Jun 19, 2020Liked by Matthew Willis

Great read, thanks. I consume a lot of sports journalism and often think that tennis lacks these sort of long form, analytical pieces compared to lots of other sports like football, cricket, golf. Tend to just get a lot of match reports, and predictions.

Completely agree when it comes to video games. I love watching a variety of sports, playing them and playing video games. I used to play Virtua Tennis loads on the PSP. But it has always annoyed me that tennis hasn't had a good video game for a whole console generation, and longer (Can add golf to that too). During lockdown I have continued my consumption of F1 through the virtual gps, and got to know the drivers better as they all live stream on Twitch, and have kept this up in between races too. It has felt like great marketing for F1 throughout and also been nice to get to see more of their personalities.

F1, like Football, also has a huge youtube presence with lots of popular accounts related to the F1 game or other motorsport games, which have also been really popular during lockdown and help to drive interest. Some of these guys featured in the virtual gps, one of them commentated, and they regularly interact with the official F1 account and the Codemaster's account on social media. It feels like the various elements are all in sync working together to market the sport and drive interest. Even something like them just releasing driver ratings for next year's game has seen huge fan engagement and debate online, similar to FIFA's ultimate team.

In addition, F1 (since Bernie Ecclestone left) has a fantastic youtube acount which updates regularly with various top 10 videos during the season, and unseen camera angles etc post races. They have lots of interviews with past drivers, and during lockdown have uploaded full classic races at a set time so people can watchalong together and comment. They also always have content for key anniversaries, and do a great job of having lots of old clips to educate fans, and celebrate the legends.

They have also set up an official F1TV website where more hardcore fans can subscribe to watch all the races, have access to every race stretching back to the 80s, as well as some documentaries.

In summary, completely agree there is so much more tennis can do to engage fans, and bring new ones in and what F1 has done in the last few years in particular is a great example of what is possible.

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Jun 23, 2020Liked by Matthew Willis

Man I have missed your articles and this reminded me why. Excellent analysis.

One point you made about tournaments being widely accessible to everyone around the globe is I think only true to a degree.

There was I think only one 250 tournament and only one challenger in the whole of Africa last year. Countries like India do have a tournament but it's a 250 where not many recognizable stars come. It's clear that the organizations are gravitating more towards big-money markets like China and Singapore which is fair enough but it does make it harder for people in those other countries to get interested in tennis especially when as you say there are so many different competitors.

Tennis, also I think starts out with a disadvantage. Football you can just take a ball and play, same with basketball. Chess and cricket also don't cost too much. Tennis on the other hand does require rackets and a court, leading to it being considered a elitist sport, though maybe not on the level of golf. Again here comes the point of accessibility. I've heard of people "just going out for a hit" in the USA and other western countries but that is simply not possible in less developed countries like it is in those above mentioned sports.

Anyway, I don't know if I have contributed anything to the above topic but these are just some of the thoughts that came to my head while reading your (once again excellent) article.

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I think you hit a lot of points. I would point out one additional. We Americans tend to push team sports, for a variety of reasons. Europeans are more open to individual sports. That is one dimension, perhaps US specific. But I think the cultural/elitist/expensive angle is very important. The former socialist countries are probably at the very end of the legacy of encouraging athletics and providing a lot of facilities. Tennis is rapidly becoming elitist- because now only kids with money can afford to play. IMO, this is part of the reason why, say, the Balkans, where Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria combined have more top 50 than the US despite vast differences in population.

If people view tennis as a country club sport that they never have the opportunity to play, they are unlikely to become fans.

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Matthew, I've come back to this thanks to your twitter comment that you're working on the follow-up, which I look forward to reading. Thanks for all this analysis.

I, too, have collated numbers showing that in many ways tennis is definitely not "in trouble." On the other hand the on-boarding process (to use the current phrase) lags behind other sports, as you illustrate.

A few points, if I may:

1. The issue with Mouratoglou's comment is not the hyperbole, bad enough as it is, but the size of his pulpit. It's irresponsible for him to promote such skewed data; of course he's not some elected politician, or even a journalist, so the lack of responsibility has to be seen in context, but he has not covered himself in glory by what promoting what amounts to a fib, given his stature in the sport.

2. One of tennis' inherent challenges in its self-promotion as a participant sport – one method of on-boarding for fandom, but as you point not the only one – is that it's just more difficult to enjoy than footy or golf for beginners. This is not a comment about which sport is harder to play, but given that getting the ball back-and-forth, at least a little bit, is what's fun about tennis, and that making contact is the first challenge (to say nothing of controlling direction), it's easy to see why beginners find more immediate satisfaction in playing football with others of the same level, or golf where you're performance is uniquely up to you. Reading your piece makes me wonder if we shouldn't have a standardized *larger* court for beginners, and set it up so they graduate to today's court dimensions?

3. More than anything I believe all the discussions about modernizing or changing tennis should be predicated on some initial premise of what the goal is for such efforts: more participants? more paying spectators, either in person or on media platforms?; more racquets and balls sold?; more concurrent tournaments in more countries?; parity of metrics with football, or golf, or basektball, etc? Absent a goal for what any changes should effect, and some agreement about it, I fear we're much less likely to get positive results.

Again, thanks for the long form journalism.

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Lots of thought-provoking ideas in here, but I think one category of changes could be added: pro tour organization. Here's some of what I think regarding that topic.

