While many welcomed Amazon’s success in acquiring ATP Tour and US Open media rights in the UK, replacing Sky, this probably had more to do with Sky’s lack of interest than any strategic focus by Amazon on tennis as a sport
Michele Serri
Michele Serri joined Oliver & Ohlbaum Associates as Senior Associate in September 2018, focusing on sports and entertainment. Before joining O&O, Michele worked for PwC within the Strategy & Innovation team.
Tennis - a global sport in need of reinvention
15th November 2018, 10:27

The 10th annual ATP Finals is under way in London. With rumoured hot competition to replace London as host for 2020 and beyond, and global sponsorship revenue for the sport as a whole up 34 per cent since 2010, it would appear all is well with the $2.5-billion sport of tennis.

But dig beneath the surface and a different picture emerges. Participation in USA, according to the Outdoor Foundation, declined from almost 19 million in 2010 to 18 million in 2016. Equipment sales in USA declined from $248 million to just over $230 million in the same period. The same declining trend in participation in the UK emerged from Sport England’s recent figures.

Perhaps most disconcerting of all, the average age of ATP tennis viewers in USA grew from 51 in 2000 to 61 in 2016  

Perhaps most disconcerting of all, the average age of ATP tennis viewers in USA grew from 51 in 2000 to 61 in 2016, showing significant audience ageing for male tennis competitions. Moreover, according to research undertaken by Morning Consult in 2018, 53 per cent of respondents in USA showed no interest in tennis, whereas just 19 per cent say they are interested. Comforting figures come only from Spain and France where - in 2016 - 32 and 37 per cent of respondents declared any interest in tennis, respectively.

While many welcomed Amazon’s success in acquiring ATP Tour and US Open media rights in the UK, replacing Sky, this probably had more to do with Sky’s lack of interest in paying more for the property than any strategic focus by Amazon on tennis as a sport; and in the medium term it is likely to reduce the exposure of the sport in the UK.

And alongside these developments are the ever-present doubts about the integrity of some of the matches lower down the global event scale, where players outside the top 100 who struggle to make any kind of living at all might be tempted by match fixers and their gambling backers.

Grand Slams’ popularity seems to have peaked

The four Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian Open in January, the French Open at Roland Garros in May/June, Wimbledon in July and the US Open in September) account for almost half of all prize money out of the 125 top-tier tournaments. But many sources reported empty seats during the French Open, and the yearly growth in attendance of Grand Slams and ATP/WTA finals between 2014 and 2017 was just 0.1 per cent. Wimbledon even saw a yearly decline of 0.9 per cent (2014-2018).

While increasing ticket prices might mean stagnant attendances, if not stagnant revenues, pricing to a wealthy market might not be the best way to get the next generation of tennis fans interested in the game.

Ageing stars and a lack of top US players

The ageing of famous players and a shortage of future stars is another big business problem. Federer (37), Nadal (32), Djokovic (31) and Murray (31) are heading for retirement and no other young talent has yet emerged with commensurate star power. The same applies to the WTA circuit where the Williams sisters are 37 and 38, while Maria Sharapova is 31.

The twilight of current global stars adds to the longer-term lack of top US stars, especially in the men’s game. No US player has been consistently in the top four men’s world rankings since the turn of the century, and there is no sign of a radical change in the near future: just two male and three female players in the current Top 30 - dominated by Spanish men and Eastern-European women - come from USA.

Whereas 30 years ago the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida was more or less a production line of future world beaters, many of them from USA, today the IMG-Bollettieri academy is mainly a production line for elite college tennis scholarship candidates eager to pay the academy’s fees in return for the chance of free top college education – IMG has created a better business model, but no real US-born world beaters.

New competitions and formats to the rescue

In recent years, men’s tennis has not been short of ideas on how to improve its popularity by trying new competitions and formats. The ATP Finals at the O2 arena in London this week came out of a strategic review almost 20 years ago by the ATP Tour that included the creation of nine mini major tournaments just below the grand slam level (the ATP Masters 1000s) and the annual Finals event itself, to guarantee more clashes between the world’s top players for major prize money.

More recently, men’s tennis has focused on tapping into national rivalries, in addition to individual player clashes, helped by outside entrepreneurs.

The new Davis Cup format - created by the Gerard Piqué-led Kosmos Investment Group - is aimed at attracting the best players to regularly participate in one annual week-long knockout event of the 18 top national teams in best-of-three-match ties rather than the old drawn out four weekends a year, best-of-five-match contests between various sub sets of the top 16 teams in the world – where many of the world’s top players often sat out some or all of the matches.

The new-born Laver Cup backed by Roger Federer - in partnership with businessman Jorge Lemann and Tennis Australia - pitches the top six European players against the top six from the rest of the world: 12 matches over just three days, with teams requiring 13 points to win, plus Borg and McEnroe captaining the two teams.

There have also been recent attempts to create more exciting individual player tournament structures. The Majesty Cup - another Piqué initiative - is a 64-man, winner-takes-all event with a $10-million prize ($2 million more than an ATP Masters 1000 event), designed to capture the attention of the elite players. Tie Break Tens is a completely new knockout format in which players battle to reach 10 points under tie-break rules to win $250,000.

A more radical approach could be needed

But turning around tennis’ popularity and dealing with the eventual retirement of the four men’s game superstars of the last decade might need more than national rivalry. It might need a re-think on the entire structure of world men’s tennis, a better approach to the women’s game, a turnaround in the performance of USA, plus much better use of the Olympics as a global showcase for the game to help to reach a much broader social mix.

Within men’s tennis, the Majesty Cup, the four Grand Slams, and the annual Finals event, might need to be integrated with the two or three leading ATP 1000 events (perhaps Indian Wells, Madrid and Shanghai) to create a truly elite men’s annual competition calendar.

Uniquely among the world’s top sports, tennis has almost as many female as male fans  

Uniquely among the world’s top sports, tennis has almost as many female as male fans. And viewing figures from USA also suggest that the average audience for women’s tennis is actually getting younger - going from 58 to 53 over the last six years. While so many other sports are doing much to encourage female participation and a female following, tennis already has it. So maybe it’s the WTA Tour (the women’s equivalent of the ATP Tour) and the FedCup (the women’s equivalent of the Davis Cup) that need the most radical overhaul, with more prize money and a more compelling annual narrative.

And, just maybe, a re-energized Hopman Cup (the annual eight-team national team event involving mixed gender teams) and an Olympics competition with a more mixed gender team element, might be the way to get USA back near the top of global tennis, which would benefit the whole of tennis financially. The new Olympics format might also be the way to engage new audiences with tennis and to counter the sometimes elitist image of country tennis clubs and top college scholarships that could discourage many from more disadvantaged backgrounds from taking up the world’s ultimate non-contact, one-on-one sport.

This is the latest in Sportcal Insight's series of articles by Oliver & Ohlbaum on disruption in sport.