By Barry Janoff
November 24, 2015: When it comes to a sport that uses a round ball, has intense competition played on a court, features top athletes with global followers and is supported by marketing that is strong within the category but also growing exponentially among non-endemic companies, the NBA does not hold a monopoly.
In 2014, worldwide sponsorship spend on tennis was a record $739 million and is expected to set a new mark in 2015, according to research and consulting firm IEG, Chicago.
In addition to the plethora of companies endemic to the sport, domestic and worldwide marketing and sponsorship deals to support what has become a $6 billion in business, according to the Tennis Industry Assn., are lead by such companies as Anheuser-Busch, BNP Paribas, Evian, FedEx, Gatorade, Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, SAP and Sony.
Emirates Airline this month signed a deal valued at $40 million with the ATP World Tour, the governing body of men's pro tennis, to move from platinum status to premier partner beginning in 2016. Among other tennis alliances, Emirates is title sponsor for the U.S. Open Series and a partner with the Grand Slam events at the U.S. Open and the French Open, the BNP Paribas Open, Barcelona Open and the Rogers Cup.
Also in November, French automaker Peugeot signed a pact to become a platinum partner for the ATP World Tour as well as the official car at more than 20 ATP World Tour tennis tournaments, beginning in 2016. In addition this month, Qatar Airways signed a three-year deal to become the presenting partner for the Coca-Cola International Premier Tennis League.
Tennis players are among the highest-paid athletes in the world, based on earnings and endorsement deals: Roger Federer ($67 million), Novak Djokovic ($33.1 million), Rafael Nadal ($32.5 million), Maria Sharapova ($29.7 million), Serena Williams ($24.6) and Andy Murray ($22.3 million), figures that do not include income from companies that they run or in which they have invested, per Forbes.
Front-and-center in covering the sport and its players is Tennis Channel, which, true to its promise when it launched in 2003, is a 24-hour, multimedia destination dedicated to both the professional and amateur game and all aspects of the tennis lifestyle.
in 2005, Tennis Channel reached 3.5 million households. it now has close to 35 million subscribers, and more than 55 million during major tournaments. It is carried by nine of the top cable providers, although Tennis Channel and Comcast have had an on-going public feud regarding coverage and finances. It covers and/or has a presence at virtually all of the sport’s top 100 events.
Ken Solomon, chairman and CEO, joined Tennis Channel in 2005 following executive tenures with Universal Television, DreamWorks, Disney and News Corp. He also founded and led Fine Living Network for Scripps Networks. NYSportsJournalism spoke with Solomon about the growth of tennis and Tennis Channel, the challenges facing the sport and the future of tennis and its fans, players and marketing (and potential) marketing partners.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Are you seeing more companies not endemic to tennis becoming involved with the sport, either domestically or globally?
Ken Solomon: Very much so. It's probably the most important value proposition that we have. In the early days, people would ask, 'How much can you really make selling tennis shoes and racquets?' Of course, the endemic business is a significant part of our business. But when you look outside the tennis industry, the growth is amazing.
NYSJ: How would you describe the viewership at Tennis Channel?
KS: We have the highest average income and most disposable include among viewership in all of TV, according to (global media measurement and research companies) Rentrak and Ipsos. We also have the youngest core audience of any news or sports network. And 50% of our audience is female. Which makes sense since 50% of the players on the court are female. But what is unique is that male viewers watch both men and women, and female viewers watch both women and men on a regular basis.
NYSJ: How does that impact the way in which companies should view Tennis Channel?
KS: Let's say you are in the auto category. You are reaching a vast audience with a high intent to purchase. And you don't have to be a sponsor of a tournament, to be on the back wall. Now, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, we can make the schedule conform to whatever the sponsors' needs are. Auto, pharma, travel are huge in tennis. If you are Expedia, in the car rental business, the hotel business, the airline business, tennis and Tennis Channel is where you want to be. We have aggregated 95% of the content of one sport. We are not about one event, one day, one month, once in a lifetime. If you see Tennis Channel content it is the best of tennis, all of the top players, the rising stars, the legends. In Q4 of this year, we are doing to have double the ad and sponsorship sales of a year ago. Other networks can say their sales are up; I don''t know how many can say they are up 100%.
NYSJ: Are you also finding that companies aligned with tennis are becoming more creative, more inventive, perhaps using more humor than before, in trying to get their messages to fans and consumers?
