The ATP has enjoyed unprecedented growth thanks to the ‘Federer Effect’, but what will happen when the Swiss great and other members of the ‘Big Four’ retire? Ben Cronin talks to ATP Tour executive chairman and president Chris Kermode about a new tournament to promote tennis’s next generation.
When Roger Federer slipped and fell during this year’s Wimbledon semi-final against the Canadian, Milos Raonic, the image had a sad resonance for tennis fans. The man who has danced around the biggest stages on the ATP Tour for the last 18 years looked strangely old and strangely fallible as he picked himself up off the grass and called for a medical timeout. Commentating for the BBC, John McEnroe said the only other time he could remember the Swiss player lying on the court during his distinguished career was when he was basking in the glory of one of his 17 career Grand Slam titles.
Later the same month fans were presented with an even more depressing prospect when it was announced that Federer, who transcends tennis and is widely regarded as the greatest player of all time, would be sitting out the rest of the season to recover from a pre-existing injury incurred while bathing his twin daughters. Although the Swiss great has stated his intention to return to the Tour for a few more years yet, the manner of the injury could hardly have been more apposite in foreshadowing his inevitable retreat from the hothouse of top-level tennis into the tranquil domesticity of retirement.
How the men’s game will cope with the departure of Federer and the decline of Rafael Nadal, his great rival who also fell out of the sport’s top four this October – the first time in 13 years that neither player has been in the sport’s so-called ‘Big Four’ – is something that has been exercising the minds of the game’s top administrators as well as fans.
“We’re at a crossroads in the game,” ATP executive chairman and president Chris Kermode tells SportBusiness International. “It happens in every sport, this changing of the guard, and, like a lot of other sports, we’ve probably been guilty over the years – everybody in the game, not just the associations – of promoting or highlighting the top four too much.
“Normally in the past you probably had one superstar with a close rival and then there was a big drop down to the next level,” he says. “Because we’ve had the ‘Big Four’ and then we throw in Stan [Wawrinka] as well, we have been lucky to have quite a few [stars], probably more than any other generation.”
The ATP Tour’s chief player officer, Ross Hutchins, also points to the top-heavy nature of the sport when he reveals that the average age of the leading male tennis players has increased significantly in recent years. He ascribes this to a virtuous circle, whereby the best players win the most prize money and reinvest this into their tennis by employing the best advisors and conditioning coaches to prolong their careers. This has been both a blessing and a curse for the game.
“It’s a good thing the top players are staying around for longer, but it makes it tougher for the next generation to genuinely come through,” he says. “We used to have a very short time between juniors and seniors, but now, due to the physicality and the modern strain of [the] sport, it’s taking a bit longer.”
As a result, the ATP is confronted with the very real prospect of declining interest in tennis when the current, exceptional crop of players retire and leave the stage to a group of youngsters who have struggled in their shadows to generate the same profile. It is now aiming to address this with a new tournament designed to promote the game’s emerging stars.
“The idea is to start a new NextGen event, get the guys doing a race at the start of the year in January, picking up points all the way through – exactly the same principle as the ATP World Tour Finals – but for the next generation of talent,” says Kermode. “Since I took over [at the ATP Tour], this is the big focus: we need to tell the story of all these other players, so when they do break through, people are aware of them.”
To qualify for the event, players will have to be in the top eight players aged 21 or under in the ATP Tour rankings at the time the inaugural tournament starts in November next year. As Kermode suggests, the tournament borrows the successful format for the ATP World Tour Finals where the top eight players in the world race to compete in the season-ending tournament at the O2 Arena in London.
At the time of going to press, the ATP Tour was still in negotiations to finalise the venue for the NextGen tournament, but it was able to reveal that it was partnering with the Italian Tennis Federation and that Milan was the front-runner to host the event, subject to site visits.
However, the work to promote the players who are most likely to appear at the tournament has already begun. Visit the ATP World Tour website and it’s easy to identify a distinct promotional push which borrows the look and feel of the marketing for the ATP World Tour Finals, in which eight of the most high-profile players line up for the camera and practise their most serious game-faces.
There is also an effort to put some backstory on the game’s most talented under-21 players, with a series of vignettes and features that trace their achievements on the Tour. Any reference to these players in match reports is preceded with a #NextGen hashtag, while promotional short-form videos on YouTube and the ATP website show them engaging in distinctly Millennial pursuits, like searching for Pokémon characters in the downtime between matches at a tournament in Cincinnati.
We need to tell the story of all these other players, so when they do break through, people are aware of them
This, says Kermode, is part of a two-pronged strategy, not only to increase the profile of these players, but also to engage with the next generation of fans.
“Our fans are getting older and we need to bring in the next generation of fans, just like you need to replace players,” he adds.
To help with this, Kermode says the NextGen event could be the perfect the place to trial changes to the tennis format that would make it appeal to a younger audience. These could include such innovations as four-game sets, no lets for net cords on the serve, the introduction of shot clocks and the removal of warm-ups for players. But rather than force these changes on to its target audience, the ATP Tour is working with SMG Insight to survey fans in Europe, the United States and Asia about the best way forward.
“We’ve already started doing focus groups, talking to hardcore tennis fans, light sports fans as well, and asking them what it would take for them to watch more tennis,” he adds. “Maybe people will tell us not to tamper with it at all, but maybe there will be some really great ideas [that come from the research]. It’s all contingent on what the focus groups say.
