The Future Of Tennis - Part 2
The tennis archipelago, UGC, broken bridges, and different types of fans
NB: This essay focuses on the digital and technological future of tennis more so than things like in-person tournament growth, format changes1 and participation. More on those soon.
Part one is here, it helps but you don’t need to have read it for part two to make sense.
This is fine, no problem here…
In the good ol’ days as recently as the 90’s and early 2000’s things were simpler for sport. There were fewer, analog entry points to find out about and become invested in sports — word of mouth, newspaper columns, TV channel-surfing, participation etc. In stark contrast, in 2021, those ‘few’ entry points have evolved into multitudinous and more complex branches which are, for the most part, inextricably intertwined with the internet. This is both great and bad. It’s great because not only are there now an abundance of interesting and varied ways to get a potential or existing fan’s attention, but it’s also possible to be more targeted with how sports appeal to various levels of a fan’s interest in, or exposure to, a sport. It’s bad partially because there’s more competition for attention than ever, but mostly because many sports, tennis included, don’t seem to have figured out how to fully leverage the strange leviathan that is internet culture & its various platforms. Nor how to target or connect those types of fans efficiently.
An imaginary CEO of tennis would want to ensure the following three things when thinking about its fans or customers, and its overall level of interest:
The CEO wants as many non-fans, new, or casual fans to be exposed to the sport as possible (the top of the fan funnel). These are low value fans via mostly free or cheap products and content.
The CEO wants to give the most invested fans, the ones who pour the most time and money into the sport (the bottom end of the fan funnel), the most enchanting, engaging, and deep experience as possible. These are the high value fans via a mixture of free and paid products and content.
Finally, the CEO wants to enable good mobility leading from the casual/new fans to the hardcore fans. You want to make it as easy as possible for someone with a passing or new interest in the sport to progressively cross into the obsessive, passionate fan domain, and you also want to create value for, and capture as much value from, those in the middle of those two extremes as possible.
Tennis, right now, gets a failing grade on all three.
The worse a sport performs in these categories, the harder discovery of the sport is, the smaller volume of both hardcore & casual fans there are, and the more potential fans churn out of the sport, stranded on the edge of ‘The Casual Fan Islands’ while thinking about crossing over into the more invested territories because there’s no connectivity. Here’s a scrappy map to help visualise this:
This image is obviously simplistic because in reality the networks of types of fans, interests and islands look like the above map but multiplied many times over, and the types of fans are more granular than falling into just three territories. But for the purpose of visualising the different sorts of fan interest in a sport, and how they connect, here are the three regions.
(Outer) The Casual Islands. These represent small chunks of cultural spillover into tennis from other, unrelated or slightly related, communities. Think of the outer islands as small specs in the endless sea of all culture and interests. For e.g. one of the absolute outer-most, tiny islands could represent a famous F1 driver posting about a tennis match on their instagram story and causing a small percentage of that driver’s following to search for what they were talking about. Or a rare bit of tennis news making it onto the front page of reddit and planting a seed of fleeting interest into a bunch on non-tennis fan’s minds. Or a friend sending you a meme from a community you’re not yet familiar with. The outermost islands are the more nascent bits of tennis fan interest. Usually fleeting, initially superficial, and always based on a random and extremely varied bunch of free media. The goal is to give these potential fans increasing exposure to the sport and allow them to easily travel closer to the haven that is the Hardcore Territory.
(Inner) The Hardcore Territory. This landmass in the middle represents those who already love tennis. Either through playing a lot, streaming a lot, or attending a lot of live matches (or some combination of those three and more) these fans are the most valuable and most engaged. The inhabitants of this territory may pay for one or multiple streaming services, purchase tennis merch and equipment, follow multiple players, and often seek out a deeper understanding of the sport through statistics and analysis. The goal is to make this island so wonderful for those who are invested in your sport that they want to spend as much time here as possible, while also sampling other areas of the map as they please.
The Middle Grounds. These islands represent those in the middle of the two extreme categories. The goal is to help these, already quite invested, fans go deeper into the sport, or at the very least make sure access to tennis is easy.
