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The State of Tennis: A View from the U.K.

July 15, 2019

Wimbledon is a sporting occasion steeped in history. It is the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in existence and has immortalised players, iconic matches and even song lyrics. On the surface (if you’ll pardon the pun), its quaint, quintessentially British traditions of Pimms-sipping, of strawberries & cream and of very long queues present appetite-whetting opportunities for brands and organisers alike. So too does the strong imagery with which the tournament is associated: the immaculate lawns, the all-white dress code and the sweeping shots of a packed Murray Mound are all purpose-built – in an authentically unintentional way – for effective campaigns.

But over the last few years, a feeling that the tournament has begun to lose its sparkle on and off the court has become unavoidable. Addressing the tennis first, the men and women’s games are struggling, but for polar-opposite reasons. While the reign of the Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic triumvirate has rendered the men’s draw repetitive to the point of boredom, the seemingly utterly random nature of the women’s has come at the price of a­­ny major rivalries being forged nor narratives, told.

Off the court, it looks to be a similar story. Brands’ regular use of UK tennis traditions and – dare we say – clichés have numbed consumers to just how special the tournament is. That said, both brands and organisers who can see this problem emerging, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. This is because many attempts to modernise this darling of sporting occasions and move away from its ‘roots’ can appear contrived and forced.

One also has to entertain the idea that Wimbledon could simply be being out-gunned. Last summer saw an England football side capture the nation’s imagination, and – unfortunately for the big-wigs at AELTC – in doing so, drew the gaze both of brands and Brits for the vast majority of last year’s championships. Similarly, this year the women’s World Cup dominated back pages for Wimbledon’s first week – and that is despite the fairy-tales that were Coco Gauff and ‘MurRena’. Andy Murray returning to the stage has been a glorious swansong for the British supporters, mostly his partnership with Serena Williams in the mixed doubles, but this is unlikely to be seen again.

Looking forward, this misfortune shows little sign of relenting. Fortunately for the organisers, next year’s Olympics will kick off, just after the men’s final on Sunday, but they will have Euro 2020 to contend with. Beyond that, 2022 will bring respite in the form of a winter Football World Cup, but the rise of women’s sport, mean that the previously considered ‘fallow years’, in which Wimbledon can draw the attention of more brands and supporters will be increasingly few and far between.

What, then, in this tricky situation, can be done to make the most of such a unique tournament, and which brands are best placed to do it?

With changes in society, and rule changes in the game, we have seen new sectors market themselves using Wimbledon in novel, and intriguing ways. Data and technology companies have become increasingly involved in the sport, whether through Hawkeye’s now-total assimilation into matches or the ever-increasing amount of data-driven analysis. This now natural connection between the sport, and the companies who provide that data has led to some refreshing, natural and authentic campaigns.

Sportswear brands – unsurprisingly – also play a big role every year. Rather counterintuitively, the draconian enforcement of Wimbledon’s all-whites rule, presents them with a great opportunity. Throughout the ages, players have opted to subvert or bend the traditional all-whites law, and recently We’ve seen sponsors collaborating with streetwear brands, players wearing football shirts, and colourful undergarments. The result is often the same (players get told to wear something different in the next round), but it never ceases to earn eyeballs and column inches.

As the covers are rolled onto Centre Court for the final time, Simona Halep and Djokovic have claimed their respective crowns, exactly how the tournament will retain its mojo remains up in the air. However, we have seen through a string of activity, that there are novel and exciting avenues which both brands and the tournament can pursue, and that life certainly exists in the truly unique tournament that is Wimbledon.

Chris Gratton, who leads our FleishmanHillard Fishburn Sports practice, also contributed to this piece.