KS: Absolutely. And people are responding to those messages. And what we are able to do is really stoke those flames. We have relationships with all the players. All their agents. And all of the companies that are advertising. And we have the platform on which to do it. So when Roger Federer goes to Africa to support a school program with UNICEF, we can then put together something for Credit Suisse, one of his marketing partners, and film it and make it branded content. The flip side is that John McEnroe, who has worked with us on and off for the past ten years, recently did a campaign with BNP Paribas, 'We Are Tennis Fan Academy,' which recruited non-professional fans of tennis to become part of a boot camp. It's funny and creative. We have so many great personalities in our sport, Serena, Maria, who make for great content year-round, not just during tennis season.
NYSJ: How has Tennis Channel benefited from the fact that marketers sign endorsement deals with tennis players regardless of their nationality and are able to sell to them to both U.S. and global consumers, and can sign top stars such as Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to sell products to men and women?
KS: At its core, we are basically 50-50 male-female, and that is unique in all of sports. What does that mean to a sponsor? It means if you are making a buy to reach an adult 18-49 or 25-54-year-old audience and are seeking to reach men and women, we are about the only network on which you can achieve that. Regarding nationalities, tennis is also pretty unique in that fans in the U.S. will root for Federer (from Switzerland,), Djokovic (Serbia), Andy Murray (born in Glasgow) or Rafael Nadal (from Spain), perhaps unless they are up against an American. On the women's side, Serena will pretty much get the support of U.S. fans, as will the young women American players who are rising in the ranks, in most situations. But Maria (born in Russia but a resident of the U.S. since 1994), Agnieszka Radwanska (born in Poland), Petra Kvitova (born in the Czech Republic) and others, have strong followings in the U.S., which is important to sponsors.
NYSJ: What do you see as a challenge for Tennis Channel?
KS: We are in the 24/7 business of delivering tennis content across multiple platforms. But the reality is that when you are in your late teens, going to college, you are not sitting in front of your TV. You become what is called a cord-cutter. Our challenge is to get this demographic to watch on other platforms. We see this as a big opportunity. They expect content and want more of it. And we are providing it and continuously adding to it. They are watching content that wasn't available to them before. The trend is customization and curation . . . allowing people to not only choose what they want to watch, but also on which devices.
"Live sports tell people where to show up to watch. That separates it from entertainment programming, and the divide will continue to grow."
NYSJ: Is live sports across multiple platforms still a driving force for viewers and, in turn, marketers?
KS: Moving forward, live sports will continue to drive viewership. Live sports tell people where to show up to watch. That separates it from entertainment programming, and the divide will continue to grow. The value of live sports continues to grow. ESPN, for example, can make their deals because they are certain that people will watch, that they can deliver an audience. People watch their favorite teams and players, in our case the likes of Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Serena Williams, in spite of their performance. We know people will come to watch tennis events, and in particular Grand Slams such as Wimbledon, Roland Garros. When I was at Universal, we would spend millions for a pilot and didn't know if it would lead to a network buy. The Walking Dead is the highest-rated prime time cable show, but you don't know when the next Walking Dead is coming.
NYSJ: Do you see anyone breaking into the top-ranked players on the men's side in the near future?
KS: Right now, it's still Djokovic, Federer, Murray and now Wawrinka, who is in the conversation because he has won two Majors. Nadal may not be playing like he did when he was No. 1 but he still wins, is still dangerous. There is no question they will remain at the top and that people will want to watch them. But there is a whole group of players, including such American players as Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, John Isner, Donald Young, who are really close to breaking in.
NYSJ: What about on the women's side as far as challenging Serena Williams?
KS: There are several young American players who are up-and-coming. I believe that Madison Keys is extraordinary. I have seen her wipe the best women in the world off the court. Sloane Stephens may be the next great tennis player in the world. Christina McHale . . . there is a whole host of young players, not just Americans. The beauty is that our audience, once they get to know somebody, it doesn't matter where they are from, will follow them.
NYSJ: What do you see for Tennis Channel in 2016 and over the new few years?
KS: We are experiencing huge growth right now in terms of viewership. We are showing year-to-year growth. We are up right now about 30% year-over-year. Digital, multi-platform. Both authenticated and what people are calling over-the-top but includes our complimentary subscription service, linear program, second Tennis Channel plus VOD. There is going to be more of that. More coverage. We are taking over more of the French Open. More of what we did in Washington D.C., where we took (the Citi Open) where we had 30 hours and ESPN did a few hours, and we said, You know what, we are just going to take over the whole thing and do 170 hours. First ball to last ball. And that drove double the viewership. So we created the instrument, we are playing the Stradivarius. It's going to be a big year for us.
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