Right now (in the map above), the Casual Islands are too remote and too sparse, the Hardcore Territory is hard for travellers to access and not as habitable as it could be internally, and the travel options between the outer-ring of islands to the inner-territories are non-existent. Many traditional sports are complacent because they’re sitting back, smugly resting on their laurels. Laurels in the form of huge, century-old communities and fanbases that a scrappy, newer sport would kill for. But as incumbents, many of the old fashioned sports don’t do enough to help that community, or mobility, thrive. The goal here here is to end up with something that looks more like this:
More outer-islands, more connections between those outer-islands, more bridges and connectivity leading from the casual to the hardcore islands. Slightly laboured archipelago metaphor aside, the simple summary here is that tennis needs to treat, serve, and understand both its new and established fans significantly better. So how?
Let’s start with the outer, Casual Islands.
User Generated Content
The free stuff.
User generated content, or UGC, (ie anything made by fans, unofficial or non tournament/org media accounts like commentary, memes, analysis, Twitter, Instagram/FB, YouTube, Twitch, TikTok content etc) is vitally important all the way down the fan funnel, both for casual and hardcore fans. But it’s more important for casual fans simply because it makes up much more of their total exposure to a sport than the more invested fans who invariably pay or seek out more than UGC, in the form of pay-TV, streaming subscriptions, tickets, tennis merch etc.
Every single sports organisation should be thanking their lucky stars UGC exists in the way it currently does. Fans are doing much of the content and marketing job for sports organisations, for free. And it’s easily forgotten that this rare form of a free lunch didn’t exist 10-15 years ago. But for a variety of reasons, tennis orgs are still behind the curve on embracing UGC. The digital, collective roar of thousands of fans reacting to an amazing tweener, a disqualification, a match point save, a shitpost making it from r/tennis to r/all, posts and comments on twitter, facebook, instagram, tiktok etc. These things build momentum, they create new fans and build new bridges between different types of fans. More generally it means more and more people around the world experiencing the same thing at the same time, at scale you could never reach by just relying on official channels. This has an extremely powerful compounding effect on a sport’s popularity. It’s free cultural amplification.
Undeniably in aggregate, and often even in isolation, the most widely shared and most interesting media that’s produced around a sport is infinitely more likely to be created by those on twitter or reddit with usernames like @federersboobs or @sabalenkaisasaucepan than it is by the official channels. This is because, taken as a whole, the vast number of fans will always outperform a few social media managers. And also because UGC capably highlights the good, the bad and the ugly in sport, whereas official channels (especially in tennis) tend to stick largely to the safe and brand friendly stuff. This may not sit well with the suits in various tennis organisations, their traditional lawn sport being ‘marketed’ by a bunch of degenerates who, as you read this, are probably posting fancams of Denis Shapovalov’s cat, making tennis meme or highlight compilations on YouTube, or making threads called ‘TENNIS PLAYERS AS TYPES OF BARNOWLS’. But this particular brand of degenerate are promoting tennis for free. Embrace the unconventionality. Embrace the shitposting. It all helps populate the outer edges of tennis’ archipelago and makes the sport more interesting. This may seem trivial, just like the idea of an account called @federersboobs may seem trivial in isolation, but in aggregate it’s extremely important.
These are of course extreme examples to illustrate the wider point that UGC comes from all corners of this strange planet rather than just the office block of an organisation repping one of the oldest sports in the world. And in that broadness of creativity lies its power - UGC is an antidote for monoculture and promotes a varied and vast fanbase. This antidote helps make a sport more diverse and less alienating for non-traditional fans. Gone are the days where how a sport is perceived is shaped entirely by a bunch of people in a press room or commentators. Fans can see the sport through a far more personalised and self-creative lens than ever before thanks to the internet. Embracing, enabling and leveraging UGC means sports can develop all sorts of subculture offshoots within the wider umbrella of what it means to be a fan. The more ‘lore’ is created around the sport and its players, the greater number of varied, tiny islands and docks are created for the outermost ring of that archipelago, and the more entry points you have for your new fans to discover and latch onto.
We like the tiny islands.
The power of network effects have been in plain sight in the vast majority of major internet platforms for well over a decade now and yet the penny still doesn’t seem to have dropped for many major sports. In its most boring and sterile form it’s purely a numbers game: the more people talking about tennis, the more they will attract others to talk about tennis. As French polymath René Girard noted in his Mimetic Theory:
“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.”
