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The Business of Wimbledon: Sponsorship

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. In part two of a series on the tournament, Ben Cronin asks Mick Desmond, head of commercial and media for the All England Club and James Ralley, head of commercial and marketing, why the grand slam deliberately limits the number of its sponsors

James Ralley, marketing manager. AELTC Day 11 Friday 04/07/2014 Credit: Jon Buckle / AELTC

  • Tournament has a maximum of 15 sponsors
  • American Express partnership takes it to 14 sponsors overall
  • Sponsorship approach designed to protect media rights values and keep brand ‘premium’

A signature of the Wimbledon sponsorship strategy is a lack of branding or marketing clutter around the courts and the tournament’s highly selective approach to the brands it works with.

Mick Desmond, commercial and media director for the All England Club (AELTC) explains that the strategy is driven by the need to protect the Wimbledon identity and that the tournament has had to refuse meaningful advertising revenues from sponsors who don’t appreciate the need to safeguard the attributes of the property.

“The great thing all of our partners respect is Wimbledon is the hero brand and their association is with a great hero brand,” he says. “I think in some of the conversations we’ve had, other brands don’t get that fact and they want to be the hero brand – they want to dominate and they want to paint us different colours, and we say no because then you take away the very thing that makes us premium.”

He adds that the tournament uses a ‘cocktail of science, gut and common sense’ to assess whether a brand is an appropriate fit for the event and that it prioritises this aspect of a sponsorship over the monetary value of the deal. Its latest partnership with American Express is emblematic: the US-based financial services company was chosen because of its global reach and for its potential to improve the customer experience at the tournament.

“They had an approach that really sort of struck us which was very experience-focused in terms trying to work with us to look at areas of the event that could be improved from a consumer perspective but also from an operational point of view,” says James Ralley, head of marketing, commercial and hospitality for the AELTC. “There’s a vision that we want to try and go to be a cashless site, or at least as close as we can be.”

He adds that it is one of the unwritten rules of the tournament that it should have no more than 15 sponsors at any one time. The American Express deal takes it to 14, but this upper limit is a guideline rather than a target.

Desmond says the tournament’s policy of going ‘deeper rather than wider’ with its sponsors has proved successful in encouraging longer relationships. The announcement of the American Express deal was accompanied by five-year renewals with water brand Evian and official banking partner HSBC while champagne brand Lanson and beer brand Stella Artois renewed for three years each respectively.

The other benefit of a policy of scarcity and selectivity is that it helps to drive the value of the sponsorship rights that are made available.

“I think Wimbledon stands for quality – it’s a mark of quality across lots and lots of different categories and it means something to consumers – so that in itself drives value,” says Ralley. “Obviously having fewer partners helps us to do that and it’s almost as if Wimbledon is seen as endorsing our partners and I think most, or all them, hopefully buy into that.”

He acknowledges Wimbledon’s resemblance to the US Masters in the way it operates a ‘clean site’, devoid of any heavy-handed branding, and the way it subtly integrates partners into its content. Cases in point are the Rolex brand that appears alongside the on-court clock and the Ralph Lauren clothing worn by the officials.

“Any branding that you see on the court is basically product placement or product or brand integration,” he says. “Again, it goes back to integrity and asking: ‘why is that brand on court?’ Can we look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘that’s the reason’?

Additional value

Although audience recall for these brands is reported to be high, Desmond says the tournament has to work hard to compensate for the lack of exposure and create additional value for its partners. Its decision to operate tailored packages for each sponsor rather than a tiered approach adds to the workload.

To help create value, Wimbledon is more permissive in its approach to inventory away from the show courts and television coverage. An example is the way the tournament lobbied local MP Stephen Hammond to take control of the area around the grounds and carve out additional opportunities for its sponsors in Wimbledon’s two train stations, in addition to areas of the town and nearby Southfields.

“From a physical perspective, you can’t touch Wimbledon unless you are a partner,” says Desmond. “We are protecting our partners but also giving them more collateral, so we’re happier that they are more visible in some of those areas, they are more visible in the queue and the activations we do around the queue.”

The investment the tournament has made in its social media output under Alexandra Willis, head of communications, content and digital for the AELTC, is also predicated on the need to create additional sponsorship exposure and build the equity of the Wimbledon brand.

“They are the areas that we really try to dial up for partners,” says Ralley. “But again, we do it with absolute brand equity at the heart of it. Certainly, what we’re not all about in social and digital is just about facilitating partners. It’s making partners part of our content plan.”

Desmond says the fact that 80% of the tournament’s revenues are contracted gives it a ‘strong spine’ to reinvest its revenues in improving its sponsorship assets, which includes developing its digital output and corporate hospitality. On the latter point, the Championships is working with hospitality specialists Keith Prowse to replace its corporate marquees with two-tier structures and improve the overall experience for its partners.

A longer-term goal is to enter into co-funded partnerships with sponsors to create ‘platforms’ to promote them and the Wimbledon brand around the world and leverage some of the tournament’s traditions. Ralley explains that the AELTC plans to develop a ‘Taste of Wimbledon’ food festival to create  a greater return on investment for brands like Lanson, Stella and Pimms.

“Food and drink and the whole experience of Wimbledon is almost as important as the tennis,” he says. “What can we do away from the site? Wimbledon is on so many people’s bucket lists – these are all hypothetical ideas but this is the way we look to approach it – can we create experiential events that bring Wimbledon to life around the world, around the country?”

Money on the table

The question is how far this sort of creativity can take the tournament while it continues to place restrictions on its partners. Data from Sports Sponsorship Insider shows how Wimbledon’s logo-free environment and the way it prioritises the brand equity of its partners over cash in its sponsorship negotiations keeps its central sponsorship revenues lower than its immediate competitors. The tournament ranked fourth against the other three tennis grand slams in 2017 with sponsorship income of €40.10m in 2017, some €36m shy of the leading grand slam, the US Open (€76.1m).

Desmond acknowledges that it is a deliberate policy of the tournament to keep the proportion of its revenues made up by sponsorship down – in 2016, sponsorship accounted for roughly 17.4 per cent of revenues, roughly 10 per cent lower than the median figure for the other Grand Slams – but he says there is method in its restraint.

“You look at a commercial model and you realise where the bulk of your income has come from and will continue to come from will be media,” he says. “Jamie Reynolds, who’s a key producer from ESPN, thinks Wimbledon is the ‘cathedral of sport’ because it’s so precious and I think Augusta [the US Masters] have that view.

“Yes, we could take more sponsorship money, we could have a longer tail, but I think it’s a bit like the hare and the tortoise: the optics in the short-term may well say: ‘look I’m taking a bit more money,’ but in the long term I think you’ll take less money.”

To read the first part in this series about Wimbledon’s brand and media strategy, click here

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

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