Jane Voigt

The Championships, Wimbledon, is the apex of tennis guided solely by tradition, or so it would make you think. There’s no doubt that this Grand Slam is the oldest, the one players want to win the most and the one fans relate to the most when they hear “tennis.” But what about Wimbledon as a brand? Does it live up to its tag line, “In Pursuit of Greatness”?

This piece points out how savvy the august tournament actually is when considering the amount of marketing that’s necessary to carry the image forward year after year.

Beneath the veneer, though, remain attitudes that are slow to recognize social change, namely sexual bias. Many can be tied to the fact that The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is a private entity with 300 members who keep an iron-fisted grip on how the tournament presents itself. After all, these people want to preserve their traditions and lifestyles. 

Yet the show must go on, which points to tournament management. This group is so secure in its artistry of salesmanship that it created several ads for television this year. The ads announced to the world that although the club stands by its immaculate presentation, it knows a thing or two about the value of premium production.

“There are 120 broadcast cameras around Wimbledon grounds,” the voiceover tells viewers as a montage of technological accuracy etches a scene of circles, lines, geometric figures, arcs and tracked tennis balls. “The movement of the players and the ball is tracked around the court by ten different cameras. We hide as much of the technology as we can to stay true to our original idea.”

Without saying a word about its 141-year history, the advertisement demonstrates in modern terms how Wimbledon is staying on top of those required elements, without which the pursuit of greatness would crumble in the face of fans whose expectations have been formed by Wimbledon itself… and by heightened demands for instant information.

Last year, for example, Alexandra Willis, head of communications, content and digital at Wimbledon, worked alongside NextVR, a leader in virtual reality for the sports and entertainment industries, to “bring virtual reality to the All England Lawn Tennis Club,” Sports Illustrated reported earlier this month. Willis wanted built-in cameras, but they had to match Wimbledon’s purple and green motif. NextVR “had to custom 3D-print a shell so the cameras would blend in.”

That precision perfectly illustrates the lengths Wimbledon goes to maintain and advance its brand.

NextVR, this year, has made it possible for fans to stream “free Wi-Fi” matches around the grounds. “Spectators can point their phones at stadium plaques to trigger augmented reality experiences.” Coupled with Wimbledon’s directive to keep it abreast of things virtual comes the tacit understanding not to make these additions seem “too forward.”

For those without tickets, tracking matches outside the grounds, Wimbledon has partnered with Facebook and Snapchat to show audiences instantaneously produced match highlights plus paths to what Wimbledon calls its “English garden,” all though virtual magic.

From the technology angle, then, “industry insiders say it is one of the most technologically aggressive sporting events in the world.”

However, its scheduling of women’s matches on the two show courts — Centre Court and Court 1 — has been a struggle.

2018 Wimbledon Championships - 6 Jul
Image – Jimmie 48

Last year Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Jelena Ostapenko – the reigning Roland Garros champion at the time — all complained about court assignments as men, for example Roger Federer, were given premium real estate. This year, though, court assignments have been more equitable. Through the first six days of competition, the number of women’s and men’s singles matches played on those two courts is equal, with the exception that 11 women’s matches were put on Centre Court to 10 for the men.

This alteration in scheduling only came about because of activism, which makes many conclude that tradition at Wimbledon rates higher than equality. At least the appearance of that was clear until this year.

A July 3 story in The Guardian titled, “Wimbledon ‘has made no progress’ on male bias on top show courts,” asserts through analysis that the imbalance has existed for decades and that last year, “Only 40% of scheduled events on the two main courts at Wimbledon last year were between women.” Additionally, the article graphically depicted that over the years 2013-2017, “there were 109 men’s matches on main show courts and 71 women’s matches.”

The man responsible for compiling the data, Mark Leyland, an English fan, met with Wimbledon officials, according to The New York Times. “I love your championships, I love your tradition, but this gender inequity is one tradition that you need to change,” he said.

The tournament’s logic was indeed archaic when compared, for example, to its aggressive contracting with NextVR that could produce a virtual world for fans on site and around the globe.

How the players are addressed came under the microscope this year, as well.

Serena Williams, who recently married, was called “Mrs. Williams,” after winning a match this week. But Roger Federer remained “Federer.” This has to mean that Wimbledon chose to air Serena’s marital status but not that of Federer, a father of four.

