Tennis

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Can Tennis be a Grand Slam for Sports Organizers?

13 Jan, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
If the Industry Can Harness the Energy of Serena Williams’ Victories, the Sport Can Have the Growth it Needs at a Local Level

Mention the marketability of women athletes and conversation immediately pounces on the U.S. Women’s World Cup victory. But in reality, when it came to marketing, money and simple online presence in women’s sports, 2015 belonged to one athlete: Serena Williams.

The three Grand Slams Williams earned (and the subsequent competition among every other woman on the pro tour to knock her off her pedestal) created a heady fuel mix, propelling women’s tennis to almost unheard-of heights. And in that meteoric rise is the hope of reflective growth in women’s events at the amateur level.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) noted that its competitive season “boosted overall viewership by 25 percent year-over-year, with a record 395 million cumulative viewers in 2015 versus 316 million in 2014, when viewership rose by 23% versus 2013.”

As New York Sports Journalism’s blog noted, it wasn’t just Williams herself who wound up a winner; it was her marketing partners, including Nike, Gatorade and Wilson; such investment partners as the Miami Dolphins, Mission AthleteCare and Home Shopping Network. ESPN, in its first year of start-to-finish coverage of the U.S. Open, saw TV, digital and other ratings go up across the board; and the WTA named Williams its Player of the Year. Sports Illustrated also honored Williams as “Sportsperson of the Year” for 2015.

The impact on the sports event world is undeniable, but the sport of tennis itself has a moral imperative to expand beyond the starpower of one athlete. There are attempts being made to grow the sport, starting with the U.S. Tennis Association’s youth tennis programs. At the college level, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association and Tennis On Campus both offer competitive play.

The question, of course, becomes how to harness the juggernaut of Serena Williams success, and use it to bring the economic impact the pro tour has enjoyed. For example, the New York Sports Journalism blog noted, the five most-viewed WTA-sanctioned tournaments of the 2015 season were:

1. China Open, Beijing (34.64 million)
2. BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore (32.49 million)
3. Rogers Cup presented by National Bank, Toronto (29.7 million)
4. Miami Open presented by Itau (29.37 million)
5. BNP Paribas Open, Indian Wells (26.81 million)

The WTA and tennis will reap more benefits from Serena in 2016 as she continues her quest to become the all-time leader in women's Grand Slam titles. She currently is third with 21, behind Margaret Court (24) and Stefanie Graf (22). Williams will aim to tie Graf’s record at the Australian Open (Jan. 18-31), which will become must-see TV and a marketing boost. And don’t forget about the Olympics in Rio this summer, in which both Williams sisters have indicated an interest.

If sports event planners are interested in growing tennis, the time is now. The sport as a whole (not including Serena-specific events) is just outside of the top 10 most-sponsored sports, meaning it’s ripe for a boost.

There are plenty of events where tennis can be showcased, including those where local pros can be brought in to give lessons. Olympic Day, when communities are encouraged to promote the Games by hosting various sports events, takes place in June of this year. And the Tennis Industry Association’s PlayTennis.com program has a “try tennis for free” feature, where users can locate programs nationwide for introductory lessons. There’s also the opportunity for tournaments to take a morning to hold a clinic for beginners – adults as well as children.

The sport is poised for growth. The question is whether organizers can give it the push it needs.

"The depth of the playing field in our sport is unprecedented right now, and the competition is outstanding,” said Steve Simon, WTA CEO. “We have the platform to continue growth in the future."

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