Tennis becomes a profitable player

From Wimbledon to the ATP World Tour Finals there's big money in the pro game now. But can the UK sport keep growing without nurturing its grass roots?

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Update: This year, Wimbledon is using the machine learning power of IBM's Watson supercomputer to figure out who's supporting which tennis player. The idea is to help its social media team better engage with the growing legion of tennis fans worldwide.

This is just one example of how the sport of tennis is innovating would to compete in the cutthroat entertainment industry. In this feature from May 27 2015, MT went to Centre Court to take a look at how the business of tennis is run.  

The Championships are only weeks away and not a blade of grass or a single ivy creeper is out of place at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Other than a few cars parked outside Centre Court, it's just as it would be the very day before play begins. Inside the clubhouse, barely 50 feet from the entrance Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic so often use on men's finals day, a dozen members are playing bridge. A kettle is boiling in a kitchen. Notices for social events and league matches at what is after all a working tennis club hang on the wall. It's an unlikely site for a 21st-century sport revolution.

Behind Wimbledon's immaculate exterior, however, change is afoot. Indeed, chairman Philip Brook says it's beneath our feet. A labyrinth of subterranean tunnels has been silently growing under the 42-acre site since 1997 to ease the Herculean task of catering for 39,000 visitors a day. All those strawberry punnets and Pimm's bottles have to go somewhere. Then there's the Centre Court roof. At an estimated £100m, putting a 3,000-tonne retractable ceiling on a 1920s arena wasn't cheap, and the club's masterplan calls for another over Number 1 Court by 2019. Wimbledon, however, isn't exactly short of cash.

Last year its official surplus on turnover of £169.7m was £32m, up from £25.6m in 2008. It isn't alone: all the major tennis tournaments have experienced similar growth. Federer and Rafael Nadal earned $56.2m and $45.5m respectively last year, making them among the world's top-10 highest-paid athletes, according to Forbes, Indeed, by endorsements alone, only Tiger Woods is ahead of Federer, who last won a Grand Slam three years ago. Total player sponsorship worldwide reached over $700m last year.

British number one Andy Murray enters the court at November's Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Credit: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

To figure out where all this extra money's coming from, leave the grass of Wimbledon behind for a moment and travel across London to the O2 Arena, home of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. The clue's in the name. There's a sponsor for the event, another for the match statistics - even the aces are brought to you by Mercedes-Benz.

Revenue from official partners at the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), which runs the worldwide men's tour, has increased 215% in six years. Sponsors aren't just splurging for names on billboards either. They're getting involved. There's a fan zone at the O2, where visitors can see how their serves compare with the pros' with Ricoh, watch Tecnifibre restring a racquet or pose for the chance to win goodies from Lacoste.

Tennis has taken entertainment values from entertainment venues, says Robert Datnow of the Sports Consultancy, which worked with the World Tennis Association to place the World Tour Finals' sister event in Istanbul. The event there featured a promotional match on the Bosphorus Bridge, courtesy of city authorities keen to get in on the action. 'The marketplace for eyeballs and filling stadia is more competitive now,' he explains. 'Tennis is competing for an entertainment audience. People are making a decision about whether to watch Strictly Come Dancing or the ATP or WTA finals.'

In the face of this competition, the sport is trying to get fans more involved, whether through sponsors or through a rapidly expanding digital media machine. Page impressions at the WTA Tour Finals site, where you can go behind the scenes with Serena Williams or Ana Ivanovic, increased 127% in only one year.

'In other sports, players are more remote. In tennis, players are made to be much more front and centre,' says Datnow.

Tennis allows a unique intimacy between players and spectators, says Clifford Bloxham of Octagon, a talent agency representing celebrities from footballer Daniel Sturridge and ballerina Darcey Bussell to chef Atul Kochhar. 'Every two games, they sit down in front of the camera and you get to share that moment,' he says. 'In football, you never get that.'

This isn't the only marketing box tennis ticks. It's a global, gladiatorial, year-round game, with natural breaks perfectly suited for commercials and analysis. Bloxham points to the way Baileys was invented by Diageo's marketers, who figured out their ideal drink's characteristics and only then made the product. 'If you were to do that with a sport, you'd end up with tennis. You couldn't do better if you tried.'