Mimetic desire, or simply wanting to do what others do, is extremely powerful and obvious in all walks of life. But back in the 90’s and early 2000’s for sports, mimetic desire for the most part meant wanting to imitate what your immediate family and friends did or liked. A kid sitting next to their dad on a Sunday, watching a tennis final or F1 race, and absorbing the fandom via a sort of cultural osmosis. In the age of the internet and all of its internationally connected platforms, we have the same mimetic desires but now at truly mammoth scale and less limited to family and in-person friends. Instead of cultural osmosis merely via your dad or school friends, it’s also now via a multitude of internet friends or even strangers across all the major internet platforms, within an ever-growing number of online communities. This shift is how I imagine sport has already, and will continue to, adapt away from things like TV channel-surfing sport discovery that forms the origin story for so many sports fandoms before the 2010’s. This fastest ever spread of culture via the internet is any sport’s (or really any hobby/interest) greatest tool for growth. And UGC is mimetic desire’s most powerful vehicle.
What makes many modern fans fall in love with a sport is deeply unpredictable, often weird and obscure, and reliant on minuscule compounding exposure that has a tail longer than a Diplodocus. UGC caters to that variance of weirdness and long-tail exposure more capably than any traditional marketing or content strategy. One of the main goals here is to get tennis in front of people who don’t already know about tennis. And UGC, via sheer diversity and volume of content and memes, is the trojan horse of sport’s fandom. A video will be shared of Daniil Medvedev and Squidward dancing side by side and all of a sudden BAM, the impossible-to-predict roots of curiosity take hold and a brand new fan finds themselves teetering on the outermost edge of the tennis archipelago. Official accounts remain incredibly important to the growth of tennis, but not only are they insufficient by themselves, they’re also regularly too normal or inward-facing to cater to many non/new-fans seeing the shiny shores of those outer islands for the very first time.
So how do we enable more UGC in tennis? The answers are simple but the execution less so.
Official accounts are still more important than ever despite the power of UGC. These official accounts and organisations need to be creating more and more compelling media. Tennis is years behind some of the other more forward-thinking leagues/sports like the NBA or Formula 1. Both F1 (Drive To Survive) and the NBA (The Last Dance) had Netflix documentaries released over the past few years, which along with a litany of other advantages like vibrant gaming ecosystems2 and their approaches to, and enabling of, digital media in general, have meant both (alongside football/soccer) have dominated the recent sporting cultural zeitgeist. The more official stuff that gets made, the more fan edits, the more screenshots, the more memes, the more ‘lore’ is created in and around the sport. UGC often needs an original foundation of media which will then be remixed a million times by fans like some ever-evolving, self-perpetuating blob of living culture. Both sides are essential but both sides are also currently underserved in tennis. The hard working content people working professionally in tennis also need much more access and bandwidth. Tennis, at the moment, is famously closed-minded and restrictive when it comes to what content employees are allowed to do creatively on site at tournaments. F1 is a the shining example to follow here, since Liberty Media took over the sport in 2016 and basically opened up a constant stream of behind-the-scenes action and social video production (which has contributed to 100% digital growth year on year). It is not a coincidence that the last few years in particular have seen F1 content and fandoms bleed into plenty of other communities due to the sheer size of new interest in the sport.
Tools and platforms
Any and every sport should want to enable and encourage as much UGC as possible for the reasons outlined above. But tennis is still stuck in the dark ages. This sport maddeningly nukes its biggest and hardest working UGC accounts (who were generating hundreds of millions of social impressions for free) because of draconian applications of copyright policies. And tennis inexplicably doesn’t do what the NBA has done for years by allowing, or even partnering with, YouTubers while claiming or sharing monetisation through the YouTube Content ID system. Instead anyone seeking to react to or analyse recent tennis clips on YouTube get copyright strikes and the videos are hidden. As a result of this stymying of media, tennis is one of the major sports with the lowest volume and quality of social media UGC surrounding it. The NBA, F1, football et al have vibrant constellations of YouTubers, TikTok’ers, streamers, statisticians et al posting all sorts of supplementary media that make the sport richer and wider, both for newer and established fans. But tennis doesn’t seem to care. Tennis YouTuber’s trying to do match analysis or reactions to clips can’t get away with obvious ‘fair use’ cases, tennis twitter users sharing thousands of GIFS of funny moments, that could never be captured by official accounts alone and get shared across multiple platforms, get banned. Even accredited journalists and official commentators get DMCA’d while trying to promote the sport. There are no notable/sizeable tennis Twitch streamers and the number of websites doing deeper analysis or commentary that have a decent sized audience is minuscule compared to many other big sports.
