Good idea, John. It might take somebody hanging around the paddle courts saying, “if you are having fun here, let me show you another game.”

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Oakley Brooks, October 25, 2021 at 6:18 pm said:

Haven:
I applaud you for your tireless work on behalf of this game so many of us love (and, let’s remember Clarry).
I have as fond memories of playing this game as any others: undergraduate club punching dinners at the Boston T&R (1964), lessons with Leslie Keeble at Hampton Court (1968), playing for the Oxford Unicorns out of Merton College, a driveabout through England with Dulany Howland to visit all the courts (1968), and countless
intercity weekends for the Boston T&R (1968-1979), and the odd club championship.
An arthritic elbow stopped my play twenty years ago; but, I always think I can step back into the court and re-live former form (“ just like riding a bicycle”).
Three cheers to you for keeping the flame alive.
Salute!
Oakley

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Haven Pell, October 26, 2021 at 7:05 pm said:

I bet you could and I hope you will

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Trevor Jones, November 02, 2021 at 12:12 pm said:

Thanks for this thought-provoking article, Haven. I really like a lot of the suggestions here, while some others I might personally tweak.
“Interaction” brings up some great points, specifically the concept of community our sport fosters. Newport is frequented by so many around the country — even the world — not just because of friendliness in words, but in actions. Members frequently offering to put up players in their basements, spare rooms, couches; dinners or parties being hosted (including at the club!) and open to all members; and importantly, tournaments like The Opener, which pairs low and high handicap players together in fun doubles matches, which bridge the gap (within the club) between the 20’s and the 80’s of the world. All of this contributes to an inclusive, genuine, and lasting community.
“Multisport Venues” also brings up an encouraging trend for the sport: having other sports (often other racquet sports, specifically) at the same venue as a court tennis court. The new Bordeaux court was built at an outdoor sports facility; Prested has a very active padel scene; Holyport plays host to the new game of sticky tennis; Newport prominently sits on the grounds of the (lawn) Tennis Hall of Fame; Boston introduces many to the game from squash and rackets. These are all great examples of the fact that, by including other games, new players will be introduced to and, in many cases, get hooked on court tennis.
“Economics” introduces the idea that clubs need to be active in order to be financially stable, but I think it misses a point that is in-play in England and France (but not here in the US). Namely, making it more affordable to join clubs/book a court/take a lesson, and in doing so, increasing membership and court usage. Thus, the money lost on high membership dues is made up for in the increased use of the court and number of members. The membership dues at clubs like New York and Chicago (not to mention the process of joining) can be turn-offs for people who would otherwise be interested in playing, but do not have the means to join such a club. Joining Radley costs something like 90 pounds, court fees are something like 10 pounds, and lessons are something like 50 pounds. This makes the game a great deal more accessible and introduces it to a wider audience. At Middlesex, the number of students (with little disposable income) and alumni playing have skyrocketed; at Hampton Court, the court is booked three weeks in advance because of how busy it is; at clubs across the UK, there are members who are journalists, blacksmiths, paralegals, teachers (in other words, not JUST financiers and lawyers). This model of low barrier to entry/introducing more people to the game/getting the court more active has worked at a number of clubs across the pond. Of course, I understand this model is not feasible for clubs like New York or Chicago, but it would be a worthwhile experiment for places like Georgian Court or Aiken. (An unintended benefit is that this model is also beneficial when it comes time to ask for donations as there’s a larger pool to draw from.) Despite what the “Prosperity” category raises, I do think it’s possible to do this while continuing to live up to the good sportsmanship and community-oriented mindset we all love about the sport (as is evidenced by the atmosphere at these courts in England where the game has expanded, as well as those courts in the US like Newport, Georgian Court, and Philadelphia that host ‘outside’ school and university teams/clubs).
“Replicating success” suggests that we need to build more courts to spread the game, and I agree. I might add, though, that we need to expand our reach beyond the traditional boundaries of the game. Florida or California in the US, Spain or the Netherlands in Europe, would all be worthwhile places to survey interest/expand the game, but because they are not in the traditional area (the east coast in the US or UK/France in Europe), they could easily be overlooked. If people are willing to travel from Chicago to Ballarat, it’s conceivable they’d be willing to from Paris to Amsterdam. While the big four have been the traditional home of the game, there’s no reason we can’t once again have a world champion from Italy or Ireland one day.
As is echoed throughout many of the categories, I agree that there are two big concerns for the coming years. One being a central governing body/leadership, which I wholeheartedly back; the other being that raising money will be of principle concern, especially if something like the pandemic happens again whereby courts (at least the ones that rely heavily on bookings and lessons) lose a large part of their revenue stream. As to how to do this, the ideal situation would probably be to leave everything as is and hope an old billionaire comes along who leaves the whole of his will to the USCTA. In the likely scenario where that DOESN’T happen, a plan will have to be drawn up and, necessarily, something about the game we love will need to change. It won’t be easy, but it will be required if we are to move forward. As to what that change will be that sustains the game for another century, it’s hard to say. I’d be very eager to hear others’ thoughts about raising money and financially sustaining the game moving forward!

