Wimbledon is more than a tennis grand slam but it's unique character has to be nurtured if it is to avoid being taken over by commercial interests. It is a line that CEO Richard Lewis treads with finesse and passion.
As a teenager, Richard Lewis and his brother once spent the night sleeping on the pavement outside the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) to try and snap up tickets for the following day’s Wimbledon final.
This year, there will again be overnight lines stretching along Church Road as the faithful queue in hope of getting to see the superstars of world tennis up close and personal on the hallowed grass courts. But Lewis won’t be among them. Instead, he will be at the very heart of the operation responsible for delivering one of world sport’s best-loved events.
‘Iconic’ is a word that has become somewhat overused in recent times, but when it comes to Wimbledon and the Championships, it is absolutely appropriate. Wimbledon is about delivering a stunning-but consistent experience, creating a stage for feats of sporting brilliance – and everything about it is special. Alongside golf’s Masters, the Monaco grand prix and maybe the Melbourne Cup it is a rare thing in sport – an event that is not simply unique in the way it is presented, but one that understands itself, which is comfortable in its own skin, and is steeped in history yet willing and able to embrace progress.
Stars come and go, but Wimbledon is always Wimbledon. It is the thread that runs through tennis history from Fred Perry to Andy Murray via Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer…the list goes on. And that’s just the men.
Today, Wimbledon is Lewis’ domain, and it is one he knows better than most. He was not only the boy who camped out to watch the final, but a young man who returned for several years as a player. And while he may not have troubled the trophy engravers, his experience as a player has certainly contributed to a unique perspective on an event that takes place in a small part of London suburbia yet echoes around the world louder than a Maria Sharapova grunt.
A consumate operator
Since his playing days, Lewis has earned a reputation as one of the UK’s most committed and astute sports administrators, having headed both UK government agency Sport England and the Rugby Football League (RFL). He says that both jobs have played their own part in shaping and preparing him for the challenges of acting as custodian and nurturer-in-chief of one of sport’s most precious brands.
“Working in rugby league was a tremendous experience,” he says. “It was a sport that was changing quickly and where the impact of change was felt at every level of the game. I learnt lessons there from the leadership challenges that were presented to a relatively small group of people.
“Sport England was different, and the challenge every day was getting more and more people to play sport, which is just such a positive thing to do and something that is entirely in line with my passion for the values of sport. It was also a role that involved working closely with government, and that meant learning how to be influential behind the scenes.
“I have always said that in sports administration, all roles have a lot in common – you are dealing with players and coaches and issues around scheduling. When I arrived at Wimbledon, one of the first things I had to do was agree schedule changes that would give us three weeks between the end of Roland Garros and the beginning of the Championships.
“That was important because of the recovery time it gave to the players, ensuring that the event benefited and world tennis benefited. It also gives them an extra week on grass and the move was supported by the players.”
Leadership, passion and diplomacy are all qualities demanded of Wimbledon’s chief executive, as is the ability to understand a complex organisation responsible not simply for delivering the world’s greatest tennis tournament as an event, but the commercial operation that supports it. The Championships need to generate not only prize money that escalates year-on-year, but they also need to fund a programme of development designed to ensure that Wimbledon remains at the cutting edge.
And that’s a major job. Not everyone understands that the All- England Club is not just about the two weeks of the Championships, says Lewis, but it is the Wimbledon brand that, he admits, dominates the thinking of those who work at the AELTC.
While Roland Garros has its red clay and the US Open those steamy New York night games, Wimbledon is defined by something very different. Of course, the fact that it is the only grand slam played on grass is central to its appeal, but there is more to it than that.
“Wimbledon has always been about tennis being played in an English garden environment, and we are proud and determined that it should remain quintessentially English,” says Lewis.
Wimbledon may be sport at its most genteel but it is too easy, too lazy and inaccurate to describe it simply as Middle England’s big day out, because that disguises something very special and very Wimbledon. Sure, the average fan at Wimbledon is likely to be from the sort of demographic that certain brands would kill for, but they know their tennis and appreciate greatness above all else.