Fans are trying desperately to create around the sport, but tennis won't let them.
There are numerous solutions to this, but first a quick note on copyright. The rights-holder issue is quite complex, because there’s currently a struggle between two opposing forces. On the one hand you have sport which makes up one of the last valuable bits of cable or paid-tv bundles. On the other you have those paid TV bundles, with their traditionally worded rights-holder contracts, forming prohibitive walls to new fan exposure and interaction. The former means that tennis orgs and tournaments will understandably want to squeeze all they can out of their rights-holder deals by relentless geo-blocking of media, poor availability of highlights, and restriction of UGC etc. As a result the next few years look certain to continue the tough, transitional time for sports broadcasting rights — a constant battle between what’s best for the short-term balance sheets (worryingly on the back of terrible COVID impacted financials) of tennis organisations who are selling those rights, and the longer-term growth of the sport especially the younger fans who are consuming them. The request here is for those who are responsible (apologies for breaking the 4th wall here, but yes I’m talking to you, numerous tennis executives who happen to be paid subscribers and readers of The Racquet) for inking these contracts to try to take as much of a long-term view as possible. Keeping the status quo is directly handcuffing the growth of of this sport.
Back to solutions. The most obvious short-term solution here is to simply get the power users to create as much media as possible, and work out ways in which this type of media can fit within the existing or near-future frameworks (or maybe grey areas) of copyright. I’m not going to get too into the weeds of this because in practice there are a bunch of answers and execution here. But a few spitballing solutions spring to mind:
First and foremost, if/when possible copy the NBA’s friendly approach to fan-made highlights & content, ideally on the back of modern, rewritten rights-holder contracts when they’re up for renewal.
Create partnership programs like the NBA has with ‘NBA Playmakers’ so that creators can know where they stand when it comes to copyright, what clips can/can’t be used. Partially monetised videos are better than hidden videos. Golden Hoops as an example, has 400m views and a million subscribers, posts daily NBA content, and licences their clips through NBA Playmakers. And even outside the official NBA Playmakers ecosystem there is a rich and vibrant NBA UGC digital media landscape.
As mentioned above, official accounts can never hope to capture, highlight and remix everything interesting that happens in tennis. The response from those creating UGC is to post GIF’s, memes, shitposts or videos to fill the gap, some of which end up being taken down. Instead why doesn’t the TennisTV platform for e.g experiment with a clipping function like Twitch and YouTube where those watching can share time-limited moments on social with embeds that link back to the official stream? Official accounts already do this with tools like Grabyo and similar, and gamers have been doing this for years with tools like this or Twitch and YouTube clips. This way you ensure better quality highlights than grainy GIFS, and you let the masses uncover, share and highlight a lot of the interesting stuff that can’t be captured by official accounts. Best of all, the platform/broadcaster can use this clipping function as a lead generation product for signing up new customers with a bit of user interface work (for e.g ‘click/tap here to watch what happens next live’). The concern from official orgs may be that giving fans the power to easily highlight everything from the bad and the ugly, along with the good, may harm tennis’ image. But fighting to keep tennis a completely clean and ‘gentlemanly’ sport when it comes to censoring certain types of media is, long-term, a Sisyphean battle in the age of the internet. Better to just embrace it rather than fight it.
Many younger or newer fans have moved past the desire for extremely over-produced studio settings and commentary that have been the norm when presenting pro sport for decades. Tennis could encourage more UGC by opening up commentary over the top of official streams as a platform. Think Twitch but for tennis. Still paywalled either within TennisTV or Twitch/PrimeVideo, but open commentary up to (probably initially pre-screened creators) and let the viewer choose who they listen to while mixing in interactive features like live chat. This would make it easier to set up impromptu streams commentated on by former or current pros, by analysts, or just by your friends for a social watch party. Give people customised viewing options and interactivity. Kids and many younger viewers already expect this as a default viewing option when it comes to other forms of entertainment. This also doesn’t violate any of the major roadblocks with rights-holder issues as the media is still hosted on the paywalled platforms.