Female players are particularly marketable. There are three women in Forbes' list of the most endorsed sport personalities in the world - all are tennis players. Andy Murray has to compete with Lewis Hamilton and Cristiano Ronaldo for sponsorship; Maria Sharapova doesn't.

In common with other sports, tennis is busy capitalising on its previously unrealised commercial potential. Blaring rock, swooping spider cams and the thunderous heartbeats that accompany players' line call challenges at the O2 aren't just signs of fan engagement, they're also testament to a new and deliberate dynamism in tennis marketing.

'We've got to try to attract a younger audience and I don't mean kids of 12,' says ATP president Chris Kermode, who was tournament director at the World Tour Finals when it started in London six years ago. 'There's a huge market of light sports fans in their 20s, who maybe bypassed tennis growing up. We want them to taste it.'

Taste it, they have. Last year, 263,000 people came, making it the fourth biggest annual sport event in the UK. It's hard to escape the fact that the World Tour Finals and much of modern tennis are about as far from Wimbledon whites and strawberries and cream as you can get. 'Reaching through old preconceptions' is how Kermode puts it.

Of course, neither he nor anyone else in tennis has a bad word for Wimbledon, but the sport's dramatic transformation surely has implications for its place as the world's top tournament.

'There's only one Wimbledon and only one Centre Court. That place is hallowed. It's eerie, wonderful and superb,' says commentator and former British number one Andrew Castle. 'But the enemy is complacency. You can't stick around and hope it will continue. You've got to make things happen.'

The All-England Club's ambitious infrastructure projects are the most obvious way it's staying ahead of the times. Centre Court's roof guarantees broadcasters a live match on rainy days - only the Australian Open can claim the same. But Wimbledon is innovating in other ways too.

'I was a scoreboard operator in my uni days in the 1970s,' recalls Brook. 'The umpire called the score and we turned the knob. That job's gone now. There's an HD screen, but it looks identical to the board we worked with 40 years ago. We've preserved tradition but in a modern way.'

The All-England Club is jealous of its traditional image. Broadcasters abroad are given strict instructions on how they present the tournament, down to using Wimbledon's precise colours.

A consultant by trade - until 2009 he was a partner at Towers Watson - Brook is unsurprisingly diplomatic but swift to defend Wimbledon's policies. Take debentures, for instance. These 'super-tickets' guarantee a show court seat every day of the Championships for five years, for up to £50,000 each. Doesn't that leave fans out in the cold while corporate sponsors hoard unused seats? 'Now that's not fair. They're actually pretty good at finishing their lunch and getting back on court.' Besides, as 90% of Wimbledon's surplus goes to the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), the sport's governing body, debentures effectively pay for the infrastructure work - the latest batch raised £100m - while making tickets on the public ballot cheaper.

Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams at this year's Australian Open in Melbourne. Credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

What of the big spending sponsors that have become such a visible source of revenue elsewhere in the tennis world? 'Unlike other sporting events, our commercial success is not measured by a list of sponsors,' Brook says. In fact, Wimbledon doesn't even have sponsors. It has a small number of official suppliers, which provide goods and services from scoreboards (Rolex) and cash points (HSBC) to beer (Stella Artois). The club's 'often approached' by others, but wants to keep the list exclusive and on-site branding minimal.

Is Brook never tempted to put a few banners up here or there? IBM No. 1 Court has a certain ring to it, no?

'I think we could improve our short-term financial results significantly,' Brook's smile is controlled, 'if we're prepared to ruin our brand for the long term. That won't happen on my watch.'

One of the reasons for the Championships' success is precisely that there is no overt sponsorship. 'The tradition, that clean image on the TV, you can't get that anywhere else. We'll never be able to prove it, but our sense is that the broadcast side more than makes up for the shortfall we have in sponsorship.' With an estimated global audience of 1.2 billion annually, who net the club upwards of £75m, it's hard to argue with that.

This isn't to say Wimbledon and its partners aren't trying new things, of course. A few years ago, for instance, HSBC set up a grass court in Rockefeller Plaza for passing New Yorkers. Wimbledon's website and social media, meanwhile, are widely regarded as the strongest in the sport. However, flashing banners, instant replays and loud music at change of ends are all out of the question. 'We don't think they are necessarily very consistent with a tennis tournament. There are two people trying to win a match in the most important tournament in the world. Let's focus on that.'

