Between the humanization of stars and an evolution in the rules of the sport, tennis today must be more accessible for all.Tennis can it, should it change? According to this panel of leading actors from the world of the little yellow ball, this has been a subject of debate for a long time. Some are against change for the sake of tradition; others for economic reasons. Eurosport, broadcaster of tennis tournaments all year long, relaunched the debate this morning from the TF1 auditorium in Paris with a group of experts with contrasting opinions and varied backgrounds.
Their aim? To try to see what the future could be for tennis tomorrow, “a sport for all” according to the French Tennis Federation’s slogan. The problem raised by the debate is that television is the medium the most used and watched by fans who appreciate tennis, ahead of internet, newspapers, magazines, and social networks. And TV audience trends are not on their way up, more on their way down, or stagnant. The first statement was that tennis has complicated even badly thought out rules. Between the way world rankings are calculated and names of tournaments that change with each turnover in sponsor, only the really fanatic – the ones that sleep with a racket under their pillow – manage to work out the tennis calendar and follow events, but few others. Those who come across an event by chance as part of their subscription package, or again those that make a point of watching their national annual tennis event, such as Roland Garros for the French, Wimbledon for the British, and so on. Having said this, the concern was raised over the ways tennis is consumed and its appeal to an ageing audience. A concern voiced principally by the business contingent of the panel, but minimized even dismissed as being an issue by the athletes and tournament directors. “Caroline Wozniacki on Facebook or Twitter does not bring spectators to the stadium”Tennis has already undergone significant evolution. It’s rules have evolved, the introduction of a tie break to shorten matches is a good example, its technicity with new materials, new and different types of courts which have spawned a new style of player. Nevertheless, for certain, these evolutions have not gone far enough and there is still space for, even a need for more improvements for this sport which suffers from an image of being too traditional and old-fashioned.The most frequently cited example in this last week debate was that the link has not yet been made between tennis and social media. That a number of players have an active Facebook fan page and Twitter account doesn’t make them tennis stars, it remains a way to create a personal brand but remains a marketing tool. Former player, Mats Wilander, summed it up during the Eurosport debate: “I like social networks, but to talk about tennis; not to find out what X ate for breakfast that morning or that they missed their plane.” The ex-world champion, consultant for Eurosport, went even further to say, “putting Federer and Nadal on the same level as Paris Hilton, doesn’t do them any favours. If Caroline Wozniacki, current N°1 seed, is on Facebook, that’s great, but that isn’t going to bring people to the stadiums. I don’t think social networking is what preoccupies players the most, they don’t have enough time.”
“Tennis needs it’s “Ecclestone” to get the rules changed”Neil Harman, tennis correspondant for The Times of London and avid Twittos, sees things differently, “social networks can be very active in making players more human and crating personas but also gets them more talked about.” This idea was picked up by Julien Codorniou, head of marketing and partnerships for Facebook in Europe: “tennis hasn’t followed the social network movement. We’ll get there, but for the moment tennis hasn’t managed to “socialize”. The popularity of tennis players is not as high as that of football players. You need to create buzz to get a match talked about, generate a groundswell of interest to go and watch a match. A really good example is the Nadal-Isner match this week that caught my attention thanks to alerts on internet. This is the way buzz was created, the link is created between players and fans. This is how people who wouldn’t normally follow tennis will be drawn to do watching it.” To attract new audiences to watch tennis on TV or elsewhere, the idea of modifying rules was also brought up; Several ideas were proposed: abolish Let during the service, the advantage point when there is a match draw, shorten the sets forcing players to play out a tie break of 4 points instead of 6, have faster balls and surfaces for a greater pace. Neil Harman who dialogues often with Andy Murray on twitter on this subject, also put forward the idea of getting rid of the warm up before matches, an enormous waste of time for casual TV viewers who lose interest quickly and could switch over to another channel or simply go off and do something else like make a cup of tea or walk the dog while waiting for the match to start, as well as if they also have to wait for the match to finish, the most exciting part…. “Nadal is like Peter Pan”Gérard Tsobanian, director of the Madrid Masters, expressed a more pessimistic view of the problem. For Tsobanian, “the rules are not about to change in tennis, because there are too many people in the decision-making process.Between tournament directors, sponsors, federations, media, players, my Sister (sic), everyone has their own opinion and sticks to his position. We need an Ecclestone. One single person or entity that arbitrates, makes the final decision and imposes it on the industry and the men’s and women’s tennis circuits. But we’re not there!” The real solution would be for the players to bang their fists on the table, make themselves heard and to speak as a united front, if they did this they would have more power to change things. If this happened, they could already swing some changes that would organise the season to make it easier for them as players, rather than for their marketing image. Even though their marketing image is of course really important to help fans “categorise” their star. Michel Grach, director for media/sponsoring at the FFT, opens up another window of discussion along these lines saying: “we need to work on the players’ charisma. Nadal is like Peter Pan. He’s the most popular player amongst youths. But we need different player profiles to garner more people”. Wilander had the last word: “it’s important that people identify with a player. And there are very few stars. We need more stars to choose from – look at football where there are 22. In tennis right now there are 3, maybe 4 players with extraordinary ‘star status’. We are really lucky to have had for a few years now two of the biggest champions ever, Federer and Nadal, but what’s going to happen when they leave the circuit…?”Panelists
The panel is composed of major stakeholders from different backgrounds who all have a key contribution to the issue.
Julien Codorniou, Head of Platform Partnerships, Facebook, France & Benelux
Michel Grach, Medias & Sponsorship Director, FFT
Neil Harman, Tennis correspondent for The Times of London
Gerard Tsobanian, General Managing Director, Madrid Open
Mats Wilander, Former World N°1, 7 time Grand Slam Champion
MODERATOR: Stefano Bernabino, Chief Editor, Eurosport International