People of Color Dominate Tennis’ First Major

The Sports Professor’s Weekly Sports and Entertainment Dollar
The Sports Professor’s Weekly Sports and Entertainment Dollar<br />“It’s exciting seeing young fit tennis players dressed for a Wham! revival.” <br />– Elle Australia’s Damien Woolnough, on the DayGlo Nike apparel being worn by players at the Australian Open<br />Walking around the courts of Melbourne Park in 2015 must surely feel like a trip back in time to the ...

“It’s exciting seeing young fit tennis players dressed for a Wham! revival.” 
– Elle Australia’s Damien Woolnough, on the DayGlo Nike apparel being worn by players at the Australian Open

Walking around the courts of Melbourne Park in 2015 must surely feel like a trip back in time to the mid-1980s. Every other player seems to be decked out in the ‘80s signature glow-in-the-dark color schemes, and holding court in the practice spaces and courtside at Rod Laver and Hisense Arenas are the likes of Stefan Edberg and Martina Navratilova.

But the splashes of neon color come courtesy of Nike and its player hordes, and those Klieg-lit tennis stars of old now join fellow champions Michael Chang and Lindsay Davenport to comprise one of the sport’s hottest trends – the celebrity coach. In 2015, at the Australian Open and elsewhere in the sport, tennis’ most resonant and lasting hues come from the spectrum of countries represented on the courts.

While pro tennis has always been international, its global reach in terms of rising talent, must-attend tournaments, and business investment has never been more pronounced. This is readily apparent as the Australian Open, the year’s first major, settles into the fourth round of play.

Around the grounds of Melbourne Park, the bright color-coding that will likely live to define this year’s “Happy Slam” starts at the very rooftop of newly renovated Margaret Court Arena. The 7,500-seat facility now boasts a retractable copper roof that Tennis Australia executive hope will not only become a signature part of the tennis complex’ identity, but that of the surrounding city of Melbourne. Margaret Court becomes the third show court at Melbourne Park with a roof, joining Hisense and Rod Laver and helping to ensure that the tennis will continue regardless of rain or sweltering summer conditions outside. The renovations are the first stage of a three stage major upgrade plan for the complex, estimated to cost close to A$1 billion – but a reasonable sum for a tournament that reportedly earns the State of Victoria over A$200 million annually.

Under those roofs, the colorfully clad troupes of players vie for a total purse of A$400 million, with the men’s and women’s singles winners each taking home a record A$3.1 million.

Where that “home” is could be increasingly far-flung, as players clearing the third round span South Africa, Japan, Poland, Russia, Croatia, Western Europe, and North America. What’s more, 15 of the players reaching the Aussie Open third round are represented by Lagardere Unlimited, whose global management team is among the most successful groups of talent representation in tennis, repping 47 players on the global ATP and WTA tours.

2014 saw LU tennis clients with multiple wins on the ATP/WTA tours, including Shenzhen Open champion Andy Murray, Rogers Cup winner Agnieszka Radwanska, and Grand Slam doubles champions Vasek Pospisil (Wimbledon), Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina (US Open), and Americans Bob and Mike Bryan, who not only won their 16th Slam at the US Open, they carded their 100th doubles crown.

Although he fell short of reprising his 2012 and 2013 Grand Slam victories, LU client Murray had a banner year off the court in 2014, and is continuing his business success this year as well.

In December, Murray signed a four-year, $23 million apparel deal with Under Armour, with potential for further bonuses based on the Scot’s on-court performance. Sports industry analysts believe that signing Murray will raise Under Armour’s international profile considerably – the company’s sales outside North America totaled less than 6% of its $2.3 billion in 2013 revenues, so there’s much room for growth. Under Armour’s stock remains one of the best performers among big U.S. companies, up close to 60% so far this year and currently trading at $69.82.

Murray has also joined the ranks of such other high-profile global athletes as Roger Federer, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Tiger Woods when he unveiled a personal logo, on display for the first time at the Australian Open. The logo, according to the London Telegraph, “combines Murray’s initials with the number 77,” which represents both the name of Murray’s management company and the number of years British tennis fans waited between homegrown Wimbledon champions. 

Personal logos give top athletes and celebrities yet another weapon in their branding arsenal, one that comes with the opportunity to net additional millions of dollars in apparel and related sales.

Murray’s personal brand and Under Armour announcements come right behind the release of an International Tennis Federation analysis that showed the number of pro tennis players breaking even in the sport is “fewer than 1,000,” with far fewer making a decent living at the game. 

While tennis’ top earner, Roger Federer, earned $59 million on and off the court in 2014, the ITF study revealed that “only 336 men and 253 women” made more money than they spent paying for coaching, equipment, travel, and the like. While purses at the Slams and other tournaments are increasing, the ITF estimates that the 4,978 outside the top 1% "earned, on average, a little over $13,000,” while the bottom 99% of the 2,650 women who earned prize money "averaged about $22,600." (Contrast that with the income of the top female earner, Maria Sharapova, whose 2014 income was estimated at $27.9 million.)

Clearly, more work is needed to help level pro tennis revenue distribution and keep talented players from abandoning the game.

Finally, in an era in which gay marriage has seen rapid widespread acceptance in the U.S. and elsewhere, the USTA has taken a solid step in widening the “rainbow spectrum” for the game’s amateur players. For 2015, the USTA added same-gender couples doubles tournaments to its sanctioned list of competitive events in its adult division. The first same-gender couples doubles event will take place in March in Indian Wells, CA.

In a sport that’s long been colorblind and LGBTQ-friendly at its pro levels, it’s terrific to see this important step taken to officially extent that progressive, inclusive, mindset to its millions of amateur players as well.