The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) head of marketing Sara Acworth’s departure (MW last week) is the latest in a string of resignations and firings since chief executive Roger Draper took the reins earlier this year. Draper is tasked with turning perceptions of the sport around but, as The Wimbledon Championships got under way this week, critics say he has his work cut out.
One of the first issues served up to Draper is the nature of the professional circuit. Despite a sizeable audience – 15.8 million people watched Wimbledon last year, according to SportZ, a study commissioned by Millward Brown – interest in the game drops off sharply afterwards.
With few other tennis events broadcast on UK terrestrial television, there is little to attract investors beyond Wimbledon, say observers. “Tennis needs to offer sponsors benefits that go beyond signage and exposure to provide opportunities for genuine consumer benefit,” says Mark Knight, research manager at sponsorship consultancy Red Mandarin. “Increasingly, sponsors are waking up to the limited value of signage on a cluttered tennis tournament back wall.”
Knight suggests that the LTA could learn from the English Cricket Board, which worked with Channel 4 to deliver a more interesting and saleable broadcast product. But he adds that the main problem with British tennis is clear: a simple lack of potential stars like Andy Murray for fans to support and sponsors to invest in.
Championships make champions
Other experts strongly agree. Tim Crow, director of sponsorship consultancy Karen Earl, argues that the problem the LTA faces is the lack of British champions. “Britain has a culture that emphasises the importance of participation,” he says. “But in reality, there are no prizes for coming second. Tiger Woods is not a household name because he’s a nice guy who wins the odd tournament.”
Simon Pavitt, sponsorship manager at sports marketing agency Generate, adds that years of mismanagement at the LTA have failed younger players. “Until we have successful players coming through who offer the right fit for brands, tennis is going to struggle to attract major investment,” he says.
For its part, the LTA insists it has begun to address the issues. Acworth accepts that more needs to be done to attract, train and nurture promising younger players. But she points to the creation of relevant new products: mini-tennis, aimed at four- to ten-year-olds; and raw tennis, aimed at ten- to 18-year-olds, which recently signed Powerade as a sponsor.
Acworth stresses that the LTA has faced major problems in getting the UK’s clubs and coaches on board. “There are some amazing, forward-looking clubs, but we face an enormous challenge getting everyone onside, and coaches and clubs to register for and run new initiatives,” she says. “We’re reliant on clubs and coaches to deliver tennis, and we need to give them the tools to do that.”
Draper has made it clear that he wants to target younger players and focus on those with the most potential – even if that means cutting funding for fringe programmes. “There’s no point in bringing in the best coaches to work with 16- to 18-year-olds who aren’t warriors or competitors,” he said in a recent interview. “We don’t want a load of players ranked 300 in the world, we want players ranked 100 or better.”
British tennis, it seems, needs heroes to attract serious investment from sponsors. The question is whether Draper and the LTA’s marketing team can deliver them.