Problems with the current tour setup:

- economic sustainability for players. At most a few hundred men and even fewer women are able to make a living from playing pro tennis. Lower ranked players tend to lose money on the tour. Many excellent players with unique techniques or ways of seeing the game are unwilling to risk going pro because of the low probabilities of making a living at it (this is anecdotal evidence, restricted to my observations of Pac 12 college players, but I would guess that it holds true almost everywhere)  

- economic sustainability for events: few events can sustain themselves from ticket sales. The majority rely on sponsorships, which are subject to the vagaries of the economy at large. Television/streaming teams and the tennis press must also travel the globe, reducing the number of outlets willing to finance coverage and the costs of television broadcasting.

- economic sustainability for certain match formats: doubles and mixed doubles are extremely popular at the recreational level, among the majority of the tennis playing fan base. However, at all but the latest of events, they are not financially feasible. Some might argue that this is due to the impartial workings of the market. However, this view is subject to the same counter-arguments that apply to equal pay for the Women’s tour, which I find valid.

- Inequality. The COVID-19 crisis has brought the extreme levels of inequality on the tour to the forefront, as it has society-wide. While there are justifications for the levels of inequality and arguments against more evenly distributed prize money, as with society at large, most evidence suggests that large levels of inequality are detrimental to the long term health and viability of the organization (be it the tennis tour or society as a whole) in question

- lack of consistency between the male and female tours. Event schedules don’t always coordinate, ranking points structures differ, prize money scales differ, even at the same event, etc.

- Environmental sustainability: players and their teams flying around the globe all year is the opposite of a sensible use of limited supplies of fossil fuels, apart from the problems with carbon emissions. Expenses with hotels, food, and transportation all contribute to the problems with economic sustainability for players. These expenses multiply when the adjustment period for differing time zones is taken into account.

- Playing style homogeneity: The current tour is dominated by a narrow range of playing styles, from defensive to aggressive baseliners. Previous generations displayed a wider variety. 

- Pandemic and other disaster sustainability: The costs of pandemics such as the current one are higher as the tour as a whole cannot resume until there is infection rate parity across the globe. While the current pandemic may be historically unprecedented, there are many reasons to believe that it will not be the last. 


- a unified tour. The ATP,  WTA, Challenger, ITF, and Grand Slams should merge and create a single ranking point system, a single prize money structure, and a coordinated schedule. Optional items for future discussion include a unified ranking system for singles and doubles (results from all forms of sanctioned matches count towards ranking points), limits on prize money differentials (analogous to salary caps in other pro sports, financial fair play, etc.)

- Regional sub tours. This means separate tours in different geographical regions, such as North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Each tour would hold its own events, open to players based in each respective region. The Grand Slams would be the only international events, analogous to the World Cup, except that they would occur 4x a year instead of every 4 years. Players would of course be free to relocate to other regions. 

- The Grand Slams should move away from the homogenization of playing surface speeds. Wimbledon should return to the faster grass previously used. Consider changing the US Open to an indoor tournament in November, the AO to February, Wimbledon to Late May / early June, and the FO to the fall. This would space them out better, and they would represent all the major playing surfaces, with the greatest variety of surface speeds. The USO used to be on grass and green clay. The AO used to be on grass. Changing surfaces at the GS events has ample precedent in tennis history.

Possible outcomes:

- Increased playing style and tactical variety: Each region will eventually develop its own playing identity, as a result of climate, predominance of playing surfaces, culture, etc. Even if one style (e.g. aggressive baseliner) proves to be generally superior to others at the international events, this may not be true at all regional events, and the greater variety of playing surfaces and speeds at the Grand Slams would encourage a greater variety of playing styles, which in turn widens the sports appeal to different athletic types of kids. 

- Increased environmental resiliency: The carbon footprint of tennis overall would decline due to the reduction in flying and transportation

- Increased economic resiliency for players:  Players would see reduced expenses as travel, hotel and food expenses for themselves and their teams would all decline. They would see greater income at the lower levels and as they begin their careers due to the caps on prize money differentials.

- Increased variety and economic resiliency for events: there should be an increase in the number of sanctioned events, albeit smaller ones, as the costs for hosting an event decrease, and as the size of the facilities required also decreases. The pro tour may start to overlap with higher level pro-am events, which would improve fan access to events. 

- Increased public exposure for the pro tours: The number of outlets willing to pay a reporter to cover events would increase as travel and other expenses decrease. Television, streaming, and press coverage would increase, leading to higher public visibility. 

- Increased fan bases: the fan bases would enlarge as a greater variety of playing styles develops and kids and adults experiment more with stroke production, tactics, and game styles. More players may be tempted to turn pro as it becomes easier to make a living from playing pro tennis. 

- Resiliency against pandemics and other environmental disruptions: will increase as different regions are able to start up their own tours according to the particularities of their respective areas. Climate change disruptions are in all probability coming. The fires at last year's AO were likely a preview. Disruption in one region will not throw the entire pro tour into chaos if it's more decentralized.

The overall advantage of a tour reorganization as I'm proposing may be a broader and deeper fan and player base, with greater variety and richness of playing styles. The downside may be that the stratospheric levels of the current big 3 may never again be reached, and the Grand Slam record, weeks at #1 record, and most of the other criteria that people seem to consider part of the GOAT argument probably won’t be broken again as the surfaces diverge in terms of playing speed and as competitions draw primarily from the smaller populations regions as opposed to across from the entire globe, but I think those are small prices to pay for the overall health and sustainability - at multiple levels - of the sport.

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