The Lowdown on the Laver Cup

Today marks day 1 of the inaugural Laver Cup from the O2 arena in Prague; a new men's tennis competition which pits 6 of the top European players against 6 counterparts from the rest of the world. The Cup is named after Australian tennis legend Rod Laver and has been set up by Roger Federer's management company, TEAM8, Brazilian businessman and former Davis Cup player Jorge Paulo Lemann and Tennis Australia.

Synergy's Matt Kiernan offers five thoughts on tennis' newest competition…

1/ Every individual sport looks across enviously at The Ryder Cup

We all know about the magic of The Ryder Cup and millions of fans (beyond golf’s core audience) love to see the individual greats of golf come together as a team. Is this the equivalent that tennis has been waiting for? It’s worth remembering that it took time, increased competitiveness (and a certain Severiano Ballesteros) to help grow the Ryder Cup into the global event that it is today. Will the Laver Cup be afforded such time to develop? And who’s the player that will carry its mantle?

2/ Close matches and genuine passion are going to be crucial

Launching the competition with the great Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as team captains is a positive start to proceedings. But for the Laver Cup to really grab the attention of sports fans across the world, then some on-court rivalries to match that of Borg and McEnroe will be required. The teams on paper look like a bit of a mismatch – team Europe have 36 Grand Slam titles between them and are led by two all-time greats in Federer and Rafa Nadal (and just imagine if Messrs Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka had been fit for selection!). The withdrawals due to injury of Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori leave the Rest Of The World Team looking a little short of quality…and all eyes will be on Australian bad boy Nick Kyrgios to bring the firepower.

The organisers will certainly be hoping for a closely fought event and have decided that matches are worth more points on the deciding Sunday, in the attempt to keep interest levels from dropping.

That said, the mouth-watering potential of a Federer/Nadal doubles pairing might just create the legendary story the Laver Cup desperately needs.

3/ What does this mean for the Davis Cup?

In recent years the ‘Big 4’ of the men’s game have all carried their nations to Davis Cup glory; however, there can be no doubt that the commitment to the Davis Cup is waning and the competition has struggled to attract the top players year on year.

McEnroe is typically bullish in his position on this; “I think we are all excited and hopeful that this [the Laver Cup] is going to be successful and force some people to take a good, hard look at the rest of the schedule. You know that I have had a lot of history with Davis Cup. But I believe that the Davis Cup has been very slow in doing anything different. It is such a big commitment that they need to make some changes. And so maybe this will push it along.”

It will be very interesting to see how the Davis Cup reacts…

4/ Where are the women?

I think it is a real missed opportunity that the Laver Cup isn’t a mixed event (perhaps to supersede the Hopman Cup). This would have made a real statement that the women’s game is viewed on an equal footing to the men’s by the organisers. The Rest Of The World team would certainly have been strengthened by some of the US women who recently dominated the US Open.

And besides - wouldn’t it have been great if Martina Navratilova (assuming her Czech not US nationality!) and Chris Evert had also stepped in as co-captains?

And imagine the global headlines if the returning Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova could line up on opposite sides in the 2018 competition?

5/ Where is the activation?

We have seen first-hand at Synergy the power of The Ryder Cup in connecting brands with their audience, through our work with Standard Life Investments and BMW. There are some big brands with a long heritage in tennis associated to the Laver Cup (Rolex, JP Morgan and Mercedes to name three), but any extensive activations seem strangely lacking; Rolex created this video featuring Rod Laver, Mercedes used their relationships with the Cup and Federer for this film and the team announcements were made at the JP Morgan Chase building in New York. It will be interesting to see how these brands engage with the fans attending the event and how partners might react if the Laver Cup can really become tennis’ equivalent to The Ryder Cup in future years.

I will certainly be keeping a close eye on the action in Prague over the next few days. Not only to see what a '35-individual-Grand-Slam-titles' doubles pairing looks like, but also to begin to gauge whether the Laver Cup has a bright (and commercially viable) future.

Brand Murray Is Just Beginning

Arguably sport always has been, and always will be, associated with stars. Sportspeople of incredible athletic ability make the impossible appear effortless, creating moments of magic that give fans the chance to utter the phrase “I was there”. For an athlete to be held in this rarefied bracket of superstars can bring global fame and vast financial reward, but also a burden of expectation not just from their own fans, but the sports they bestride.

The Next Stage

An athlete who must surely now be considered within this group is Wimbledon Champion Andy Murray. Three years since his first win, Murray once again captured the title that he covets most, placing him alongside esteemed double Wimbledon winners such as Stefan Edberg and Rafael Nadal. The win also topped off an incredible year for Murray. Marriage to his long-term girlfriend, guiding Great Britain to a Davis Cup win and becoming a father has brought about a slow but noticeable transformation of brand Murray. His growing maturity matched with a change in perception among even the most casual of tennis fans offers him the perfect opportunity to take his brand even further as he moves into the next stage of his career.

