Tennis is considered one of the most popular sports in the world and has a diversified global audience. Much like the world of motorsports, sponsorship deals represent the lifeblood for tennis players given the structure of the professional ranks and lack of consistent salary. These inherent challenges have made the sport a continuous case study for brand building and capitalizing on opportunities away from the playing surface. As with all sports, the evolution of social media has given more power to the athletes to generate meaningful engagement with fans. However, the sport of tennis finds itself at a potentially revolutionary point in its history that can have a direct impact on the kind of partnerships that will come. Recent developments over the past couple of years have challenged the sport and have left many wondering whether brands would be better off seeking partnerships in other sports.
Since the early years of the 2000s, tennis has seen the emergence of superstar athletes with the likes of Serena Williams, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal. These names have dominated the sport and accumulated a wealth of sponsorships due in large part to their success on the court. Out of the 71 Grand Slams held from 2003, 60 have been won by either Federer, Nadal, or Novak Djokovic. On the women’s side, Serena Williams led the way with 23 Grand Slam titles for second all-time. However, age, injuries, and other personal decisions have limited the ability of some of tennis’ greats to continue furthering their successful careers and growing their following. Coincidentally, up-and-coming players have risen to the spotlight and tapped into the younger generation of tennis fans. Additionally, the new crop of talent has used their platforms to share their voice about social movements including Black Lives Matter, female empowerment, and mental health.
Before covering what could be coming to the sport in the future, it’s worth it to look back at a case study of how building a brand outside of tennis can help create a devout following. When Roger Federer began his career, he did not have a strong following despite the success others predicted he would find as he grew older. Coming from a relatively small country in Switzerland, Federer was forced to be strategic in how he formed partnerships and endorsement deals. In 2005, Maria Sharapova had accumulated nearly $20 million in sponsorship deals while Roger Federer failed to surpass $10 million. After signing with leading sports agency IMG, Federer’s earnings reached nearly $43 million as he partnered with Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, and other notable brands. While those moves made more sense for bringing up his bottom line, Federer’s acumen for building a brand that thrived on international support began to grow. Federer struck up a relationship with fellow Nike athlete Tiger Woods when Woods was at the peak of his career. Their friendship helped Federer score a sponsorship with Gillette and brought a new market of American followers to his growing fanbase. More brands began looking closer at Federer even after the Tiger Woods controversy and understanding the “complete package” he possessed (Christopher Clarey, The New York Times). What set Federer apart was his genuine interest and willingness to deliver personal attention to sponsors and what they said or did. He captivated those around him by consistently asking questions and learning about what a company was doing outside of the sport. Federer has managed to become one of only a handful of athletes to have accumulated $1 billion throughout his career, with only $130 million coming from prize money.
Although Federer was a gifted athlete, he would not have achieved the level of personal and financial success if he simply focused on tennis. Today’s rising tennis stars can learn a lot from his approach to constructing a strong personal brand. Naomi Osaka has been one example of how being an advocate can strengthen their connection to fans outside of competition. Osaka made headlines by showing her support for the Black Lives Matter movement last September at the US Open. On a larger scale, “athlete ‘advocacy posts’ on social media generated 63% more engagement for brands compared to other owned social media content” according to Nielsen Sports Digital Analysis. Osaka also withdrew from the French Open in May citing her need to address her mental health as her top priority at the time. Mastercard, one of her sponsors, shared their support for Osaka’s decision as they tweeted “Naomi Osaka’s decision reminds us all how important it is to prioritize personal health and well-being” (Sean Gregory, Time Magazine). The brands that are deriving the most value from partnering with an athlete understand that the players’ personalities and reach are important factors when considering the effectiveness of a partnership. The correlation between an athlete’s character and the benefits for the brand through a partnership still holds with today’s younger stars, albeit with more resources and platforms to share their voice than previous generations. The door is open for new companies willing to embrace these athletes as human beings to make their mark on the sport and acquire a new crop of advocates who drive bona fide engagement with fans.
While players have already reaped the benefits of new opportunities in competition and genuine support from brands, the economics of the sport still hamper tennis’ growth and put the athletes at a significant disadvantage. Tennis is currently organized by the ATP and WTA, both entities that control the relationship between players and tournament organizers. These two governing bodies often deal with issues unrelated to the growth of tennis or the empowerment of players. Currently, tennis ranks below the core four major sports in North America and behind soccer and cricket internationally in terms of global media rights value (David Yaffe-Bellany, Bloomberg). The complicated structure of professional tennis and lack of anything resembling a union advocating for the players has led to the creation of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) by Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil back at the 2020 US Open. Although skepticism and uncertainty are surrounding the ability of the PTPA to make significant changes to the sport of professional tennis, the association provides another opportunity for the younger generation of players to take more control of how their sport is organized and viewed by the public. The PTPA’s goal of providing more player empowerment is an exciting development that presents a step forward for tennis’ growth, in the long run, should others join the cause.
Tennis may have some issues that must be addressed when it comes to media attention and general organizational structure, but a paradigm shift is underway that can spur positive change in a sport that needs revision. Tennis, much like the other individual sports that saw growth at the lower levels during the pandemic, will be challenged to maintain a new market of fans and attract future generations to the sport as well. Top players and rising stars will need to continue utilizing their platforms to connect with fans and work towards change internally within their sport to prepare them better for the future. The landscape of tennis is at a precarious point coming out of the pandemic which brands must be aware of when it comes to how athlete partnerships line up with their marketing goals. However, brands willing to take a chance during this time of change within tennis and form creative partnerships with players can be the first to see the trickle-down rewards in the future.