Donald Dell | The recovery path for tennis in 2021

Donald Dell, group president for media, tennis & events at Sportfive and a veteran tennis player agent and executive with more than five decades of experience in the business, details how the sport will make its way back this year from the Covid-19 pandemic

Dropping Covid-19 infection and hospitalisation rates and increased vaccination rates have many fans ready to get back to sports, including tennis. Fans means food sales, merchandise sales, sponsor activations, parking and hospitality.

In short, fans mean revenue and sporting events need revenue after suffering exorbitant losses over the last year.

Donald Dell

Many of the grand slams will be working with reduced capacities and must try to maximise the dollars (or euros or Pounds Sterling) each fan spends. But with so many out of work, countless have lost their disposable income and won’t be able to spend as they did before. So how do these events find innovative ways to balance their desperate need to generate revenue with potentially upsetting and outpricing fans?

It’s a fine line and events need to be careful with new elements they introduce as well as their price points so they are still accessible to as many fans as possible.

With Roland Garros starting in just a few weeks, let’s look back at how the 2021 Australian Open fared and look at the known changes the remaining grand slams have announced thus far for this year.

The Australian Open, known by many players as the “Friendly Slam”, was not so happy this year and carried on despite several issues related to Covid-19. Tournament director Craig Tiley estimated the tournament lost around $78m (€64.7m). This was due in part to pandemic-related costs such as more than a dozen player and support staff charter flights, hotel rooms during the 14 day “hard quarantine” period for all players, and reduced fan capacity.

The tournament was initially allowed 30,000 fans per day which quickly plunged to zero when the City of Melbourne went into a five-day lockdown forcing more than 100,000 tickets to be refunded. Through the first 10 days, more than 98,000 fans attended compared to more than 650,000 in the same span last year, which was quite a financial hit.

Tennis Australia was under a great deal of pressure from the government to keep Covid numbers low and despite all their challenges, had just one player test positive during the tournament and no known community transmissions – an outstanding achievement.

From a Covid perspective, hopefully the other grand slams will follow Australia’s playbook, improve upon it where they can and use their knowledge going forward.

The French Tennis Federation’s decision to push the Roland Garros start date back by one week seems to have been a very wise decision. With the virus situation improving in France, it appears they will be able to take advantage of relaxed restrictions and admit approximately 1,000 fans at the start of the tournament and then increase to 5,000 for the final few days, with all fans having to show either a negative Covid test or proof of vaccination.

The change in start date was made with the support of the other grand slams as well as the Grand Slam Board, which was not the case last year when they decided to move the tournament to October.

Now that the main show court, Court Philippe Chatrier, has a roof, they plan to schedule a one-match night session for the first 10 nights of the tournament, with spectators only allowed at the final night session on June 9, due to the current restrictions in place. But there may be serious player concerns with starting a best-of-five-sets match on a slow clay court so late at night.

Wimbledon was the only grand slam that was completely cancelled in 2020, but they were also the only ones who held pandemic insurance. This allowed the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AETLC), which organises the event, to actually show more than a $56.2m operating profit, despite showing a revenue drop of almost 99 per cent for the financial period ending July 31, 2020 and distributing £10m in prize money to more than 620 players, a wonderful gesture for the touring pros when no “Championships” were held.

The Championships hope to allow a minimum capacity of 25 per cent in 2021 and have announced they will be selling tickets for three additional courts this year. They have also stated this year’s ticket prices will be the same as the ticket prices announced for the 2020 event despite it not being played.

In addition, Wimbledon has an historic change coming in 2022 – play will be scheduled for middle Sunday, which has traditionally been an off day. This will eliminate the much anticipated “Manic Monday,” and make the competition fairer for all competitors. They realise, however, this additional day of play will have an impact on the local community and are working with them to determine what the day will actually look like.

And that brings us to New York and the US Open. New York has been steadily reopening and it will be interesting to see what capacity is available for the US Open and what innovations they will offer this year, after struggling to successfully to host the event without fans last year.

The United States Tennis Association has already announced one significant change and will split the men’s semi-finals into two separate ticketed sessions. It will be interesting to see what the USTA does with the pricing for these sessions.

While it’s true the first session will have either the men’s doubles or mixed doubles finals and wheelchair semi-finals and one of the men’s semis, will they charge the same price for the second men’s semi-final even though it will offer much less programming? Many will still be able to afford tickets to both sessions which is terrific. But how many fans now won’t be able to afford their annual tradition of attending both matches due to the cost of the additional session?

With its inherent social distancing, tennis in the United States has yielded some forward-looking results during the pandemic such as an overall 22 per cent growth in participation, including a 44-per-cent increase in new players.

In a targeted effort to make it easier for kids to get into the game, the USTA also partnered with manufacturers and retailers to include a “Net Generation” hangtag on more than 400,000 youth racquets that also include a QR code that can be scanned for details on local play opportunities as well as a free youth USTA membership.

This gives the USTA the opportunity to reach a younger, more diverse generation of fans – representing an innovative approach that will hopefully generate future champions down the road.

Keeping these new fans and players engaged will be challenging, and the USTA must identify new ways to keep them playing. Social media campaigns and targeted programming showcasing young, diverse, popular players such as Coco Gauff, Sofia Kenin, Amanda Anisimova, Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz or Sebastian Korda, should help catch and hold the attention of younger players.

While 2021 will trend better than 2020 from a business standpoint, it will not come close to generating the revenue sports enjoyed prior to the pandemic. This is the time for sports properties and all stakeholders to pivot and search for new revenue streams and innovations that will adapt to the new normal that we have still yet to fully realise.

Donald Dell is group president for media, tennis and events at Sportfive.

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