Star Power

According to London School of Marketing’s 2015 sport power list, Murray ranked in 16th place. Not bad, but when considered alongside his fellow male players, Rafael Nadal (8th) Novak Djokovic (7th) and Roger Federer (1st), there appears to be some room left to grow. Federer’s continued brilliance away from the court is in contrast to his slowly diminishing powers on it. Without a Grand Slam win for four years, Federer’s ‘RF’ brand remains worn by more than just a few of the paying crowd on centre court. His ability to show a side of his personality that resonates with sponsors without a link to the court has helped prolong his marketability and it’s a path that Murray has already started to tread.

Although he counts Under Armour and Head as his on-court equipment partners, Murray’s partnership with Standard Life represents a deal that looks to work with some of the less athletic aspects of Murray’s character and is undoubtedly contributing to a better understanding of the man behind the racket. Yet it’s imperative that the partnership works both ways, with a set of shared traits that can be projected to a targeted audience for the benefit of both sponsor and athlete.

Careful cultivation of these traits can truly transform reputations and Standard Life’s Master Your Dreams film series is a perfect example of the process at work. The films explore a side of Andy Murray that isn’t well-known, helping the audience to see a new thread in the Murray story and one that Standard Life applies to its own organisation. From the meticulous preparations of Andy’s childhood, to meeting his own sporting heroes, viewers have shown a willingness to engage with the films, sharing their changing perceptions and even thanking Standard Life for providing the opportunity for them do so.

Standard Life’s willingness to look beyond the common narrative and work with a different side of brand Murray not only helps them stand out from the crowd but supports their own story, not something every sponsorship or indeed athlete, has the ability to do. The challenge therefore is two-fold, first to identify an athlete whose own brand, ambitions and athletic performance complements that of a sponsor and secondly (and far more challenging) is to select the the correct aspect of an athlete’s story to tell.

Executed properly the rewards are clear for all to see, both on and off the court.

Heart Over Head: Spotlight turns on sponsors after Sharapova ban

In the 48 hours following the news that Maria Sharapova has been banned for two years for taking banned substance Meldonium, the spotlight has invariably shifted to her sponsors to see their reaction.

Many would have expected Nike, Head and Evian to pull the plug on their sponsorship deals with the former world No.1, but all three have done quite the opposite. Nike announced it will be continuing to partner with Sharapova, citing that she did not dope intentionally and is appealing the ban. Originally Nike had suspended its relationship with the Russian pending the investigation.

Evian, likewise, had first said it would follow the investigation closely before making a decision, but has now come out in full support of Sharapova and will continue to work with her despite the ban.

Head, though, took things a step further – a big and controversial step further – by challenging the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Head has claimed that the ban was based on WADA’s flawed process and was therefore a flawed decision, and so the brand will be sticking by Sharapova and continuing its sponsorship.

Quite why a tennis racket manufacturer is challenging WADA’s global drugs policy is baffling. What expertise does Head have to make such a criticism of WADA and doping in sport? A well-advised sponsor would steer clear of such a move and comment only on its relationship with the athlete, certainly not taking on a governing body that is trying to keep the sport clean and fair.

This follows the original statement Head released back in March when the failed drugs test first arose in which the company nailed its colours to the mast and came out in support of Sharapova without knowing all the facts or what the final outcome of the independent investigation would be. This did not sit well with one of its biggest athletes, Andy Murray, who openly criticised Head’s position in supporting Sharapova.

Sharapova is a Head ambassador

At the same time, another Sharapova’s sponsors, Tag Heuer, took the non-emotional route and put loyalty to one side by announcing it was suspending renewal talks and cutting its ties with the tainted tennis star. Tag has reaffirmed this stance and said it is not in a hurry to discuss any new contract, signalling the partnership will wind down

Porsche took a similar approach to Nike in suspending all planned activity with the former Wimbledon champion and has now said it will hold back final judgement until the outcome of the appeal is known.

Avon sensibly chose to remain silent back in March, but has now confirmed the sponsorship will expire at the end of the current contract without renewal, pointing at a limited engagement window for activity being the reason as opposed to the doping situation.

The Nike positioning is interesting when you look at the business value and the brand’s reputation. Supporting an athlete banned for doping damages the reputation of the brand, although a precedent was set by Nike’s renewed support of two-time drugs cheat Justin Gatlin. If there is a huge business value attached to the athlete that outweighs the reputational risk in the long-term then you could understand Nike supporting Sharapova. However, she is approaching the end of her career, especially by the time she can return to the court, and when put alongside the other stars on Nike’s books she no longer has the revenue pulling power.

We now await the verdict of Sharapova’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and to see what the sponsors do next. Will Murray and other top stars with Head or Nike partnerships speak out publicly against Head challenging WADA or Nike sticking by Sharapova?