It's not a bad strategy. Ultimately, players like Williams and Djokovic determine the world's premier tournament, and they still prefer Wimbledon. So long as that continues, revenues will surely follow.

So Wimbledon and the global sport are both thriving in their own ways. All's fine and rosy in the world of tennis then? Not quite. We may enjoy watching it, but it appears we are far less interested in actually playing. In 2008-9, 530,900 people took to the court at least once a week, according to Sport England's Active People survey. Last year, it was 384,200. That's more than just the result of a few bad summers.

'We're just not a sporting nation,' laments Castle. 'It's pathetic. Our society's becoming incredibly inactive.' So it's our fault then? 'It's wider society one, LTA two. It doesn't exactly have a brilliant track record.'

The LTA gets blamed for Britain's tennis woes as often as SW19 gets rain. So much so, in fact, that two years ago it brought in Canadian marketer Michael Downey, who won plaudits for revitalising the sport in his home country and has plans to do the same here as LTA boss. 'It's about youthifying it,' he says. 'Tennis has got to roll with the times. The youth of today is different from the youth of 10 years or 20 years ago.'

Snaring young people is clearly important but so too is facing down the threat from easy 'doorstep sports' such as running and cycling. The answer? Change tennis. 'We've got to look at different formats and be far more aggressive in making our sport seem easy to play when people's time's at a premium.' It's less replacing overarm serves or the deuce rule, more online booking and partner-finding sites. I put to him what Castle said to me about the price of public tennis courts and the impact that has on participation. ('It's crap isn't it? Why isn't it free of charge?')

Free provision in some parks is only part of the answer, says Downey. In truth, the LTA doesn't have the money to pay local authorities and park operators to make their courts free. Nonetheless, its participation budget is set to increase 50% by 2019.

To an extent that will be paid for by cutting the performance budget. Britain's track record in producing top players hasn't been amazing either, but Downey believes progress has to come from the bottom.

Besides, a little tough love wouldn't go amiss. This year, Downey imposed an age cap of 20 on the Tournament Bonus Scheme, through which the LTA doubles British players' prize money in the futures circuit, a precursor to the main tour. 'It's a ruthless sport,' he says, pointing out that the average age that players reach the top 100 is 20 for a woman and 21 for a man. 'If your dream is to be a professional tennis player, no one can take that away from you, but we're only going to help fund that dream for so long.'

It will take time to see if the LTA's new strategy pays off. It was certainly enough to convince Sport England to retain its funding for another two years, having previously cut it for not getting the job done.

Will we see another home-grown Wimbledon champion come through as a result? It may take a while for someone else to join Murray on that lonely plinth. For all that a British champion boosts domestic ratings - the Scot's victory in 2013 was the most watched TV event that year - Wimbledon would probably prefer an Asian winner. The potentially huge Chinese market has been in its sights since Li Na won the French Open in 2011, bringing a 300 million-strong audience with her.

Of course, Wimbledon doesn't need a British or Chinese winner to retain its position as the world's premier tennis tournament. It doesn't actually need people picking up racquets every Saturday either. It just has to make sure it doesn't take its eye off the ball.

13 official suppliers, including Rolex and IBM
6,000 staff (200 for the rest of the year)
15,000 bananas eaten by players
28,000kg of strawberries sold
491,084 total attendance (2014)
£1.8m Prize for the winners of both men's and ladies' singles
champions (2015)
473m page impressions on (2014)


Being on the road 35 weeks a year in four continents doesn't come cheap. Ranked 107th, struggling (and fictitious) British journeyman Tim Wade-Perry needs to win matches. Here's his budget for the week of the first MT Fantasy Challenger event, and the prize money up for grabs.

Hotel - 6 days
International flights - 2
Coach's hotel and flights
Food, drink etc.
Racquet, gear etc (paid for by sponsors)
Total costs: £2,500

First round - £330
Second Round - £520
Quarter-finals - £1,600
Semi-finals - £2,700
Winner - £4,600

Main image credit: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

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