Provide more relevant media training to young players. The ATP have a three day course called ‘ATP University’ which helps young players with ‘player relations, member services, rules and regulations, integrity – anti-corruption and anti-doping, and player health and wellness’, but a more widely available crash course in more relevant Gen-Z media training (setting up YouTube/Twitch channels, boundaries on what to share etc) could also be useful and encourage players to share more of their careers which would then feed into the ‘lore’ above.
In reality there are hundreds of different ways to enable (or even just allow) more UGC. These suggestions will also probably sound a bit ‘out there’ to some of the more traditional fans (some of you may be confused by this focus on UGC at all!). But sports broadcasting has barely changed in the last 20 years. We live at a time where fans expect there to be greater interactivity and customisation than legacy TV. TennisTV for example has been around since 2009. At launch it was a forward thinking bit of product development and one of the first international, in-house streaming services in major sport. But the platform hasn’t changed meaningfully in the last 12 years. It’s high time tennis experimented with what can be done in 2021. Even NBA Commissioner Adam Silver expects live sports streaming to look more like Twitch in years to come. Tennis should have already been testing, testing, testing along those lines. Gen Z and the younger half of millennials are an army of proficient video editors and content creators. Give them some tools and get the hell out of their way.
The final part that makes up ‘Lore’ is just the creation of more professional forms of media. Documentaries around the sport (F1’s Drive to Survive for e.g is a cultural phenomenon), e-sports, gaming ecosystems etc. I went in to much more detail about those bits of media in Part 1. Suffice to say, if tennis can make sure it’s easy to make UGC, and produce as much interesting media as possible in the form of compelling social and professional video, it stands a much better chance at faster growth.
Fans aren’t on or off…
The most important mission for that imaginary tennis CEO once they’ve made the outer islands of the tennis fan archipelago more populous and friendly to new fans, is to make the journey to become a more invested fan as smooth sailing as possible. And it’s in this mission where tennis fails most spectacularly for now.
Sports fans are not ‘fans’ or ‘non-fans’. They’re not on or off when it comes to interest in a sport. In the age of the internet, with the importance of that small compounding exposure mentioned above, the level of interest is more varied, and on a wider spectrum, than ever before. A fan who’s just started watching YouTube compilations of past matches, and a fan who watches every big tournament live during the season are not the same. But tennis doesn’t really seem to get that.
The way tennis is currently set up, with either $0 paid for no access to the sport, or $15 per month or $120+ per year (approximate pricing for TennisTV or TennisChannel+), would have you believe that the fan funnel looks binary like the left diagram, when actually, and rather obviously, it looks a lot more like the one on the right:
Or, overlaid on top of the sports fan archipelago:
Tennis doesn’t seem to embrace, or maybe even understand, demand curves. It, for the most part, has an all or nothing approach to both pricing and access to the sport, which obfuscates the varying degrees of interest in fanbases. And enabling more UGC alone isn’t enough by itself, even if it makes a large difference. Tennis has to make sure that travelling from the new-fan outer-islands to the established-fan inner-region is a comfortable, or even survivable, journey.
We therefore need a more tailored approach. The next 10 years is going to see a vast amount of innovation when it comes to payment protocols and services. Blockchain technology and NFT’s will likely enable forms of microtransactions and more tailored community building, i.e more granular catering to different levels of fan interest, to be increasingly profitable (I’ll write properly about sport and NFT’s in a separate essay, this one is already too long3). But in the meantime tennis can still acknowledge and provide for those fans left behind under that demand curve.
Part of this is more pricing experimentation rather than one unpaid and one paid option, especially as we shift further and further away from legacy TV/cable bundles. The NBA, PGA, F1 et al all have tiered (cheaper and more expensive) access to watching their coverage in many major markets (although for now ‘blackout’ restrictions still exist in some locations due to major network deals). Tennis’ on-demand options, whether it’s TennisTV or TennisChannel Plus, is mostly an ‘on or off’ model. There are no tiers with meaningfully different levels of access and different types of content. And therefore there is little attention paid to the reality of different types of fans.
