With the French Open in the books and Wimbledon well underway, tennis season is upon us. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Same old? Maybe the jury is still out a bit, but the early days at The All England Club have again showed how the sport is still trying to find its niche amongst the high tech, all access, and get it done yesterday world sports business is in today.
First you have the two professional tours, the ATP and the WTA, who encourage their players to engage with fans through social media, and in the case of the WTA, have launched an aggressive new global ad campaign to better tell the stories of the personalities on their tour. Then you have officials who complain at player’s outfits, actions and even grunting on court as a distraction to the game. You have players like the Williams sisters designing their own outfits and brands like Nike and adidas spending large amounts to promote the sport, and then you have Roger Federer getting reprimanded for having too much color on the BOTTOM of his tennis shoes at Wimbledon, where all white is the tradition.
You have the raucous environment of Davis Cup and the forward thinking fan friendly excitement of Mylan World Team Tennis, which continues to be the engine driving one of the loudest voices in the game in Billie Jean King and her business partner Ilana Kloss, and then you have the restrictions on excess sound and fan movement during most major tennis events.
“From an event standpoint tennis has the tough challenge of mixing the traditional while trying to grasp a new audience that is not familiar with the game, and that balance is not easy to strike,” said Dan Mannix, CEO of Lead Dog Marketing, one of the leading consumer event companies in the sports and entertainment space. “To do that you have to find the right balance of integrating new platforms and technology and creating grassroots support while keeping the traditional tennis consumer happy. That balance may be a little easier with a mega event like the US Open in New York but it gets trickier when you have to consistently mix in cultures and stadia and players who are global. Everyone has to but in, and getting that buy in across the board should be the goal.”
Can the sport have it both ways to engage with a new audience? “It is certainly the biggest challenge in the game today, and I don’t think we market or grow out sport correctly and we haven’t in a long time,” said John McEnroe, one of the games loudest voices that resonates with casual fans. “We are trying things with our Academy (on Randall’s Island in New York) to make the game more accessible to kids from the inner-city that need to be exposed to tennis, but clearly that’s just us and that more has to be done in other cities to give us more of a chance, and it certainly is not easy.”
The challenges of running a global sport are many, from different surfaces to governing bodies to sponsor commitments, but there are continued signs that tennis is moving in the right direction to be more engaging. In the first week of Wimbledon, American Bethanie Mattek-Sands has been experimenting Google Glasses, the hands-free headset that functions similar to a smart phone or computer. She is part of a select Google Explorer group of about a thousand people who are testing the product in pre-release format. While not using them yet in matches, she has used them in practice sessions and has provided an amazing sneak peak into what high tech can bring to tennis with such devices. The sport already uses hand held tablets for officials scoring but the further use of analytics married to video, as well as tablets in coaching before matches or even during matches, is still a ways off. There is also the use of more mobile technology to keep fans engaged and involved as well as a batter second screen possibility that will and could help advance interest in professional tennis.
“We have had some very active engagements with both tours and with the USTA on what can be done with analytics and video both for the fan and for the competitors, and are hopeful that it will lead to greater enhancements in all aspects of the game at some point,” said Bill Squadron, President of analytics leader Bloomberg Sports. “While not as essential as it is in sports like baseball, soccer and even the NFL, the use of data married to video can be a big enhancement to lifting the sport and we are looking forward to helping as things progress.”
One other area of progress on the business side of tennis is in having new or different voices involved in growing the game. While veterans like McEnroe and King are important, new leadership in countries like Singapore, where the WTA Championships will be played, is certainly essential to growth. The sport will also get another interesting bounce in just a few weeks, when King’s WTT season makes its breakneck run through the month of July. The league’s two-time defending champions the Washington Kastles, will look to break the LA Lakers all-sports record for consecutive wins. Washington has won 32 straight—one off the all-time record of 33 that the 1971-72 Lakers still hold.
The team has had a mix of star players and young faces over is history, but it is its owner, DC entrepreneur Mark Ein, that has made the difference from a business standpoint. Ein has positioned the team as a centerpiece of Washington sports business and society, with sellout crowds and a fun atmosphere making the team as much a part of the DC scene as the Nationals and the Redskins, at least in the month of July. That type of atmosphere embodies King’s vision for the sport, one which the fan experience is as important as what goes in between the lines. A vision which Ein hopes can get even more exposure nationally this summer and into the future.
“The focus of the Kastles is how to use the team to give back to the community,” Ein said. “We do clinics for inner-city kids both in our stadium and in the neighborhood, we give out 1,000 free tennis rackets a year and we bring 1,000 kids to the matches for free each season. My hope is that these experiences influence and even change the lives of a bunch of these kids.”
Change the lives, build the fan base, and grow the sport.
Sounds like a simple plan, but in the complex world of sports business, simple is never as easy as it sounds. Google Glasses and record breaking streaks will help to generate new buzz for the old game as it fights to grow in an increasingly competitive landscape not just across the summer months but well into the future. How successful the efforts will be, that remains to be seen.