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The Business of Wimbledon: Brand and Media

Wimbledon's long-term commercial strategy is driven by an increased focus on projecting itself as a global brand and protecting its standing as a premium sports property. Ben Cronin speaks to Mick Desmond, commercial and media director for the All England Club (AELTC) and James Ralley, head of marketing, commercial and hospitality about how this strategy boosts the value of its media rights.

Mick Desmond, AELTC commercial director. Credit: Jon Buckle / AELTC

  • All England Club takes over as host broadcaster this year
  • Production unit helps tournament to dial up Wimbledon traditions
  • Focus on brand designed to drive up media rights values

Meticulously mown grass, strawberries and cream, floral displays and John McEnroe taking issue with a line call. The traditions and imagery that attend the Wimbledon Championships are so familiar and well-worn to the average British person or tennis fan that it might come as a surprise to learn that the famous tournament would ever feel it needed to work on its brand. Yet that is what the All England Club (AELTC), in its relentless quest for improvement, decided to do two years ago.

Scotching the idea that there’s anything parochial about the leadership team at one of sport’s oldest and most famous private members clubs, it commissioned the McCann advertising agency to carry out research into what the world really thought about its flagship tennis event.

Although the findings of the study confirmed that Wimbledon is well-understood in the UK, the US and more mature Northern European tennis markets, it also revealed a lack of awareness about its history and traditions with emerging audiences.

“I think British people probably think that it is this amazingly iconic event everywhere,” says James Ralley, head of marketing, commercial and hospitality for the AELTC. “But actually, genuine understanding isn’t perhaps as well established as you’d think.”

The upshot of the relationship with McCann has been the ‘In Pursuit of Greatness’ series of marketing videos that reinforce the exceptionalism of the tournament and its traditions – particularly those that have less to do with the tennis – and build on the sort of affinity even non-tennis fans feel for the event in its core markets.

But the relationship has also reinforced a more fundamental tenet of the AELTC’s thinking. Now, more than ever, the primacy of the Wimbledon brand and the need to invest in it, but also protect it, is at the heart of every commercial decision the tournament makes.

Mick Desmond, commercial and media director for the AELTC, explains how this ‘long-term’ approach is designed, principally, to drive the value of its media rights – plus the limited number of sponsorship rights it makes available – as well as to safeguard audiences for the tournament.

“If anything, the top-end sport and the premium propositions that are investing in their brand will prosper, providing they don’t get complacent,” he says. “I think that second and third tier are going to struggle.”

Such a strategy, he argues, is justified in an increasingly constrained sponsorship market where rights-holders are having to work much harder to attract sponsors and a media market where the values broadcasters are paying for premium sports leave less money to go around for second- and third-tier properties.

“We felt like we needed to behave like a global brand but also behave like a media owner,” says Desmond, alluding to the McCann campaign and the decision the tournament took to develop its own in-house production capability two years ago. The AELTC has spent £4m building a new broadcast centre and recruited Paul Davies, the BBC’s former executive producer for tennis, to head up its broadcast operations. This year’s Championships will be the first time it takes over from the BBC as host broadcaster of the tournament – a development which allows it to take control of its messaging.

Desmond explains how the new production operation will allow the tournament to respond, for instance, to research from McCann which revealed why Wimbledon was only the third most popular Grand Slam in Brazil. The findings indicated that audiences in the country preferred the more sociable atmospheres of the US Open and the French Open to the ‘stuffy’ ambience of Wimbledon, so the production unit will send Brazilian audiences fewer shots of the Royal box and more coverage of the rowdier and more carnivalesque crowds that watch the tournament from ‘Henman Hill’, (the mound that sits alongside Centre Court from where general admission fans can watch the tennis on a big screen).

“I always work on the 85-15 principle,” he says. “85% of the global host feed that goes out will be exactly the same. We want it to be high-quality and as beautifully shot as it can be, with storytelling and everything else. The other 15% is the nuance and the market. You have to respect what’s going to be important to a Japanese viewer versus an Australian viewer versus a Brazilian viewer.”

The host broadcast operation will also allow Wimbledon to show coverage of all 18 courts for the first time, meaning it can respond to the need for coverage of specific players for different markets, but Ralley says the freedom it gives the tournament to set up its own beauty cameras and tell stories away from the tennis is of equal importance.

“We will obviously focus on the tennis but we can bring to life the other elements of the event that are so special and make Wimbledon Wimbledon,” he says.

This, he argues, will protect audiences should the next crop of tennis stars be less compelling than the current generation led by players like Federer, Nadal and Serena Williams.

“I think any sport would suffer when you have such huge icons leaving the sport but I think that’s why we’ve begun to invest,” he says. “We’re trying to ensure that brand can stand on its own two feet and be as big an icon as the individuals.”

Focus on brand boosts crossover appeal and rights value

The decision to take the production capability in-house and focus on wider elements such as food, fashion and the look and feel of the grounds will help Wimbledon build on its position as a crossover event that appeals to non-tennis audiences, says Desmond.

The history and stature of the tournament are already valued by broadcasters, particularly in the US, who also appreciate the fact that it appeals to a 50:50 male and female demographic. “It just brings people in who traditionally probably wouldn’t watch tennis,” he says.

But he is also at pains to stress how the move will help broadcasters cater for core tennis fans. “It’s not just the linear signal, they can take all the content on different platforms. It’s the juniors, it’s the legends, it’s the seniors, it’s the wheelchair tennis. I think there’s more of a demand to fill their air-time.”

