Play got underway today at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, where one of the weakest components of our sport is being put on full display: we are suffering with an image problem, and those trying to reinvent the brand don’t seem to understand it.
In August, WTA sponsor Sony Ericsson took over sponsorship of the tournament in Miami from NASDAQ and set out with IMG to turn the event into a “Glam Slam”, or as I will now refer to it, the “Tennis Glamification Project” (TGP).
Basically, TGP is the overall rebranding that’s being attempted by the TPTB. It cuts directly into the heart of the push-pull conflict of retaining and satisfying die-hard fans and going after new ones.
As part of Tennis: Hollywood Make-Over Edition, IMG also purchased and revised Tennis Week magazine and just launched the new print version to coincide with the tournament. Though they haven’t done anything with the online version, this morning I got a full taste of the new print version of TW via the scans my buddy Kenneth Walsh posted on his blog. No, I am not a subscriber, but I read TW online pretty much everyday. I am a fan, and while I would agree that it needs a web make-over, the content and reporting is wonderful and a staple of any good tennis reading diet.
I really tried to reserve judgment on the print version despite the initial press release overtly stating that they were going to turn the mag into something more like IMG’s fashion book, The Daily. Ken and I weren’t alone in our assessment either, and as he points out, the new spin to TW is a little more Us Weekly than we bargained for. The funny part is that people like me and Ken should probably be the primary targets for this venture into tennis celebrity-dom (celebrity-dumb?). Unfortunately we both found it funny-sad, not funny-haha. Whoops.
In today’s USA Today, Dee Dutta, the head of marketing for Sony Ericsson, who has been a primary architect of the TGP explained that, “This is all about being hip and cool. Somewhere along the way, tennis became more about backhands and forehands and lost some of its glamour.”
Jumping up and down and saying that you’re gonna ‘glam it up’ and be ‘cool and hip’ is the behavior of an insecure junior high schooler, and is a tell-tale sign you’re definitely neither hip nor cool. Are we really ready to air our dirty laundry in an afterschool special? And if we do, should it be daily wear or evening wear?
Oh, and, um, since when has tennis not been about backhands and forehands?!
Couple Dutta’s statement with ATP Chair Etienne de Villiers now-famous “furry ball” line earlier this month, and you’ve traced out a much larger problem that tennis faces in both morale and overall branding architecture. Is it a big surprise that the ATP canned the Round Robin today?
Sports executives, no less two sports executives that hold such powerful sway, who blatantly demean the very basic principles of tennis, and in doing so, insult the intelligence of their fans, are not the kind of leaders who can change the sport. What they’re proving instead is that they simply don’t get it.
Bizarrely, Dutta and crew are intent with capitalizing on the success of a Maria Sharapova-branded model of tennis “glamour” that’s been honed and cultivated for many years by IMG. Unfortunately, Sharapova’s not really a trend-setter and her influence among those who are already fans is a mere slice of the base of already dedicated enthusiasts. Sure, she probably brings in a few new male fans, but if her play doesn’t keep up, she could go the way of another blonde Russian bombshell in a jiffy.
Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, who was also interviewed by USA Today, points out that there’s nothing to carry TGP forward once you’ve piqued someone’s interest, and the connections are too loose. Techno music will not turn someone into a tennis fan, no matter how much they drink.
Add to this that in going down fashionista road, they’ve lost sight of the fact that average fans aren’t interested in, no less could afford, a Marc Jacobs skirt or a Chanel racquet.* It also sets up the notion that tennis is a sport of have’s — something that echoes the exclusionary country club tradition we’ve come away from.
Good golly, who do they think they’re going to get to pay attention to tennis by luring Naomi Campbell to the player party? The mad maids brigade of Miami-Dade? Is she going to make Roger Federer hold her purse?
Tennis has very proudly become a sport of inclusion: whether you learned on the public courts in Compton or hitting a ball against a wall in Eastern Europe, you are embraced by tennis fans for your successes and your athleticism.
TGP sets up a further division between fans and our athletes. It doesn’t take a genius to know that fans want to connect with their sport’s stars. That’s a given.
The TGP going on in Miami isn’t a singular example of how the TPBT are going about this image make-over either. It’s an evolving pattern which includes thrusting Tiger Woods and Roger Federer together, with the sheltered divisions between the athletes and journalists that cover them**, between those they choose to promote and those they choose to let fall by the wayside.
Tennis used to be about sport, now it’s more about games.
* See “Court Couture” in the March 2007 issue of Tennis.
**See Chris Evert’s “Generation Gap” in the same issue.
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