Innovation That Matters

Planet Champions: Rich Neher

Features

How is one initiative making tennis matches more fun – and sustainable?

Matches for Wimbledon – the world’s oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament – are in full swing, with players from all over the world battling it out for a coveted trophy. To mark the occasion, we sat down with Rich Neher, the founder and president of the sustainable and inclusive tennis initiative Conga Sports.

Sustainability might not be front of mind when you watch the Wimbledon finals, but all sports have a part to play to reduce waste and promote positive-impact activities. Our library is full of sports and fitness innovations for you to explore, from bio-based footballs to skis made from algae.

Serving sustainability: rethinking the sport

Tennis is one of the most popular sports on the planet, with millions either playing the sport professionally or for leisure, and even more tuning in to watch nail-biting matches in the biggest tournaments. But when you’re watching players battle over match point, do you ever think about the impact tennis has on the environment?

It’s estimated that around 330 million tennis balls are manufactured every year and, because the rubber and felt-based balls are extremely hard to recycle, the majority of them end up in landfill.

Tennis is a sport where we create a lot of trash,” Rich highlights. “It’s mostly the tennis balls, but other things as well like racquet strings and tennis ball cans all add up to a lot of waste.”

Having moved to the United States from Germany in 1985, Rich was shocked by the lack of recycling. “At that time we already had a flourishing recycling environment in Germany (…) I came to this country and there was nothing. Even today, there’s very little recycling in buildings: the trash goes out and everyone throws everything in the same dumpster.” The same wastefulness was mirrored in sports – in the US and beyond.

Rich wanted to do things differently when he founded startup Conga Sports in 2021 – with a vision to make tennis more sustainable and inclusive. Inspired by his personal love of the sport, Rich set up the company to support grassroots tennis and make it more accessible with innovative programmes and tournaments.

The organisation’s big flagship programme, called City Slams, involves teams of six (three men and three women) playing for their city and community, competing for “trophies and bragging rights”, as Rich explains.

But contrary to your average tennis match, Conga Sports makes fun a priority in its tournaments. For instance, the City Slams teams must come up with a creative group name, as well as dress in inventive costumes and perform a team song. “Our main business is creating innovative and new tennis programmes,” Rich says. “I always tell people: when I wake up in the morning, I’m thinking about things that have never been done in tennis – and these are the things I want to do.”

The plan is also to incorporate extra rules and elements from other sports to spice up the matches, like bringing in red flags from American Football. As Rich explains, “My idea is that people become fans of our tennis show, and show up and pay for the pleasure of seeing the matches.”

But Conga Sports is about more than bringing the fun – Rich wanted to make sure that the organisation was also doing more to help the environment than your average tennis club. So, instead of throwing its old tennis balls away, Conga Sports sends them to Vermont non-profit RecycleBalls, where they’re distributed for reuse as pet toys or recycled into surfaces for equestrian arenas and new tennis courts.

“We can all do much more when it comes to saving the environment,” Rich emphasises. “There are so many areas that need attention: sports, tennis balls – it’s just a small area. But there are 55,000 tennis professionals every year in this country. If half of them did some responsible recycling of tennis balls, we would all be in a better place.”

Conga Sports wants to become the biggest racquet sports provider in the world. That’s my goal,” Rich tells us. Starting with California, the founder hopes to have covered the entire country in about five years, before adding city teams from Mexico and Canada to make a North American Championship. “Then hopefully, in the meantime, we would have already jumped the Atlantic and done work in the UK, Germany, and other parts of Europe.”

As well as expanding geographically, Rich wants the positive impact of Conga Sports to grow as well. Last year, the company partnered up with One Tree Planted and committed to planting one tree for every can of tennis balls used in its programmes.

Because it’s currently a small company, Conga Sports is limited in how many trees it can plant, but Rich emphasises that “small steps from companies like mine are important as well. If many companies did the same as what I do, we’d have much bigger success.” And as Conga Sports grows, Rich has much bigger ambitions: “Our goal for 2030 – it’s a very ambitious goal I must admit – is to have planted one million trees. It’s a big goal, but I’m determined.”

Whether you’re an avid tennis fan or have been hooked on the Euros, the Springwise Library is full of ideas transforming the world of sport and fitness. Why not take a look at:

⚽ Five football-themed innovations

🎾 Tennis accessories made from plastic bottles 

🥱 Smart sportswear that prevents over-exertion

⛷️ Turning algae into high-performance skis

👟 Eco trainers made from recycled materials

Words: Matilda Cox