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Spotify’s collective model inspires new ATP chairman Gaudenzi

  • ATP delays decisions about indoor events because of health concerns
  • Centralised media model could help share OTT costs
  • Chairman does not want to centralise Grand Slam sponsorship sales

Andrea Gaudenzi has spent his first nine months as ATP chairman fighting fires. Almost literally, in some cases.

The former tennis professional was just three months into his tenure when blazes tore through the Australian outback, threatening the start of the inaugural ATP Cup and bringing player safety into question at the team event and subsequent Australian Open. When this was swiftly followed by a global pandemic, he might have wondered exactly what he had done to upset the gods.

“I don’t know what’s next,” he smiles, reflecting on his time in charge. “But crisis management is part of the skill set of a manager, of a leader, so that’s what we ended up having to deal with.”

Revised calendar

The release of a provisional revised calendar for the resumption of the tennis tour this August, issued the day before our interview, ought to have encouraged the Italian that some sort of normality was about to be restored. But an outbreak of Covid-19 infections at the unsanctioned Adria Tour shortly afterwards – including world men’s number one, Novak Djokovic – represented a set-back for his carefully calibrated plans.

The ATP responded to the outbreak with a terse statement in which it wished the affected players a complete and quick recovery before explaining that its own plans for a return would follow a more robust set of risk mitigation protocols than the event in the Balkans.

The unsanctioned Adria Tour has been criticised for not implementing strict social distancing protocols.

Provided there aren’t any further complications, the tour will resume this August with two US hard court events before the US Open from August 31 to September 13. Following this, it will take in a clay court swing, with the Mutua Madrid Open and the Internazionali BNL di’Italia in Rome, building up to the rescheduled French Open from September 27 to October 11.

“It’s been a tremendous effort,” says Gaudenzi of the new schedule. “The pandemic has put a lot of challenges into the ATP, WTA, the Grand Slams and the ITF, because the other obvious complexity is that there are multiple governing bodies and tournaments with different governance.

“The approach we’ve taken has been to try to deliver as many [ranking] points and jobs as possible, starting with a bit of a top-down approach: the biggest tournaments first, mainly with a focus [on] fans first. If you are a tennis fan, what would you like to see?”

As to whether spectators will be allowed to watch any of the events, Gaudenzi says the tour will defer the decisions to local authorities and decide on a tournament-by tournament basis. He says health advice that appears to indicate Covid-19 is less easily spread outdoors, has discouraged the tour from scheduling any indoor tournaments for the moment. This means there continue to be doubts whether the last ATP Finals to be played in London’s O2 Arena will go ahead in November.

“We left on hold the decisions for the indoor season [because] there are concerns for indoor venues,” he says. “Also, in terms of availability, when you have an indoor venue booked for an event like the ATP Finals, for example, you have less flexibility in changing the dates because those venues are actually booked for other events, and everybody’s trying to reschedule.”

Gaudenzi admits that ATP executives looked at alternatives to its globalised model – including situating the tour in Europe, where more than 70 per cent of players are based – but resisted diluting the global aspect that is core to its commercial offering.

“If we go regional, where we have players playing in different counties, I think it would be exhibitions, namely like we had so far,” he says.

“Once you take away the logic of everyone playing, I don’t think that can become an ATP Tour event because then you don’t have the [ranking] points. It would be difficult to use our platforms, meaning broadcasting agreements, sponsorship, everything is sort of void.”

Centralisation

Although he might not admit it explicitly, the ATP’s hand in some rescheduling decisions has also been forced by the French Tennis Federation and its decision to move the French Open without consulting other stakeholders. Gaudenzi says the crisis has only reinforced his belief that tennis is too fragmented, and he wants to use the situation to encourage more collective thinking.

One of the frustrations amid the pandemic is that it has prevented him from setting out his agenda, which focuses on greater aggregation of tennis media rights and data. Ultimately, he envisages tennis fans being able access all tennis events through a single login to an OTT platform.

“I’ve been away from tennis for about 15 years. I’ve worked in corporate, in gaming, three start-ups, in data, music, financial services,” he says. “I learned throughout the years to have a sort of fan-centric, consumer-centric mindset where you’re serving the fan, ultimately, because they are the ones who are buying the tickets for events. They are the ones who are paying the subscription for the broadcasters, they are the target eyeballs for the sponsors. And we don’t have that mentality fully in our sport.

“In order to provide a richer and better fan experience, you have to pool and aggregate the media and data rights. To give an example, [if] I live in the UK and I want to follow tennis, I need to have the BBC, Eurosport Player, Amazon and Sky. And sometimes you really ask yourself, what is what? When?”

Online retail giant Amazon holds the UK rights to the ATP Tour from 2019 to 2023.

The music career Gaudenzi refers to, included a stint at Musixmatch, a company which focused on building a huge database of music metadata to allow end-users to match lyrics to songs in their music libraries. During his time with the firm, collaborations with companies like Spotify, Google Play Music, YouTube and Deezer persuaded him of the importance of the collective.