The NBA firmly leads the way in this regard, offering everything from ‘One Team’ passes, ‘3 Game Choice’, and ‘Day Passes’ to ‘Premium Passes’ with plenty of additional content:
Not only do the NBA offer more granularity of access when it comes to their own in house streaming platform, but they also have partnerships in place with multiple younger facing platforms to distribute cheap or free highlights and/or portions of live matches through products like Buzzer and Snapchat (the former via microtransactions). Tennis has no equivalent.
These are all signs that multiple other sports understand that a fan’s interest in a sport is not on or off. The probable next step for a new, young fan to engage with tennis, after the initial gateway created by YouTube et al, would be to stream some live matches. But when faced with prohibitive paywalls that are made mostly for already invested and committed fans, what are those fresh, uncertain fans going to do? They may persevere (either eating the cost if they have the money or perhaps more likely pirating the streams), or they may just churn out of the sport altogether. At a time when competition for attention spans is at an all time high, tennis needs to be doing everything in its power to eliminate the chance for that churn, especially when that fan is sitting at the most delicate of stages (casual/new fan islands) in their journey into tennis.
This would all be blindingly obvious to anyone who's spent any time in the weeds of tennis fans or just sports fans in general. A very common journey for a brand new tennis fan is becoming specifically interested in the career of a single player, who that fan will then start to follow (sometimes religiously). The absence, for example, of a cheaper single player subscription in tennis streaming services, as a gentle on-ramp to start following the sport, feels like an egregious mistake. Tennis orgs and broadcasters can experiment with this tailoring of demand as much as they like — ‘Player Pass’, ‘Match Pass’, ‘Tournament Pass’, ‘Surface Pass’, ‘NextGen Pass’ etc — at more specific price points, the success of which will be determined by the underlying economics of tennis fan demand when it comes to how these tweaks impact growth, retention, product cannibalisation etc. But the status quo is inarguably too broad and inaccessible for now (deals like ATP, WTA and Slam tournaments being broadcast on Prime Video in some European regions are a good start, because hundreds of millions of people already subscribe to Amazon Prime, but this is still a relatively minor step in the right direction).
Tennis can look around for inspiration in plenty of other sports when it comes to tailored and tiered access. At the lower or free end, the PGA Tour has partnerships with platforms like Twitter and Skratch where tournaments are livestreamed for free with impressive concurrent viewership:
The Champions League final has been streamed for free on YouTube by BT Sport in the UK (one of football’s biggest markets) since 2016, in which time digital viewership has grown by over 166 per cent, attracting millions of live viewers every year. La Liga (the Spanish premier football league) also partnered with streamers to cast commentary of matches on Twitch.
F1 let ESPN broadcast races for free, costing millions in rights fees but setting the sport up for growth in one of their most important growth markets.
NFL, WWE and NBA creators are working with Spotify for pre and post game audio shows on ‘Greenroom’. And the NFL extended a deal with Amazon Prime earlier this year to continue showing ‘Thursday Night Football’ on the platform, including through popular streamers on Twitch (this is what I said would happen in 2018):
The NBA and Snapchat are aiming to double their content output on the platform heading into their sixth year of partnership. Content includes shows produced by the league, real-time highlights for every game, and curated “Our Stories”.
The Olympics partnered with Twitch to carry live Olympic content for the 2020 games:
These are all examples of forward thinking loss-leader pricing strategies or GenZ/Millenial focused strategic partnerships, by some of the biggest sports on earth.
Rather extraordinarily tennis has been well positioned to do similar for years now, but hasn’t. Tennis has had deals with Amazon Prime to broadcast high profile tournaments in some of the sport’s most high-value regions for years, and yet we’ve seen no innovation at all when it comes to using Amazon’s other streaming product, Twitch. It would surely be relatively straightforward for example for tennis to livestream the first ATP Finals day session for free on Twitch, with outreach to a few of the bigger streamers (who happen to be tennis fans), as a loss leader, and then stream the 2nd match behind a Twitch Prime subscription to see how well it converts free to paying fans from a slightly different platform demographic (Twitch as opposed to Prime Video). This is really just me thinking aloud, but where on earth is the experimentation? Where are the strategic partnerships?