A balancing act
In many respects, the Championships are played in the Republic of Wimbledon, a neutral state of tennis where talent is applauded at whatever level it is played. And above all, they know and love Brand Wimbledon and the place it has come to occupy in their lives. But, as Lewis points out, being custodian of a brand built on values and notions that may seem to belong to another era does not mean it can ever become locked in a time warp. The trick is to innovate and evolve without losing what’s so precious about the past.
And that balancing act was front of mind earlier this year when Lewis and his team announced infrastructure developments that will ensure Wimbledon retains its edge as a venue for generations to come. The ‘masterplan’ looks some two decades into the future and follows on from an earlier phase of development that kicked off back in 1993 and culminated most spectacularly in the commissioning of the retractable roof on centre court, new number one, two and three courts and the creation of the Millennium Building.
Under the new masterplan, there will be a roof for number one court by 2019, new hospitality facilities and a rebuild of the northern end of the grounds to include the creation of new courts. Importantly, there are also plans to create additional seating areas for ground passholders on some of the show courts, widening the opportunity for members of the public to experience some of the major match-ups between the real titans of tennis.
“There is a lot of operational work planned and a lot of it will take place under ground,” says Lewis. “We plan to create a new show court and new player facilities including a player arrival area.
“But these changes all reflect our determination to maintain our position in world tennis. It really is a golden era for the sport and Wimbledon is where people can be a part of that.
“Our aim is to ensure that there is something for everybody here. You can watch the greatest players, take in games on the outside courts and enjoy tremendous food and beverage offerings.”
Wimbledon may wear its Englishness on its sleeve, but it is an indisputably global event and the combination of long-term and growing broadcast relationships with the innovative use of digital media is growing its media footprint significantly.
“The BBC is signed through to 2017 while ESPN is locked in for the next 12 years,” says Lewis. “We are very excited about Live at Wimbledon , which is available on our website and as an iPad app – we use that to provide an experience which is the next best thing to being there.
“There is demand for coverage of every single game from one part of the world or another and the business model for meeting that demand is evolving. For example, in the Far East there is far more online viewing than in Europe.
“There is no conflict with our broadcasters, instead an acceptance that the digital offering feeds the broadcast audience and vice versa.”
Unsurprisingly, a global audience is opening the door to new potential commercial partners and, once again, digital growth has been an important factor. Unlike other tournaments, Wimbledon has preserved it modesty so far as sponsors are concerned. The relationship between the Championships and partners including Rolex, Evian, HSBC and IBM is as understated as the outfits of lady players in the 1920s, and because “in your face” branding is a no-no, there is a school of thought that suggests Wimbledon partners have had to work smarter, if not harder, to get their messages across.
“Digital has certainly created more opportunities and more ways of doing business,” says Lewis. “The UK is naturally very important to us, but there is room for growth around the world. We will work with each of our partners to help them achieve their global objectives.
“Expanding the brand around the world is important and a new deal in China with CCTV will give us 40-50 hours of live coverage which, along with regional broadcast relationships, puts us in around 250 million households in an important market. That’s good for Wimbledon, of course, but it is also good for our partners.
“Relationships are important to us and they have to be appropriate. We would turn away brands that don’t meet our criteria, because it is not all about the money. It is much more about their brand and where they are positioned in their sector. We have a lot of opportunities, but there are times when less really is more.
“If you look at tennis over the years, it is clear that the nationality of the top stars has a big impact on audiences and the popularity of the sport. But we are a global event. Whether the stars are from China, Scotland or the US, the Championships will benefit from the interest and attention created.”
As his second Wimbledon Championships approach, Lewis has a lot on his plate, but ask him what he is looking forward to the most, and his answer reveals not only his passion for tennis but for introducing youngsters to the sport.
“What I remember from last year is the Saturday before the Championships when everything was ready and the players were practising on the courts and the youngsters from the Rover Junior Tennis Initiative were here. The weather was good, nobody had lost yet and everybody had a smile on their face. It was a great atmosphere.
“Then, of course, there’s the first day of the Championships when you open the gates and watch the crowds streaming in. That’s when you really know that you’re off and running.”