The Pursuit of Greatness: How Wimbledon sets the pace for Global Sports Events

Whilst many rightsholders continue to hunt high and low for new partners in this soft UK marketplace, Wimbledon will have celebrated their continued success on and off the court once the last point of 2018 was played. Here are four reasons why I think The AELTC continues to go from strength to strength:

1/ The strength of the Wimbledon brand

As Wimbledon celebrates its 150th year anniversary, you really get the sense that the AELTC understands where it has come from, but equally as importantly, knows where it is going. Heritage is an easy play for lots of ‘traditional’ brands and Wimbledon recognise that the beautifully kept grass courts, all-white dress code and manicured grounds all play to its quintessentially British image. But they also know that to survive in this ever-competitive sporting landscape they must continually adapt, evolve and innovate to remain one of the leading events in not just tennis, but in world sport. Their ‘Pursuit of Greatness’ positioning shows a humble and relentless hunger to improve and also respects their distinguished history and crucially, Wimbledon are able to back this up. No wonder plenty of brands want to align themselves with this enviable status.

2/ The focus on improving the Wimbledon experience

Wimbledon is committed to reinvesting their profits to improve the overall fan experience and once the impressive £70m roof for Court One is in place for next year’s Championship, then their Debenture and Hospitality proposition will be even stronger (as all-day play is guaranteed on two show courts). It might therefore be tempting for the AELTC to sell out the tournament without the need to release tickets each day for fans who have joined ‘The Queue’ but this lovely tradition is part of the essence of the tournament. The Queue gives the most committed of fans the chance to see the best players in the world and helps negate a potentially sterile atmosphere. Here at Synergy, we talk a lot about the rise of the ‘experience economy’ and the ongoing status of The Queue gives many fans a spontaneous and memorable experience (before the tennis has even started) that they want to share with their friends and followers. It also has the added bonus of providing a captive audience that Wimbledon partners such as HSBC, Lavazza and Robinson’s can engage with.

Reports also suggest that Wimbledon is planning to treble in size if they can acquire a neighbouring golf course, which would allow them to bring their qualifying tournament on-site and welcome more than the current allocation of 40,000 fans each day – so clearly no resting on their laurels here.

3/ The desire to innovate with purpose

This year’s event also marked the debut of Wimbledon Broadcast Services (WBS) making the AELTC the new host broadcaster for multi-camera coverage on all 18 courts. This move will allow Wimbledon to take greater control over their own content and continue to grow their owned channels and also tailor their coverage to each market, particularly for those broadcasters without production capabilities. Speaking of their content, working closely with trusted partner IBM, this year Wimbledon have offered fans AI-powered highlights of the action. This AI engine recognised player emotions and movements with crowd reactions to curate instant reels of best bits across the hundreds of matches taking place. These innovations ultimately make Wimbledon more accessible to fans around the world and therefore benefit both the tournament and as importantly, the commercial family.

4/ The desire to create genuine partnerships with their sponsors

Wimbledon only take on partners who can provide mutually beneficial value back to the Championships and this stance forces partners to make a meaningful contribution to the overall event though VIK and activations. Sponsors recognise that there is a limited period around the two week Championship to make an impact and therefore closely work with the rightsholder (with a long planning window) to ensure their activity cuts through and adds value. These two factors go some way to explaining the stability of the commercial roster over an extended period. The addition of American Express will likely contribute to Wimbledon’s digital and innovation credentials as they inevitably move towards a cashless tournament (as well as offering high value rewards to their customers) and will therefore be a welcome fit.

It will be interesting to see how Wimbledon stays ahead of the competition in future years, but whilst they relentlessly pursue greatness with a long-term view then their future looks brighter than Roger Federer’s new Uniqlo whites.

Federer’s $300m Uniqlo deal shows that tennis sponsors are missing a trick

On the eve of Wimbledon, mainstream men’s tennis news was once again dominated by the same old names: Murray’s late withdrawal from the competition, Djokovic’s re-built serving action, Nadal’s lack of grass court preparation and, of course, Federer’s new bumper kit deal with Japanese brand Uniqlo.

This is no surprise to the casual tennis fan, for the Big Four in men’s tennis (regardless of Murray and Djokovic’s current rankings) are so entrenched in the tennis psyche that serious consideration to whom may one day replace them has yet to take place – but the times they are a changin’.

Federer’s deal with Uniqlo, a reported $300 million dollars over 10 years, may prove to good business, but even for the greatest tennis player of all time, securing a 10-year deal at the age of 36 is some coup. However, what’s undoubtedly a huge win for Federer should cause concern for the men and women in charge of developing the game, because it points to a lack of younger contenders whom would be worthy of receiving a much smaller pay cheque, with the promise of greater things to come.

In a surprising show of self-awareness, the ATP Tour has shown a clear willingness (and not an inconsiderable amount of time and money) in trying to address these concerns and allay fears that the sport is danger of a fallow period of talent.

This willingness has manifested itself into the #NextGenATP, a programme that aims to shine a light on the Tour’s best players aged 21 and under. Culminating in a season-ending tournament that mirrors the senior players’ ATP Tour Finals but with a combination of courtside innovations and dramatic rule changes all designed to grab the attention of a younger audience.

It’s fair to say the approach has had mixed results thus far, garnering huge criticism for the shockingly sexist NextGen Finals draw last season, and also receiving damning assessment from tour veteran Fabio Fognini, who slammed the perceived favouritism shown towards NextGen athletes at this year’s French Open.

To its critics then, the #NextGenATP is a false attempt to build up players who simply don’t carry the required skill to match or replace the old guard. Yet the numbers don’t lie, and a simple look at the stats should cause enough concern to understand why they’ve taken this action.

Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th on the all-time list of career prize money, and if sport is built on rivalry and competition, the recent period of unequalled consistency in men’s tennis is hard to beat. Nadal and Djokovic have played each other 51 times alone, victories split 26-25 in the Serbs favour, with the players regularly producing the kind of matches that fans, broadcasters and sponsors dream of.

Yet despite their individual brilliance and collective pulling power, the Big Four can’t go on forever. Names such as Stefanos Tsitsipas, aged 19, ATP ranking 35, Frances Tiafoe, aged 20, ATP ranking 52 and Felix Auger Aliassime, aged just 17 with an ATP ranking of 152, may lack of current media profile of the current crop, but possess the game, looks and attitude to flourish both on and off the court.

Time will eventually defeat even Federer but with the ATP Tour announcing record attendance levels at the most recent Tour Finals in London and Amazon outbidding Sky for the exclusive Tour TV rights, they are rightly keen to keep the momentum going and supporting the next generation of players is the only way to go.

There is then unrealised potential in the market for a forward-thinking sponsor. Next generation athletes who are social media savvy alongside a helping hand from a governing body in need of new stars points to a clear opportunity at a far lower investment level.

So, although the old guard won’t go down without a fight, it’s a matter of when, not if, the Big Four finally depart and when they do the fight for supremacy will be played out as fiercely by competing sponsors as the young guns on the court.

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?