Capturing more of the demand curve is not only important when it comes to making new fans feel welcome, it’s also just as important for providing value to, and capturing value from, the hardcore fans (those sitting in the inner-most territory of the archipelago). The one size fits all approach to access ends up hurting both ends of the fan spectrum, both the most hardcore fans and the newest fans. PGA TV’s and NBA’s League Pass premium subscription options offer plenty of perks for the more hardcore fans such as instruction from some of the best golfers in the world, studio shows and deeper behind the scenes access, series from the sport’s biggest stars in the form of PGA’s ‘My Game’ series and more. Golf’s Masters coverage also includes interactivity that tennis can only dream of currently, with the ability to follow specific groups, change cameras, dynamically track your favourite players and catch up on picture in picture highlights as they happen, pull out graphics and stats etc. These kinds of customisable viewing experiences feel like no-brainers given the on-demand streaming technology that has existed for years now. An equivalent would be extremely welcome for example, either as a standalone solution or as a 2nd screen, during tennis’ Slams which always feature far too many things going on at once.
To their credit, TennisChannelPlus and their owner Sinclair Broadcast Group are admirably trying to do smaller scale versions of some of this at the moment with some of their studio production. But that on-demand service, despite costing well over $100 per year, regularly fails to provide full coverage because of network deal conflicts (although this is not limited to tennis, it should be inexcusable for a hardcore fan to be willing to pay for complete access but not get it). Along the same lines, the ATP recently acquired TopCourt, a video coaching product featuring some of the game’s stars, but rather confusingly it’s a completely separate product from any of their existing subscription options and scarcely promoted by any of the related services. Perhaps most encouragingly however, the ATP and WTA have formed a centralised marketing team in the past year to try and streamline marketing and media efforts.
The unfortunate, underlying reality here is that even if sports orgs like the NBA and the PGA didn’t have that more tailored and complete access for its fans (and to be clear both sports can and will do much more along these lines in years to come), it would matter less than it currently does for tennis. Both golf and the NBA have large and successful ecosystems of complimentary digital media such as Taylor Made’s wildly successful YouTube channels and other newer influencers, Golf Digest, or NBA’s billions of views and engagement from its constellation of NBA influencers, creators and statisticians across multiple platforms (not to mention the many, many partnerships with GenZ/Millenial-focused platforms mentioned above). This does however mean that there is currently enormous room to improve and innovate within tennis. This sport can take cues from other sports’ broadcasting innovation like golf and F1 et al, it can offer things like customisable camera options (court level, high, low, coach view, aerial etc) and all sorts of complimentary media products to both satisfy, and earn from, its most passionate fans. A smaller part of this (although I don’t think this will meaningfully change) is loosening data restrictions to help make the hardcore fans (as well as players/coaches) more knowledgable and provide deeper experiences (even if they come at increased cost to the fan by way of extra or bundled subscriptions). As tennis data scientist Stephanie Kovalchik notes, data availability is a long term problem in this sport:
‘Tennis may be the ultimate story of missed opportunity. To understand why analytics have yet to enter tennis’ mainstream, we must trace the history of quantitative study of the game and the structural changes to professional competition that coincided with it. What emerges is a cautionary lesson of the way a sport can stymie statistical innovation when it allows data to become a tightly guarded commodity whose owners aren’t invested in the understanding or improvement of sport performance.’
Right now tennis is leaving far too much on the table when it comes to both casual and hardcore ends of the demand curve. On or off access doesn’t cut it in 2021.
Innovation within and around this sport is particularly vital now, more than ever before. Tennis has been significantly slower on all of the above than many other major sports, although it does have myriad justifications for being a slowpoke. Most relevant of all these justifications is the chronically fragmented structure of professional tennis presenting unique challenges when it comes to streaming/broadcasting rights and general cohesive decision-making across the sport (I go into much more detail on that in Part 1 and here). Many of the American sports organisations mentioned above have single, semi-autonomous commissioners who can enact change with far less friction than any one of tennis’s multiple executives ever could. For example tennis’ fragmentation is partly to blame for the severely bad current user experience when having to sign up for an expensive menu of overlapping streaming products in order to watch all of tennis’ premier events. The ATP is currently in the middle of trying to pass an enormous, 30-year strategic plan which seeks to address some of these issues, including trying to pool both media and data rights. The longer term vision also includes goals like merging the ATP and WTA into one entity, which aside from its massive complexity in terms of execution would almost certainly make the sport more attractive as an overall commercial package. While these are all valid excuses for slow progress, they do not excuse the degree to which tennis has remained stagnant across many of the issues discussed in this essay. Fragmentation can not be blamed for all of tennis’ old-fashioned inaction.
