Reinventing Tennis In A Rapidly Evolving World

International Blog – Michael Dickens

It’s been said that sports are a habit, something which provides us with a rhythm that sometimes we barely notice. Until now, when we don’t have sports like tennis. Well, tennis will be back – eventually – and so will the friendly arguments about who’s the greatest player of all time. For the time being, the professional tennis season has been pushed back until at least June 8 – and, frankly, it would not be surprising to see its return delayed even further. When the sport does return – and it will – like many ordinary wonderful things such as tennis, suddenly, it will seem like a very extraordinarily wonderful thing.

However, it’s worth asking this: how can tennis, rich in its history and tradition, continue to remain relevant – maybe, even be more successful – in a rapidly evolving world that is shaped both by consumer experience as well as driven by technology?

Before the novel coronavirus global pandemic struck earlier this month, a groundbreaking new report, Tennis Radar: The Next Big Era, by the Infosys Knowledge Institute was published on February 26. It surveyed 3,000 tennis fans globally and conducted interviews with prominent organizers, coaches, industry influencers and media.

Thanks to player inequality, an aging fan base and the looming retirement of the golden generation of superstars – think Roger Federer, Rafael NadalNovak Djokovic and Serena and Venus Williams – the report touches upon some of the major hot-button topics facing tennis today.

As it looks to grow during the next decade, guess what? Tennis must change to attract a younger audience! But how? According to the report’s author, Jeff Kavanaugh, Vice President and Global Head of the Infosys Knowledge Institute, who is based in Dallas, Texas – and himself a tennis fanatic – the sport, which dates back to Birmingham, England, and was first played between 1859 and 1865, needs to transform itself to stay relevant and to thrive in a digital age. He suggests that tennis needs to embrace technologies like virtual reality and data analytics – things that are more accustomed to the video gaming esports world – if it is going to overcome an aging fan base and attract younger audiences, such as what is happening in China and India.

Earlier this month, I caught up with the author and thought leader Kavanaugh by telephone to learn more about Tennis Radar: The Next Big Era. Among the things I learned, which he stressed in his thoroughly researched and well-written report were:

There is financial equality holding back the next generation of tennis stars. While tournaments featuring Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Serena Williams drive fan engagement and increase attendance, with their eventual retirements, there’s no clear successor waiting in the wings from the next generation of players.

The idea of shorter match lengths isn’t the answer. While new formats and innovations are being tried at different levels of tennis in an effort to attract new audiences, match length is not a primary barrier among Millennials and Generation Z to engagement with the sport.

Access to playing is the key to becoming a tennis fan. While nearly a quarter of global tennis players come from China (23 percent), the country only accounts for just 10 percent of the world’s tennis courts, which has stifled potential growth in a budding sports market that could reach $470 billion by 2025. In China, there is an average of 393 players per court. In France, the number drops to just 87 per court. In Germany, the number is 122 players per court and in Australia it’s 104.

The use of virtual reality and data analytics are critical tools in helping to grow the game in booming markets such as China and India. Through virtual and augmented reality technologies and data-driven analytics as means of introducing new fans to tennis, there’s a tremendous opportunity to improve the enjoyment of the sport. “Over a third (38 percent) of 18-22-year-olds were identified as the highest category of tennis technology and analytics ‘enthusiasts’ compared to just 13 percent of those 55 and older.”

So, how can tennis embrace this new era? According to Kavanaugh, there are four key ways:

• Experiment at every level.

• Democratize data and analytics.

• Focus on the social element.

• Protect the human element.

“Tennis is a microcosm of the world; it’s an international sport played in almost 200 countries,” says Kavanaugh. “You can be a small country like Serbia (population 7 million) without a big budget and, yet, capture a nation’s imagination, thanks to the success of Djokovic. 

“The rest of the world is becoming immersed in technology and technology and analytics make things interesting. You see it in a deeper and richer way. People can relate to a player’s hopes and dreams. People relate to stories – flaws and all.” It’s why fans of a different generation related to Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in the U.S. and elsewhere, and It’s why today’s generation relates to many of today’s stars such as Federer and Nadal.

“If you have a champion from that country,” says coach and commentator Patrick Mouratoglou in the report, “then it will grow. You can bring a hundred tournaments there, and if people don’t know tennis well and they don’t have a star, they’re not going to go watch tennis.”

Mouratoglou further explains: “People watch sports for the same reason they watch a movie: they want to feel emotions So how can we give more emotions to the people and especially to people who are not tennis fans? They turn on the TV to tennis, and they show they see today is not a show. It’s people hitting a ball, turning their back, maybe for a towel, choosing three balls, throwing back one and serving again and again. That’s it. You don’t get people emotionally involved when you have two robots playing on a tennis court. 

“Our sport is complex. Unless you’re a real tennis addict, that’s the only thing you see, with a complicated way to count, like 15 or 30 and 40, and complicated rules. This is why I advocate for on-court coaching and a much lighter code of conduct as I believe it could partially solve those issues. We have to create a space where they players can express their emotions and show their personalities and passion. I am convinced that this would bring our sport to the next level.”

Kavanaugh stresses how access and inclusion have become just as important as technology. He admits the history and tradition of tennis, perceived by many – fair or not – as only played by elites in country club settings – is unsettling. Perception and image are things which tennis is trying to improve upon, says Kavanaugh. He points to China as a modern-day success story in which the country now produces the most players, and it does so with a fraction of the tennis courts that many other countries have.

“The idea of access is important,” Kavanaugh suggests. “Tennis is social and physical interaction. It’s an experience through playing, by watching in person and watching remotely. Apps help enrich the experience.

According to Kavanaugh, fans are taking a data-driven view of things and tennis, like many other sports, has “an immense opportunity to use technology to reach more people.”

Looking back at the report, which evolved over the past “four to six months,” Kavanaugh concludes: “We wanted to contribute a body of knowledge – more than just a quick survey – a rich report that hopefully people will find something of value in and share it.”