Additionally the Board of Champions, which hangs inside the clubhouse, lists females who have married by their married names: Billie Jean King is Mrs. L.W. King; Evonne Goolagong transformed to Mrs. R. Cawley; and Chris Evert had been Miss C.M. Evert until she married John Lloyd, when her name was etched as Mrs. J.M. Lloyd. In contrast, Federer’s name is recognized eight times as only R. Federer.

Women are not women at Wimbledon either. They are “ladies,” aka, the ladies’ singles championships. No other Grand Slam refers to women as royalty, to which “ladies” directly relates.

And where money is concerned, Wimbledon was the last in 2007 to pay equal prize money thanks to concerted lobbying from Venus Williams.

All four Grand Slams compete with each other. Each has a unique flavor, its own “pursuit of greatness” angle. The U.S. Open goes overboard for big and loud… an extravaganza of the Big-Apple kind in the biggest metropolitan area on the East Coast, a commercial and residential den of millions run by the biggest tennis organization in America, the U.S.T.A. After all, it built a stadium that sits over 23,711 people, which took years to roof.

The French Open is somewhat unorganized and pinched inside its tiny neighborhood south of Paris, but its allure is unique.

The Australian Open, meanwhile, forces players and their entourages to come to the other side of the world. And because of Melbourne’s location the tournament initially had trouble filling draws. Then it extended a travel incentive: a stipend of sorts, according to tennis journalist Mert Ertunga. The check, or cheque, is issued for 2500 Australian dollars before a ball is struck. The perk is one reason why that Grand Slam is traditionally called the happy slam. Plus, the grounds showcase three covered courts compared to only one at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and none at The French Open. (All three have plans to cover more courts.)

Luckily for Wimbledon this year, the weather has cooperated. Only a few matches have carried over to the next day. But the focal point of the tournament, the grass courts, have suffered, interfering with the immaculate perception. Hot, sunny weather has dried the lawns and the grounds have hardened underneath, transforming the uniqueness of what had been a throwback tournament — recalling an era when three of the four Grand Slams were played on grass — to a hardcourt event.

That means game styles will not resemble those from the days of Rod Laver, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, and even Roger Federer when he started as a serve-and-volley player. The footprint of bang-bang tennis has permanently dug up tradition at Wimbledon, and there’s no technology or paint-matching fixes that can stop that train.

This conversation about the Wimbledon brand, then, comes down to perceptions. And when those are tallied, this age-old Grand Slam makes out better than the others… if only it would step into the sunlight about meaningful social issues. This is where business and tradition must find common ground with club members. Otherwise, the obvious will make it look like old fogies, not one pursuing greatness.

2018 Wimbledon Championships - 6 Jul
Image – Jimmie 48

Serena Williams being placed second on court on Manic Monday gives her and fellow mother Evgeniya Rodina the shortest turnaround to Tuesday’s “ladies’ day” quarterfinals, an oversight Wimbledon just can’t make if it wants to build a brand people can respect.

The tradition of Wimbledon is impossible to ignore — if only that tradition was married to common sense, especially regarding the treatment of women’s tennis players.

Consider this appraisal of Wimbledon’s luminous aura:

“I think Wimbledon is a specific example of the amazing slight of hand,” Richard Evans, lifelong tennis journalist, began during a podcast from Tennis With An Accent. “If Bill Tilden or Fred Perry walked through the gates, the Fred Perry gates, they’d know instantly know where they were. It looks the same even though Court 1 has been moved and even though there’s a roof on Centre Court, and there’s a television building with studios and all the equipment. They’ve managed to do all that. They’ve managed to keep pace and actually lead technologically in many ways as to how a sporting event should be covered and presented to the public while maintaining the traditional feel of the place.”

The Championships Wimbledon does have a lock on tradition. And, it is flawed like all other Grand Slams. Wimbledon, though, hides its flaws to an extent. It refuses to join the outwardly commercial ranks that would certainly mar its gardens of delights in perfectly matching purple and green. Corporate logos are hard to notice on TV, unlike the other majors. You’ll never see colored outfits on players. You’ll never see the uniforms of linesmen and chair umpires change. Ball kids will wear navy togs and the grass, well, there’s nothing much to do about that.

So, yes, Wimbledon does pursue greatness, which it defines in its own way for business and historic success.

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