As sports increasingly find themsleves unbundled from major networks (or at least relying more heavily on other options) and signing with either speciality networks — Sinclair now owns almost all American tennis rights — or direct to consumer and in-house platforms — for e.g ATP’s TennisTV — it becomes increasingly important for tennis to maximise and optimise the revenue it generates from that media. Tennis is regularly touted as the 4th most popular sport on earth with regard to fan interest, despite only accounting for 1.3% of the total value of global sports TV and media rights (a smaller share than golf, hockey, or cricket). The question, moving forward, is how tennis and other sports can capitalise on the upside to no longer being small fishes in a large broadcasting pond as traditional cable deals collapse. For now tennis still relies heavily on major contracts with ESPN for example, which have historically helped the Slams in generating sizeable revenues (the four Slams generate $2.3b or approx 60% of tennis’ total revenue). But longer term the more focused streaming platforms can be cleverer and more nimble with programming, reach and growth than the bigger networks that are still constrained by the luddite, slowly dying behemoth that is cable tv bundles and similar. As cable deals continue to die, tennis needs to get smarter about understanding and capturing different types of tennis fans rather than the sort of catch-all appeal of cable or linear tv. As it stands no one in the sport seems to care that, for most part, an 80 year old watching tennis gets the same user/viewing experience as a 16 year old watching tennis.
2019 US Open had $120m in broadcasting revenue (a large chunk of which comes from its banner ESPN deal) out of $370m total (or 32%).
The broadcasting revenue for smaller events like the ATP 500's average just 16% broadcasting earnings out of total revenue.
If tennis wants to grow its proportion and total of media based revenue (this is a clear priority) it’s going to need to get much cleverer when it comes to capturing more of that demand curve. The future of any sports’ digital success and growth will be won by sports which successfully navigate the relationship between user generated content as free/cheap exposure for the sport, thereby creating easy to use bridges to enable mobility from new to hardcore fan status, and making sure that whole map is as enchanting as possible for every type of fan. Competition for attention is far, far too stiff in 2021 for tennis to be as complacent, in the areas discussed above, as it has been for much of the last decade. Fan interest isn’t on or off, and this sport must stop treating it like it is.
The opportunities for tennis in this context are nearly endless and there are already plenty of good and talented people working in this sport who want the very best for this nearly 150 year old game. But we desperately need to get out of our own way. Otherwise, instead of a bustling, populous, and well-connected tennis archipelago we’ll be left with a sinking bunch of disparate, disconnected islands.
This grand old sport needs help, let’s get to work building those bridges.
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As I wrote in Part 1, there are two main ways to modernise a sport. 1. ‘Views, access and entry points’ which have been the focus on this essay. 2. ‘Changing the format’. While format experimentation and optimisation is important for any sport, it remains the simpler and much easier to understand, of the two problems. This means that many in this sport, including decision makers, look to it as a cure-all. My concern is that rash changes will be made to this sport simply because it’s a more simple looking problem. In my view focusing on format tweaks and ignoring the issues laid out in this essay would be like putting a bandaid on a broken leg.
Gaming — I wrote about this at greater length in part 1 but this is actually a more complex issue than it looks. Tennis missed out on forming a gaming subculture with any real significance for the past 10 years when it nuked the critically successful topspin and virtua tennis franchises just as gaming was entering the mainstream a decade ago. Gaming is a vitally important entry point to any sport, especially for younger fans and would-be fans, but it’s too simplistic to just say ‘let’s fund a new generation of realistic tennis sims’. This could work, but it also could easily be simply too late for this type of game. Focusing on tennis mobile games, indie games, VR, play-to-earn may be a better bet. Tennis sims just aren’t that interesting in 2021, and especially not if they’re half-baked, and would come with a significant risk to any AAA developer given the absence of anything substantive in this space for a decade.
Despite the fact that sports orgs like the NBA have been very successful in building out NFT products like TopShot, I don’t think these are particularly interesting manifestations of what NFT’s can and probably will eventually do for sports when it comes to community building and capturing more of that demand curve. Although the ATP is considering something similar. More on this in another essay soon.