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Haven Pell, November 02, 2021 at 7:34 pm said:

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think of centralization as relating to administration more than governing. Unfortunately, that is country to human nature. That is a flaw in the idea. Most innovation emerges from the bottom or the middle and almost none is mandated from on high. Economics are generally local. What works in one place might be quite unsuitable in another. Glad the story got you thinking.

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Hakan N Lonaeus, November 02, 2021 at 6:38 pm said:

Thank you, Haven for your untiring work to keep our sport alive ! For in Temples words, picking up the flag or the torch and carry them forward until the next flag bearer comes up from behind.

Some thoughts, maybe: court tennis does not have to grow to stay alive, does it? After all we have survived the rise and fall of those hundreds of courts in rennaisance Italy, and in France, before the game became the domicile for the more anglo oriented in England, Scotland and in some of the colonies. The sport outlived Caravaggio’s forced exile after his dispute after a game…. the sport also outlived the demise of all these continental European (the oath taking in Versailles (?)), Russian (St.Petersburg had a court for “Jeu de paume”) and even my favorite court in Stockholm… The Swedish Crown princes went to London and learned how to play court tennis, and brought the practice home to Stockholm, and made their own Royal Tennis Court next to the Royal Palace. It later became the “Finnish Church in Sweden”, but still keeps a museum memory of our days of Royal Tennis in Sweden…. So, the sport comes and goes. The important things are to keep the recent dimensions of sportmanship and honor up front, and not let the sport evolve back into the days of youre, with ample betting games, ill tempers exposed as with Caravaggios murder of his possible male lover, or of Henry VIII’s association between the game and waiting for the announcement of Anne Boyleyn’s murder….and the fact that only very recently there was acceptance that women can play the sport, ha ha.
So: “Play up! Play up! and play the game!” And, come one day even the Bete Noirs of our game who tour the world to join in our tournaments will become part of the iconography of a game that will survive even the onslaught of commercial capitalism….

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Haven Pell, November 02, 2021 at 7:36 pm said:

Your comment and the one from Trevor Jones indicate the wide differences in approach that exist in the game. You might well be right that the game is doing fine at its present size.

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Louis Jebb, November 20, 2021 at 2:28 pm said:

Thank you, Haven. This is invaluable. A tour d’horizon of where the sport is and the challenges it faces. With so much good sense, and many thought-provoking points. What you say about Capital and Economics goes right to the heart of things. And the energy-filled comments you have already elicited from others raise more thoughts.
Here are a few points in return from someone who has been working to revive a family court, and to make it a source of play and international connection.

Leadership:

I think that a global conference/think tank, run virtually, could work, thanks to the international friendships you identify—fostered at they are around convivial events like Boomerang, the Tripots, and Golden Rackets.

Such a think tank need not be seen as a threat to national associations if it were clearly identified as a talking shop whose members could be made up of representatives of (among others): national associations; the International Real Tennis Professionals Association; tennis entrepreneurs; tennis philanthropists; schools and colleges.
One approach might be to take a trope from media consulting and view the sport like a long-established publication, half a millennium old, that needs a lifting/redesign/sideways look to redefine its purpose, to find its North Star, to see it through the next 500 years. 501 years on from the Field of the Cloth of Gold—there’s an anniversary that got lost during the pandemic—what does a forward-looking strategy look like?

