There’s a rather significant global sporting event drawing to a close this summer. It features an array of amazing talent from top sporting nations such as England, Belgium, France and Croatia.
You know the one – it takes place annually at a swanky tennis club in a small(ish) enclave of London’s SW19.
Wimbledon, so often the zenith of the British summer, has had the misfortune of drifting somewhat under the radar this year, mostly due to England’s improbable foray into the nosebleeds of the Fifa World Cup.
But there’s one area where the All England Club (AELTC) have blown their rights holder contemporaries out of that water – an uncanny ability to renew, extend and even identify new commercial partners when many, quite simply, are struggling to hold onto relationships with brands.
As part of its outlook for 2018, ESP Properties reported an ongoing “dissatisfaction” between sponsor and rights holder with “nearly six out of 10 sponsors reporting they are looking for an early exit to at least one of their sponsorships”.
In parallel, the commercial challenges of prestigious platforms such as the ECB, McLaren F1 and NatWest 6 Nations have been well documented in the marketing press.
However, on the same day RF languidly strolled onto centre court while donning his new Uniqlo attire that will keep him honest for the next decade at a cool $300m, the AELTC announced a series of multi-year partner renewals with HSBC, Lanson, Evian and Stella Artois as well as a new deal with US tennis aficionado American Express.
So, in an era of alleged sponsor retrenchment, what’s Wimbledon got that the others don’t? In this instance, we should probably start with what they don’t have because this is where the plot thickens - somewhat counterintuitively.
Next time you watch Roger school a poor Slovakian qualifier on TV, take note of the branding on court – or lack thereof.
You may get the odd swig from an Evian bottle, a close-up of a player flinging a sweaty towel at a Polo clad ball-boy or a flicker from the Rolex scoreboard, but on principal, Wimbledon operates a clean environment when it comes to branding. Could you imagine the same scenario in the NatWest 6 Nations?
When I was lucky enough to attend this year’s Championships with some clients, I asked one whether he would consider sponsoring something with zero or very limited media value.
“Not a %$&^$% chance.” I think it was the Stella talking (sadly our budget didn’t extend to Lanson) but I got his point.
Despite this, Lavazza, Häagen-Dazs et al don’t really appear to care.
The tournament operates for a two week spike every year. Compare that to F1 which comprises 21 race weekends across the year, or even an England home cricket series with India comprising five tests, three ODIs and three T20s (basically a month of cricket at most), not to mention additional tours throughout the year.
Technically, properties offering frequency are more appealing to brands because they provide always-on potential with an ability to scale and flex according to the rhythm of the event.
But again, this doesn’t appear to be a hindrance for the All England Club.
So, With the ‘negativity’ out of the way, let’s focus on what Wimbledon does have.
A unique way of working with brands
There are no ‘sponsors’ at Wimbledon. Any brand that wants a piece of the pie needs to be a ‘supplier’. What this means is that unless a brand is able to make a meaningful and active contribution, the club isn’t interested.
It’s a powerful statement that precludes brands primarily interested in presence and visibility; a bold commercial strategy that supports a broader industry argument that sponsorship is best undertaken through the lens of active engagement.
Progressive commercial mindset
Perhaps the most documented long-term relationship is with IBM – Wimbledon supplier since 1990. Having worked with IBM to adopt AI technology in 2015, Wimbledon is now using huge data sets to provide an ever more immersive fan experience, from AI-powered automated video highlights to chatbots that help fans with every aspect of their onsite experience. This has led some commentators to suggest that Wimbledon is entering the realms of a “data-driven media business” as opposed to a pure sporting event.
The nature of this activity sends a huge signal to prospective brands that Wimbledon really is a commercial pioneer, particularly in an era when data and technology are hot topics on the marketing agenda.
The club remains committed to making the greatest Gland Slam even greater, from a new roof on court one in 2019 to “fresh moves being made to swallow up” the 73-acre golf course across the road from the current campus thereby trebling the size of the current site.
Equally, at a communications level, it’s refreshing to see rights holders invest in their own fully baked marketing campaigns when the tendency is to rely on broadcasters (and even sponsors) to do the talking for them.
AELTC’s #TakeOnHistory campaign is a notable exception to the rule (F1’s Engineered Insanity campaign was another in 2018), one that instills confidence in the integrity of the property and the overall proposition.
At the heart of culture
Wimbledon has deliberately evolved into a showpiece event on the annual calendar, one that transcends sport while remaining rooted in Britishness. Not only does this attract a compellingly sophisticated and loyal audience base (the club reported 473,000 attendees in 2017) blending tennis fans, socialites and fashionistas, but also provides a chance for brands to play a true part in culture.
Relative to the reported trends, it seems that Wimbledon is defying the odds when it comes to commercial viability. As things go from strength to strength, the only thing that might need consideration is rescheduling the tournament window so as not to coincide with our mighty nation’s resurgent football team at the next major international tournament in 2020 - time will tell I guess.
In the meantime, Wimbledon’s commercial philosophy has some important implications for brands weighing up sponsorship investment.
1. The importance of a clear activation strategy
AELTC challenges its suppliers to prioritise “how it will show up” at the tournament. Many brands enter sponsorship arrangements and worry about activation once the deal is over the line. Wimbledon forces brands to reverse the model and rightly so. After all, how can a brand know what the deal should look like if it hasn’t already established a clear brand behaviour prior to entering negotiation?
2. Active engagement versus simply being present
Supplier status requires an active role that focuses on engagement and meaningful contribution. There is no space for brands that simply want presence. This supports the broader argument that brands must shift their sponsorship models to one of engagement to truly thrive.
3. A progressive mindset
Progressive rights holders can come in many guises. However, if they can offer the following, preferably as a combination, then the signs are positive for any potential brand:
A clear vision for enhancing their own platform that enables brands to be part of the story. An ability to offer solutions to brands that extend beyond association and exposure. A desire to get under the skin of their partners and proactively help solve business challenges as opposed to providing an exhaustive (and often standardised) set of standard rights and benefits. A willingness to put data at the heart of the fan experience and experiment with the latest technologies
Alex Charkham is a strategy director at Fuse