IT’S A GREY MAY AFTERNOON in Madrid and home nation favourite Rafael Nadal is on his way to victory against Portugal’s Joao Sousa in the quarter-final of the men’s event at the Mutua Madrid Open.
The backdrop is the majestic Caja Magica – Magic Box – and the roof of the main court is closed against intermittent rain, something which would normally help ramp up the atmosphere. But although many of the standard ingredients of a great sports event are in place, there’s something missing: a large chunk of the crowd. There are empty seats everywhere.
It’s not as though the Madrid Open entirely fails to capture the imagination of the Madrid public and the ATP Tour’s website underlines its popularity with the Real superstars of the city, its galactico footballers. But on this particular Friday, even the presence of one of the sport’s recent greats isn’t enough to ensure a sell-out for the final match of the afternoon session.
Of course, this single snapshot can’t be applied to all tennis tournaments across the world or used as ultimate proof that the sport is suffering from a perpetual malaise and crisis of identity. But it is certainly indicative of some of the problems faced by one of the few sports that can claim to be truly global, is played to more or less equal acclaim – if not always equal money – by both men and women, and which successive CEOs, presidents and chairs have believed ‘could do better.’
Tennis appears to have been at the same crossroads for years. From time to time both the ATP (men’s) and WTA (women’s) Tours have re-assessed, re-strategized, re-structured and re-booted, but ultimately the sport seems to return to much the same place.
That’s not to suggest that it is broken. But tennis, like other traditional sports including athletics, has an ageing fan base in many of its core markets and is finding it hard to build a future fan base among young people.
As respected academic Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University, points out: “At a fundamental level, a lot of that is about competition design. Tennis is one of many sports designed in the late 19th and early 20th century, and although there have been changes since then, the world has moved on.
“Everything has changed, from the structure of our cities to the way young people engage with sport. We now live in a more dynamic, fastmoving, complex world and I don’t think that competitions are designed to account for that. Ultimately, it is about whether tennis is fit for purpose in that changed world.
“A lot of sports are not coping well with the millennial market. These are people who have never known anything else but a mobile, internet-connected world. They are instinctively co-creators rather than simply consumers and are less inclined to be interested in organised sport. They are about co-creating their own, spontaneous experiences and that doesn’t necessarily fit in with the pattern of attending a tennis event, where you have to travel to a venue, possibly queue up to get in and then sit in an allocated seat for hours. There may even be rules to prevent them from filming.
“These are profound changes which throw up profound challenges for sport. The point is that tennis can only be successful in its current format among people who are predisposed to like it. What about the others? How do you get to engage people whose own predisposition is for a phone, a skateboard and a group of friends in a multi-storey car park? These are people whose culture of consuming is built around sharing and freedom.”
Chadwick believes that it is ultimately fruitless to continue to build the sport only around people who already love it.
“You have to imagine what a tennis tournament would look like if you asked a 15-year-old to design it,” he adds. “Have conversations with them; it is important.”
As reported on pages 30-34, the ATP Tour is in the process of surveying younger fans to find out what format changes would improve the game and make them more inclined to watch it. While getting young people to watch tennis is one thing, encouraging them to pick up a racquet is quite another.
“There are still some cultural barriers in some markets,” Chadwick says. “It’s often about places and spaces to play, but you also have to remember that one of the places that young people engage with sport is on their consoles and while lots of them play football games, it’s difficult to think of them playing tennis games.”
The picture painted of the future could apply to any one of a number of sports and tennis is by no means the worst-placed when it comes to continuing relevance and traction. There is no inherent reluctance to consider change, evidenced by almost continual debate within the sport about how the game is served up and the format of competitions and individual matches. The unpredictable length of games is a key issue for fans and broadcasters, and discussions about the number of sets played, as well as the stage at which tie-breaks kick in, are commonplace.
Top administrators have also appeared to be willing to face up to the need for change. From Mark Miles and Larry Scott to Chris Kermode at the ATP Tour to Stacey Allaster and now Steve Simon at the WTA, each has listened and made adjustments to move the sport forward. Little more than a year into his term at the WTA, Simon’s vision of the future of women’s tennis is one in which more content is available to more fans, allowing them to follow their local heroes throughout the course of a season. Add to that plans to create greater distinction between the various tiers of the tour – effectively creating stories around promotion and relegation from one to another – and the tiller will have been shifted to set the game on a new course.
According to Steve Martin, CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, it is important that, in changing the game, the authorities don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
“What has been great about tennis over the years is its continuity through the eras,” he says. “At more or less any point over the last 40 years there has been really high-end competition between four or five players, which built them into huge household names. That has been the lifecycle of tennis. There were stars who actually transcended the world of tennis.
“The sport has also evolved a natural calendar around the slams with Wimbledon becoming almost like The Masters in golf and creating a focus for a worldwide audience. That has helped keep the game alive.
“The problem is that if you were to ask people on the High Street, I think most would be struggling to name players beyond the top three in the world in the men’s game and, other than the Williams sisters and Sharapova, that might be lower for the women.
“You have to ask what’s left if you take the stars out of tennis and, from a global marketing perspective, it is an issue.
“Sport needs good guys and bad guys to set up contests that people care about, and I’m not sure that’s there in tennis. As a sport, it can be a bit robotic and all about power. The truth is that too much of it has become missable.”
Joanne Warnes, chief operating officer at HSE Cake, which runs the Barclays sponsorship of the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals, believes that there is a depth of talent in the men’s game that makes tournaments interesting as young talent tries to break through, creating ‘interesting pathways to finals.’
But, she says, the domination of the women’s game by Serena Williams is both a strength and a weakness.
“There are no other personalities or talents that have been truly been able to cut through consistently,” she says.
So what needs to be done to ensure that tennis is fit for the purpose of new fans without alienating the significant existing audience?
“Access to players and their lifestyles is growing via social media,” says Warnes, who also feels that having more tournaments featuring both the ATP and WTA players would create additional focus.
“Doubles is hugely untapped – the rivalries, personalities, how the game is played, the tactics are all so different and make for a great spectacle, and the sport could do so much more to promote and push these players and the doubles game to the fore.
“The growth and resurgence of interest and viewership of the Davis Cup, which was once dominated by the US, has opened up a new format of viewing and supporting the game, which has, for countries like Great Britain, Argentina, Belgium and Switzerland, started to see depth in numbers by talent growing.”
Warnes also cites pricing and availability of tickets for big events as a barrier to growth.
“You only need to look at the success of the middle Sunday at Wimbledon [when fans without tickets are allowed to queue to gain access to the tournament] to see and feel the difference in the energy of the crowds compared to the rest of the tournament,” she says.
“TV coverage remains in the most part on paid channels, so the exclusivity of the game won’t break through to the full mainstream unless this changes. To win new fans and engage with younger audiences, traditional channels need to look at how they consume media. Social platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and multi-channel viewing all need to be considered for the long term.
“Also, tournaments need to consider the live experience. The US Open offers open access to the majority of courts in the early rounds, enabling fans to move between courts and capture different games in part or full. The closeness to players on the practice courts gives a new dimension to understanding the game.
“The Barclays ATP World Tour Finals makes a show of the event to draw in the audience and raise excitement levels. Too few tournaments look to offer a greater depth of fan experience.”