The past, present and future of Grand Slam tennis. Rod Laver and Rafael Nadal launch the Australian Open in China
Sometime on September 10th, the global tennis show will grind to a halt for 2017. With over three months remaining for the year, it’s done. Thank you linesman. Thank you ball boys.
The completion of the US Open also marks the end of mass global engagement for tennis. Now the hard-core fans and the various Tour officials will quickly point out the remaining Tour events, the end of season championships and the Davis Cup Final have yet to be played. But the cold hard reality (based on a variety of data sources) is that most sport fans don’t engage again with tennis until the Australian Open.
At Gemba we have been monitoring this situation for over six years. The simple fact is that the mass audience only engages with the sport when there are legitimate moments of consequence. As we stand today, the only tournaments that provide this level of engagement are the four Grand Slams – The Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open.
So, suspend reality for a moment and park the challenges of governance and self-interest. What would you do to invigorate tennis? How would you look to grow the sport and inspire future generations of fans and participants? What markets are critical to the future growth of tennis?
The answer to these questions is this. A fifth Grand Slam in China.
There is a proven formula. Two weeks of tennis with the all best players in the world playing. A prize money pool that is too big for the world’s best players to ignore.
Now there will be a chorus of nay-sayers running the line that this new tournament does not have the tradition of the four Slams. They are right, but this tournament has the opportunity to positon itself as the new millennium Slam. Build on the foundations of the Slam formula and add new levels of entertainment and engagement.
So how do we get this done? Here is a five-point plan for a fifth Slam:
Point 1. Governance
The existing four Grand Slams need to heighten their level of collaboration by developing an executive team to manage their collective interests. This team would be charged with responsibility to drive the development of the fifth Grand Slam and proactively look for other areas of mutual collaboration.
This new tournament should be owned by the four existing Slams (12.5% each for a total of 50%), the Tours on behalf of the Players (10% ATP, 10% WTA) and the Chinese Tennis Association (30%). This aligns the key stakeholders of the sport and incentives everyone to make the tournament a success.
Point 2: Brand Identity
The Grand Slam brand should be exclusively owned and managed by the founding Slams. A Grand Slam brand identity needs to be developed to connect the five tournaments so the consumer better understands the Grand Slam proposition. This new identity could also be leveraged across other revenue streams including merchandising and broadcast.
Point 3: China
The fact that tennis does not have its best possible product in what will soon be the world’s biggest economy is massively problematic. The days of China believing that they are an emerging super power are well and truly gone. The Chinese think (and know) that they are the super power. Hence, they rightly believe that China should have the best sport and entertainment content.
So, the Chinese Government and Sport officials will embrace the idea of a Grand Slam in their country. If it is positioned properly, the Government and the closely aligned private sector will provide the necessary investment for infrastructure and working capital. Furthermore, the rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai to secure the new Slam would ensure a compelling major event package is developed.
The event would be held in October or November. Perhaps a completely indoor venue could be built in Shanghai or Beijing to mitigate the impact of weather. There is no doubt the Chinese would invest in this sort of venue to secure the prestige of a Grand Slam.
Point 4: Innovate the format
Like China, the new Grand Slam should embrace and celebrate traditions but simultaneously look to innovate.
The China event would maintain the core components of a Slam. A two-week tournament, with singles draws of 128 and the need to win 7 matches is the ultimate physical and mental challenge for tennis. It is the Everest of tennis and should not be meddled with.
By there is room for innovation.
Let’s experiment and make the Women’s final 5 sets. It is the ultimate show case for Women’s tennis so let’s give the fans the drama of 5 set epics.
Let’s make the qualification for the main draw based on the performances from the four proceeding Grand Slams. Instead of the mystifying ranking system where a players ranking is determined by the points they are defending (which few people understand), players would qualify based on their performance during the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. Past Grand Slam champions would receive wild cards if they did not qualify due to injury.
Point 5: Build a new commercial model
The Fifth Grand Slam would have the benefit of a completely clean commercial slate. As such the combination of innovation and technology would unlock some significant revenues.
The signage areas of the stadium courts could be green screens. This would provide the opportunity to sell signage to both local Chinese brands as well as global brands. The global brand deals could be done by market. If there are Japanese brands who want to be associated with Kei Nishikori, let them buy signage packages for his matches. Perhaps local broadcasters could package up signage rights with their local broadcast deals.
The other Slams would bundle up first and last rights to the China Grand Slam in their rights packages. This would provide them increased leverage with their existing partners as access to China is of high strategic importance to all global brands.
At this point, many will say that this is not possible. My contention is that if tennis is to be relevant for the next hundred years it must start thinking this way. If tennis does not have its best product in the biggest, most influential market in the world it risks being left behind.
Traditions are inherited, but they can also be built.