“We’ll also ask players, we’ll ask tournament promoters, we’ll ask media, fans and sponsors as well. Those are the five stakeholders and we need to get input from all the five stakeholders to ask what they want and what could be looked at.”
Another question that will be asked of the ATP Tour’s existing roster of sponsors is whether they want to support the event in the same way that they support the rest of the Tour. Kermode says current ATP Tour partners will be given an exclusive negotiating period to sponsor the NextGen event before it is offered to other companies.
In the Tour’s existing partner programme the ATP owns the inventory on the net at Tour events, which goes to its Global Premier Partner Emirates, while activation of other Tour-wide sponsor packages – by companies like FedEx and Peugeot – is implemented on a tournament-by-tournament basis. After that, each respective tournament sells its own sponsorship inventory locally.
Although sponsorship for the under-21 event is still being defined, a spokesperson for the ATP Tour revealed that the net sponsorship would be reserved for Emirates, should they wish to take it, and the airline category would remain exclusive to Emirates regardless.
Whatever the sponsor, Kermode is optimistic that the new event will be an attractive proposition.
“For me, this is one of the easiest sells, because I think there are so many people who will want to be involved in it for all the right reasons,” he says. “It is an exciting time; this is getting in at the beginning with the new generation of players, but it’s also being part of something that is of huge interest in determining the future of the game.”
If the fan focus groups also call for changes to the format of the matches at the event, Kermode thinks this will attract new partners who are also trying to engage with the cord-cutting generation.
“It’s too early to say, but I think we would go with the less traditional brands and go for brands that would align themselves with this younger generation of players and fans,” he says.
To engage fully with this demographic, Kermode acknowledges that the event will inevitably need to be broadcast through a combination of live streaming, linear TV and social media. For all of these elements, the ATP could be said to be in a strong position thanks to investments in its ATP Media arm, which produces and broadcasts 125,000 hours of tennis content each year and then packages it differently for broadcast partners, social media and the ATP’s own OTT offering, TennisTV.
“We’ve got to think about how we bring the on-site experience to life on TV and on what platforms,” he says. “We’re working with ATP Media, who have done a huge amount of research on this and on how Millennials are consuming any information and any sports content. It is changing so quickly that we have to ask how we can do things in a way that will attract that audience to watch and we’ll see what the research comes back with.”
Kermode adds that the media rights for the NextGen tournament will be packaged and sold together with other ATP Tour events.
“We’re currently going through a process of aggregating all of our rights and content, and that’s the traditional linear TV, our data rights and live streaming, so [NextGen] will be part of that package, sold through ATP Media,” he says. “At the moment, all of the Masters 1000 [tournaments] are already part of the package, all the 500s are part of the package and we’re in this process of trying to push all the 250s to join the package. They are individual promoters, so they’ve done individual deals and it’s a timing issue of when we can put a marker in the sand and say from this date on, everything is under one umbrella.”
The other element that will determine the success of the event is buy-in from the players. But as the closest point of contact with this group, Hutchins says he detects a genuine enthusiasm from the younger generation towards the event. He thinks both players and their sponsors fully appreciate that what’s good for the ATP Tour will be good for them.
“Players react very well to people taking an interest in them,” he says. “If we are able to promote this event in such a way that it becomes a pinnacle event of the sport, as we do with our other big events, we are confident that the players will value this extremely highly.”
Hutchins thinks a large prize pot will also help in closing the gap to the higher-ranked players. Another spokesperson for the ATP suggested the Tour would be prepared to make a loss on the tournament for the greater good of the game. Equally, the ATP views NextGen as a promotional event and would reinvest any profit back into the tournament.
“I haven’t got a figure guaranteed yet, but I think it will be quite a good pay-cheque for these guys, because we also want it to be appealing to help support them,” says Hutchins. “They can then reinvest it in their tennis and that will help them to progress and move up the rankings quicker.”
Judging by the recent men’s rankings, a shift already appears to be taking place in the game, even before the inaugural event, raising the once-distant prospect that a player in the under-21 category might qualify for the NextGen event and the World Tour Finals taking place within a week of each other in November next year. At the time of going to press, the 19-year old German, Alexander Zverev, was ranked a career-high 21st on the Emirates ATP Tour rankings, bucking a recent trend whereby teenage players have been taking longer to break through.
“It would be a great thing to have if a player could qualify for both events,” says Hutchins. “The players are mandated to play the 21-and-under event, but if they do qualify for the World Tour Finals, that’s the one thing that [exempts them].
“We’re confident that we have a very strong group coming next after this incredible group of players. This year’s been a very impactful year and a year when we underestimated just how much they would push through.”
As the Tour enjoys the last few years of Federer, Kermode thinks it can console itself that there is still some life in the recent duopoly developing between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at the top of the game. By seeking to promote the next generation of talent now, he also thinks the sport is fixing the roof while the sun shines.
“The game is in the best place it’s ever been – that’s a fact. In terms of on-site attendance, TV numbers, all the key metrics are the best they’ve ever been,” he says.
“For me, the challenge is how can we enhance that. You generally get a much more dynamic buy-in from people to make change when their businesses aren’t doing very well. We’re not in that position, but we’ve got to look at where we’re going to be in 10 years’ time. Can we be even better than now?”
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