The tournament’s policy of meticulously protecting its brand, particularly where sponsorship negotiations are concerned, appears to be vindicated by its overseas media revenues, particularly in the US, the largest overseas market for its rights. Wimbledon earns $40m per year from its 12-year deal with ESPN, from 2012 to 2023, a figure that dwarves the $2.5m per year the Australian Open earns, for instance, from ESPN in the same country.

“The reasons for us being [so popular] in the US are twofold,” says Desmond. “One, we’re long-term established and the Americans love Britain and quintessentially English things and secondly, we’re lucky we sit in a fantastic place in the schedule – there’s no NFL, no NBA.”

In an interview with TV Sports Markets in 2015, Desmond said Wimbledon’s media-rights strategy was driven by a blend of ‘coverage, reach, going out live, having cooperation and, of course, money’. This standpoint hasn’t changed in the intervening period.

The tournament’s domestic deal with the BBC is an example of the importance the AELTC places on broadcasters who provide it with the ‘oxygen’ of big audiences, multi-platform viewing and cross-promotion in their other programming.

“We dominate BBC One throughout daytime and up until 6pm and then, depending on the match, they’ll shift the schedule onto BBC Two,” he says. “You’ve got huge, ubiquitous coverage in the week leading up to our championships, we get promoted the hell out of, we’re on their morning programme, we come on the news.”

Desmond says the more live coverage Wimbledon gets, the more the value of the content increases, and disagrees with the notion that Wimbledon would earn more if it agreed a deal with a pay-TV broadcaster in the UK.

“I think we might have [earned more money] two or three years ago, if I’m being candid, when Sky had a very large chequebook and they would throw cheques around,” he says.

“It would be a tough decision to leave the BBC, but we’ve also made sure that we kept the BBC’s feet to the fire in terms of what our value is. And I think in renewing with the BBC we did a very early evaluation that if we were to take it out into the commercial market, what the value would be, so we wanted fair value for it.”

Wimbledon’s four-year deal with the BBC, from 2021 to 2024, is worth about £65m per year, which compares favourably with domestic deals for the other Grand Slams. The US Open earns about $75m (£56.6m) per year from its exclusive deal with ESPN, from 2015 to 2025; the French Open will earn an average of €19.5m (£17.4m) per year from its deal with France’s public-service broadcaster France Télévisions (2019-2020), while the Australian Open will earn A$60m (£34.8m) per year from its recent deal with Nine from 2020-2024 (a figure which includes rights to the Australian Open Series of events leading up to the tournament, the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup).

The idea that £65m per year represents a decent value for Wimbledon’s domestic rights is reinforced by the belief among experts that the two-week duration of the tournament would make it difficult for commercial or pay-television broadcasters to recoup the rights fee paid by the BBC via advertising or subscription revenue.

The tournament agreed the BBC deal directly with the broadcaster rather than put it to tender, but its approach differs in other markets depending on the competitive dynamics. Desmond points to the German market, where a formal tender is currently out, as an example of its flexible market-by-market approach.

“What we’ve seen in Germany is a disproportionate interest and demand,” he says. “You’ve seen the OTT operators far more pronounced than in other territories. DAZN, which is owned by Perform, has been there for three years, for Amazon, alongside the UK, it’s obviously a second-tier market after the US and you’ve got a reinvigorated Eurosport owned by Discovery, so for us I guess the position’s changed from three years ago when we last put those rights out.”

Amazon’s acquisition of exclusive UK TV rights to the US Open hasn’t gone unnoticed by Desmond and he doesn’t miss an opportunity to use its entry into tennis to stir up competitive tension when he is asked about the company.

“We’ve been talking to Amazon for about 15 months, as with Facebook,” he says, adding that he thinks the US Tennis Association decided to ‘dip a toe in the water’ with the tech giant because it received a disappointing offer from Sky for the rights. He envisages there will be interest from the company in one or two of Wimbledon’s regions that are out for tender in the next 12 months, but also speculates that Amazon might buy an established media company in Europe, such as his former company ITV [Desmond was CEO of ITV broadcasting from 2003-2005].

“I wouldn’t rule out someone like an Amazon or a Facebook acquiring an established media company, certainly if it’s got a huge production capability,” he says. “What’s going to happen to ITV? Does ITV get bought by one of these European entities to give them a European foothold? I think positive disruption is good for us as a global sports rights-holder.”

The benefit for Wimbledon, however, of taking over as the host broadcaster is that it makes its rights more appealing to operators without their own production capability and enables it to hold onto rights when it doesn’t feel it is getting fair value. It also puts Wimbledon in a strong position to create its own direct-to-consumer offering.

Desmond says Wimbledon has no plans ‘in the very short term’ to create such a platform but says the threat is enough to keep its media partners honest.

“We’ve got great broadcast and media partners around the world. However, we know things change, whether it’s convergence, acquisition, a territory going through a bad time, that we may well have to take a different route to market,” he says.

“Three years ago, in Russia we had a partner that had been working with us for a number of years, they changed ownership and they took a very aggressive stance towards us and we weren’t suddenly going to give our rights away for a dramatic decline and therefore we created our own channel, we brought in our own Russian talent, we did a deal with a distributor on the platform and actually it performed pretty well.”

To read the second part in this series about Wimbledon’s sponsorship strategy, click here

To read the third part in this series about Wimbledon’s digital strategy, click here

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