Some possible questions to address in setting out such a vision…

What is the sport, and who is it for?
What’s the brand name? Real tennis, royal tennis, court tennis? If you want to live with that complexity, decide how to promote/talk about a sport that has three different names.
Does it want to be more visible? If so, what is the target audience?
How big does the sport want to be? If it is to remain a niche product, it still needs to tell its story better, and to give potential audiences “permission” to engage with it. The excellent comment from Frederika Adam— “If only everyone else knew where the courts are, lived near one and could get on to play whenever they can.”—goes to the heart of the question.
What fresh culture for tennis would both encourage and support initiatives from self-starting professionals, court entrepreneurs and club enthusiasts?

Agree that collaboration with a (hungry) sports management company or a design thinking consultant would be invaluable. To help the sport, which thrives on personal connection and inward-facing loyalty, to ALSO look at things sideways, and from outside. In a bigger context.

I would be glad to help with the grunt work of planning and organising required to bring together such a think tank/talking shop. The first conversation.

Interaction:

International friendships are enormously important to the future of the game, not least to court development. Without them, without meeting you, Tommy Greevy, Ed Wheeler, Bill McLaughlin, Walter Deane, Temple Grassi, Greg Van Schaack and Lucienne De Mestre, Chris Ronaldson, Maggie Henderson-Tew, and so many others, I wouldn’t be writing these comments and wouldn’t be working with the rest of my family now to bring the court at Lambay back into use. The international dimension feels critical.

Communication:

I think the sport has a promising platform for communicating information in the shape of the early iterations of RT42.org, a site that, under the clear tagline “Information, innovation & inspiration for the real tennis community”, already does a great job in giving people permission to find out about the sport and understand it, and which amplifies, through systematic hyperlinking, the sites run by associations, clubs and players.

It feels like an attractive, authoritative, online resource for the sport, one with a purpose and one which answers the need you identify for a platform that remains “open to innovators so that each new idea did not have to build its own audience”.

Capital and Economics:

You address the challenges of both capital and economics so well. Unflinchingly so. The two areas that stand out for me are:

The importance of enabling a professional to make a sustainable career.
The challenge of getting a suitable return on capital investment in new or revived courts

On the matter of a suitable return, I assume you mean creating set-ups where there is true market for getting a return on investment, and within a reasonable timeframe.

One approach might be by investing, at an early stage, in a multisport venue that has a tennis court as part of its offering, and where the court is seen as bringing long-term value to the business—whether that venue is a sports club, an agritourism business, a hotel/spa or historic house/estate. The crucial thing being able to make that investment at an early stage, at a favourable valuation, allowing a suitable exit by selling those shares to other shareholders, or through a sale of the entire business.

So the question is whether there is a market for creating multisport racket-sport venues where the multiplicity of the sports on offer is seen as a key part of the business proposition. Where the diversity of the racket sports on offer—including pickle, paddle, squash, lawn tennis etc—is seen as part of the selling point for members and payers of court fees. You and Greg van Schaack will of course have a large bank of knowledge on dealing with existing multisport clubs from your work respectively on the new Washington court and the Charleston court.

With this investment model, getting in at the beginning would be crucial. To get any kind of value for investors. If the sport worked together to foster or to get in on such deals, in areas where there is already unmet demand for the sport, that might be one kind of strategy.

Either way, an international think tank might work on a programme with solutions that encourage/provide capital investment. As you say, “Round up the usual suspects” is not a long-term strategy.

Repeating success:

Allow leadership; define purpose; allow and support innovation; tighten up and enlarge the scope of communication; give more people, and more age groups, permission to take an interest in the sport and enter a world that can seem mystifying to someone coming across it for the first time.

Thank you for this. Looking forward indeed.

Best, Louis

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Haven Pell, November 22, 2021 at 11:38 am said:

Louis, Thank you for this thoughtful and time consuming comment. Much appreciated.

There is interest in an “after action” report on the construction of our new court and I will incorporate your thoughts into that.

There is also some interest in the conference idea and you’d be a fine contributor.

The next chapter is on the “Unplayed and Unplayable” (at least for the moment). For that I will draw on the Lambay Island information you gave me some years ago.

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