“The biggest labels and publishers, they had to bundle the products on Spotify for a $9.99 offer, or Apple Music or Amazon, because once the internet came, they couldn’t sell CDs,” he says. “Now you have the same default catalogue in one product – multiple products but the same catalogue, same price.”

If bitter rivals in the music industry were able to bury their differences, Gaudenzi says it shouldn’t be difficult for tennis tournaments to do the same. He points out that most tennis events take place at different times in the calendar meaning they are not direct competitors in the same way as music publishers were before the arrival of Spotify.

Media and data 

How far would Gaudenzi like to take this collective thinking? Could he envisage centralising grand slam sponsorship rights to sit alongside the ATP’s own portfolio of tournament rights?

“I think the main focus, if you want to provide a better fan experience, is probably media and data,” he says. “You avoid duplication also, because, let’s be honest, if you want to invest in an OTT platform, it also costs a lot of money. And those events [the Grand Slams] are two-week events. If you only have two-week events, why would you duplicate that investment multiple times?”

The ATP Tour already has an OTT product in the shape of ATP Tennis TV, managed by its ATP Media arm, but Gaudenzi would like to see Grand Slam content included on such a platform. He says he presented his vision to the players at the Australian Open in January, but his attempts to sell it to the tournament organisers in person have so far been frustrated by Covid-19.

The ATP’s existing OTT platform, ATP Tennis TV, is run by its ATP Media arm.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he says. “I think it’s achievable without having every single stakeholder lose control of their own rights, because I think that’s key. You obviously want to retain control and you can manage that with an opt in/ opt out process.”

WTA Tour

Judging by recent comments from Roger Federer, the Grand Slams aren’t the only stakeholders Gaudenzi should be bringing into the tent. In April, the Swiss legend put out a tweet calling for a merger between the ATP and women’s tour organiser the WTA.

The Italian doesn’t pour cold water on the idea entirely but acknowledges that pre-existing rights agreements would complicate such a move.

“It’s definitely challenging because of the agreements and the arrangements that are in place, but not impossible, and we are talking to the WTA on a weekly basis,” he says.

“The semantics are a bit tricky here: merge can mean many different things, obviously. I think where we should focus, again, [is on] whatever is consumer-facing. So again, media and data, whatever is a touch point for the fan.

“You don’t want to go to two websites to look at the rankings – you want to see the ranking of tennis in one page, or in one app. Ideally, you want to see social media content [on] one channel or [an] OTT.”

Gaudenzi reached a career-high ATP ranking of 18 in 1995.

Davis Cup

There are also calls for the ATP to align itself more closely with the International Tennis Federation. Having failed to reach an agreement to jointly run a revamped Davis Cup, the two bodies launched rival team competitions – the ITF’s Kosmos-funded Davis Cup revamp and the new ATP Cup – alongside one another last January. Djokovic is among those calling for there to be just one.

Once again, Gaudenzi – who enjoyed a career-high in reaching a Davis Cup final with Italy against Sweden in 1998 – shows willing but says pre-existing rights agreements will make any alignment difficult.

In the case of the ATP Cup, the ATP has an agreement with Tennis Australia under which the national federation leads sponsorship sales for the event. Under the deal, the federation pays a “sanction fee” to the ATP and takes on responsibility for delivering the event and paying the $15m prize money. After that, it is entitled to all of the revenues up to a certain threshold.

“Firstly I think the ATP Cup was a great first event of the season,” says Gaudenzi. “It makes sense to start the year with a big event like that ahead of the first Grand Slam of the year, and we all saw how much the players, and also the crowds, liked the team atmosphere in January.

“I definitely value the Davis Cup, the brand, the heritage. It’s probably still one of the few trophies that is still in my living room – maybe because I didn’t win many others. But I did play in the final of the Davis Cup.

“I think we all agree in the concept of a single team event, keeping in mind that there are long-term agreements in place. Again, the issue is calendar… There are only 52 weeks in the year, and we can’t change that, and the players are playing limited weeks. We need to try to optimise that and let’s see what the future brings.”

Player power

Having seen the fate of his predecessor Chris Kermode, the Italian will be wary of keeping players onside. Kermode’s detractors suggested that he put the needs of tournament organisers ahead of athletes during his time as chairman and this was thought to be a factor in the player representatives on the ATP Board voting not to renew his contract.

“It’s definitely the biggest challenge we have within the ATP. I see it simply as a partnership – it’s a 50-50 organisation,” says Gaudenzi. “You have to be in a partnership because to run a tennis event you need heavy investment in infrastructure, in terms of venues. In terms of business [it] is actually capital intensive.”

He relates the story of how he showed a slide to the players featuring a quote from Netflix founder Reed Hastings when he laid out his vision to them at the Australian Open in January and called on them to put aside squabbles about prize money.

“They asked Hastings: ‘Are you concerned about Apple and Amazon coming into the space and competing with you with billions of dollars in content creation?’ And his response was: ‘my main competitor is sleep,’ because when people sleep, they don’t watch content.

“That’s a mindset of thinking big…Ultimately my goal is to become more relevant and to gain market share towards golf, or NFL, or NBA or soccer. That should be the goal of our sport.”

To watch video highlights of SportBusiness’ interview with Andrea Gaudenzi, click here.

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