Can a point-free Wimbledon maintain its appeal for fans and sponsors?
This year’s Wimbledon, now in full swing, has not been without drama – both on and off the court. Emma Sweet, account director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, digs deep into one controversy: the decision to offer no world ranking points for success in the tournament, following a ban on Russian and Belarusian players from competing. Will it affect the tournament’s sponsorship environment?
Wimbledon has an aura of perfection. It’s a British institution. With over 500,000 attendees each year, and millions watching on TV and online, it’s one of the most prestigious events in world sport.
But as Wimbledon celebrates the centenary of its famous Centre Court in 2022, for perhaps the first time in history its reputation as an internationally esteemed tournament is in question.
This year’s Wimbledon will bring no world ranking points for its victors – but what does that mean for sponsors? / Carlo Bazzo via Unsplash
This year more than ever, the players that take part will be determined to win it. That’s because, for the first time since the establishment of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) world rankings in the mid-1970s, those reaching the latter stages of the tournament will receive nothing for their efforts in the form of ranking points, meaning this year’s event will contribute nothing toward their pursuit of becoming world number one.
The joint ATP/WTA decision to suspend the award of ranking points is a retaliation against Wimbledon’s choice to ban Russian and Belarusian players from participating because of their nations’ involvement in the war in Ukraine.
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Player responses have been mixed, with many aggrieved at what they see as penalizing individual players for the actions of their governments. Six-time and reigning Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic, himself barred from participating at the Australian Open (and potentially the US Open) because of his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19, has been critical of the tournament’s stance. He said: “I think [Wimbledon’s ban] was a wrong decision. I don’t support that at all. But at these times it is a sensitive subject and whatever you decide will create a lot of conflict.”
Meanwhile, four-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka said: “I feel like if I play Wimbledon without points it’ll be more like an exhibition. I know this isn’t true, but my brain just feels that way, and whenever I think of something like an exhibition I just can’t go at it 100%.”
On the other hand, two-time Wimbledon winner Andy Murray tweeted: “I follow golf very closely and have no idea how many ranking points the winner of the Masters gets, me and my friends love football and none of us know or care how many ranking points a team gets for winning the World Cup ... But I could tell you exactly who won the World Cup and the Masters. I’d hazard a guess that most people watching on Centre Court at Wimbledon in a few weeks’ time wouldn’t know or care about how many ranking points a player gets for winning a third-round match ... But I guarantee they will remember who wins. Wimbledon will never be an exhibition and will never feel like an exhibition. The end.”
Murray’s claim seems fair, not least since Russian-born Natela Dzalamidze has taken the dramatic step to switch her nationality to Georgian to compete in SW19.
So, with players divided, what will the real impact be for this year’s tournament? Will its renowned prestige be tainted?
Sponsors of Wimbledon rely on players to deliver messages of determination, grit and resilience that they align their brands with. If the level of competition appears to be affected, will consumers perceive such analogies as authentic or credible?
It’s possible that the power of the players’ community will also disrupt commercial appeal. With some players far from happy, will they remain keen to work with tournament sponsors?
There is, perhaps, an opportunity for brand sponsors to lean into the concept of support for the players over and above the tournament, to become part of the player’s team. In the context of the reasons for the ban on certain players, this seems a hazardous path to take.
If anything, the furor seems to have had little impact on Wimbledon’s commercial appeal.
Sponsorship agreements with premium brands including Lanson, Ralph Lauren, Jaguar, HSBC and new arrivals Vodafone are testament to its timeless appeal. This is maintained despite the Championships being among the ‘cleanest’ sponsorship environments in the world, with very little on-court branding on show.
So, despite this year’s withdrawal of ranking points, Wimbledon never really has to prove its point to anyone.
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