Jun 30, 2020

How One Sport is Using a Pandemic to Reinvent Itself

Promotional ad for the Ultimate Tennis Showdown in Nice, France.

Promotional ad for the Ultimate Tennis Showdown in Nice, France.

If you want to see the potential positive disruption of this pandemic on an industry, you might want to take a look at what is happening in the sport of tennis. It is a game that has lasted the ages, but failed to innovate historically. It is one of the few truly global sports, attracting players from around the world, but it has been in decline in participation, apparel sales, and television ratings for awhile. It also was the first major sporting event to cancel during the outbreak of COVID-19, with the famous Indian Wells tournament closing down literally after all of the players had shown up and a few matches had been played. What is interesting is what has happened during the past few weeks of tennis. Remarkably, it is one of the first sports to innovate on live television during the pandemic. A little more context will be helpful here.

A few weeks ago, tennis great Roger Federer took a strong stance on the future of the sport he has led for three decades. He publicly reignited a conversation, initially started by Billie Jean King in the 1970’s, about combining forces between the men’s tour (Association of Tennis Professionals) and women’s tour (Women’s Tennis Association). He did so via Twitter and the conversation quickly went viral, becoming the main story on the Tennis Channel, as well as on social media among the game’s enthusiasts. This pivot also happened at a time when few people can play tennis right now as a result of club and park closures, so his comments got a lot of attention.

Not too long after the Federer comments, we now bear witness to several made-for-television live tennis exhibitions. Each of these exhibitions have attracted some – but not all – of the top players and featured new formats. From accelerated scoring, less time between points, piped-in audience applause, new rules, and drone camera coverage, tennis became the first sport to innovate as a result of the pandemic.

Why is this such a big deal? It is actually remarkable for a game that has failed to change in over a century that is has used this time to experiment in order to recreate itself for the future. As we always say, never miss the opportunity of a crisis.

Here are eight things you might not know if you are not a tennis enthusiast. It’s a messed up sport, plagued with strategic dilemmas.

  1. Tennis is a declining industry. It has struggled for fans and adaptations to television in a faster pace sports world. It is also struggling with overall participation rates. No one region of the world has figured out a model to really grow the sport in a sustainable way.

  2. Tennis struggles with diversity and inclusion. It has long been perceived as a sport for the wealthy, which is actually inaccurate but the stereotype prevails. It goes back to the founding and early years of the sport in mostly exclusive country clubs. Today, however, tennis is more diverse and inclusive than it has been in decades. It still struggles with a large base of participation due to long term stereotypes.

  3. You can’t earn a real living as a professional tennis players unless you are ranked in the top 50 or 100 in the world. You heard that right. It turns out that tennis players – unlike any other sport – compete for themselves. They are self-employed businesses and have no salaries. And, only the top 50 or so players in both men’s and women’s tennis have sustainable endorsements with the leaders, such as Nike, Adidas, Fila, Wilson, and Babalot.

  4. The business model is broken – and it has been for years. If you don’t win, you don’t earn money. And, if you are not playing, as in our current COVID-19 circumstances, you are not earning money. The only players making money right now are the ones with the large endorsements.

  5. The large tournaments require 128 players, plus another 64 for qualification “pre-tournaments”. The large Grand Slam tournaments that you see on television, such as Wimbledon, US Open, or the French Open, require 128 players in the main draw, plus another 64 or more in the qualification rounds. For both men and women. So, these large tournaments need the lower ranked players to actually even function.

  6. Pro tennis matches are extremely inefficient. It takes one chair umpire, a crew of at least six ball kids, and perhaps six more line judges to play just one tennis match. Yes, it requires 13 “officials” to support a match between two players. Add that there are 64 opening matches in men’s and women’s tennis each in a Grand Slam, which equals 832 on court volunteer staffers to play one round of a tennis tournament.

  7. The length of some matches cause the casual viewer to tune out. While no one loves a five set, five hour marathon as much as I, it does not lend itself to mass appeal on television. The market is flooded with pro sports competitions that that top out around 2 hours in length.

  8. Men and women have their own tours and fan base. This is perhaps the oddest aspect of the industry. Rather than work together for the better of the sport, men and women’s professional tennis efforts have historically treated each other as their own competition. Rather than understanding that they have bigger issues in the game (such as items 1 to 8 above), they have historically functioned independent of each other, never capitalizing on the consolidation of their efforts. They have never been true collaborators.

As you can see, tennis is a largely uninterrupted business where income inequality is severe, participation is lagging, and it is a largely inefficient and ineffective business model. And, COVID-19 is merely serving as an accelerant in this industry, making us painfully aware of the shortcomings of the model. This is the moment of deep disruption.

Market contraction promotes consolidation. Billie Jean King is a strategist. And, so is Roger Federer. They each know that COVID-19 will leave a wake behind it that may never be fully recoverable. They also know that now is the time to recreate the model. It is time to blow it up and create a resiliency that the sport has been missing for years. As a result of this moment in time, three main initiatives are emerging in tennis:

  1. Income disparity will become less. Lower ranked players will have some subsidy from higher ranked players on the tours and their associations in an effort to widen participation and keep players in the game.

  2. Contraction will lead to consolidation. It is likely that we might see one joint men’s and women’s association for tennis professionals, where they compete in the same place, time, and venue, and share marketing and collaborative forces. No, they won’t play against each other, but they will become strategic about working as one for the better of the game.

  3. Tennis will reinvent itself for the future. While some of the new variations on the game will likely not remain post-pandemic, some of the new innovations will likely stick around and play an important role in reshaping tennis as it reintroduces itself to new audiences.

If any of this sounds familiar to our educational model, you have started to make the connections. This moment in time is not just critical for tennis, but for schools, colleges, and all businesses to anticipate a retraction in their market and use this time to recreate and reinvent themselves.

Who knew we could learn so much about strategy from tennis?

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