The Championships at Wimbledon is in that class of elite sporting events whose name is shorthand for its own reputation.
The oldest Grand Slam competition in tennis, and the only one still played on grass, has a unique appeal for spectators and an unmatched prestige for players. All that excellence, and those decades of heritage and tradition, go before it.
It is also a tournament whose recent success has come through the embrace of constant change. The 2019 edition, for example, brings a new roof on No1 Court, built at a cost of a reported UK£70 million as part of a package of upgrades that includes an overhaul of hospitality facilities.
For the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC), organiser of the Championships and operator of the All-England Club in London’s SW19, a consistent focus on improvement has delivered a considerable payoff. Last July, financial records showed a turnover of UK£254.87 million, up UK£38.73 million, with operating profits rising just under UK£5 million to UK£42.24 million.
The challenge for the marketing and communications team at the AELTC has been to ensure that its messaging has been able to get across that forward-thinking outlook as well as the rich 142-year history. The Wimbledon image, recalls AELTC head of commercial and brand James Ralley, had been founded on “a proposition of tennis in an English garden”, redolent of immaculate greens, strawberries and cream, Pimm’s and all the rest. Yet as evocative as that sounded, it didn’t travel well globally and gave only a limited range of what the tournament is really about.
“We needed to create a strapline that worked for our partners, that was aspirational,” Ralley adds.
In 2015, after a competitive process, the AELTC appointed the McCann advertising agency to help create a more rounded and versatile communications concept. The result was a campaign based on ‘The Pursuit of Greatness’. It has been the basis of the AELTC’s marketing efforts since then.
“What that is supposed to do is to tell the story about how the club itself as an organisation has a perpetual striving for greatness, for perfection,” Ralley says. “It tells the story that we almost know we’re not going to get there but it’s the striving towards it that’s really important.”
The strapline was intended to reference not just the idea of the Wimbledon title as the most sought-after prize in tennis, but “the painstaking operation that our ground staff go through to make sure everything is as immaculate as possible” and the organisers’ own annual efforts to find improvements.
A 2016 video, 'The List’, referred to all the big and small amendments that are noted during each tournament for attention the following year. The tone had been set.
Taking the story from Centre Court to TikTok
For the past few years, Ralley says, Wimbledon has released a pre-tournament video trailer “that we distribute across our own channels but crucially give to our broadcasters who tell the story for us”.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do with that film and this strategy is take control of the message that’s coming out of Wimbledon, and being very clear on what makes us different,” he says. “And we feel that the types of content that we’re telling is the type of content only Wimbledon could tell.”
This year’s entry is ‘The Story Continues’, a one-minute video released after the end of the French Open placing great Wimbledon moments alongside events of cultural significance. “We finish on an empty Centre Court and it should evoke these images of, ‘What’s next?’” Ralley explains.
That has been followed by a series of mid-length documentaries weaving the tales of memorable tournaments into a contemporary historical context.
Expansive storytelling has been a challenge for the AELTC team this year in another sense, too: the target has been to stop fans thinking of Wimbledon as a two-week event and consider it instead as part of a six-week season. Every effort is being made to support and “celebrate” other grass-court tournaments in the build-up, while there are also plans for a more substantial retrospective in the week after the finals have been won.
“Looking at it from our own marketing point of view, that means we’ve got people engaging with Wimbledon over a longer period, engaging with it more,” Ralley says. “But crucially, from a commercial perspective - which I obviously have to keep an eye on - what it means is that our partners and our broadcasters are buying richer rights.”
This output, however, would not be doing its job if it was being passively consumed.
“The proof with our marketing campaign and with the content is that people pick it up and they run with it,” says Alexandra Willis, the head of communications, digital and content at the AELTC. “For these things to be successful, it has to be more than just us talking about it.”
The creative campaign, then, is being supported by a social component calling on fans to #JoinTheStory. The AELTC will be encouraging participation across linear channels as well as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and, for the first time this year, the explosively popular short-form video network TikTok. As well as fans, the engagement of leading players is crucial to the success of Wimbledon’s campaigns.
We feel that the types of content that we’re telling is the type of content only Wimbledon could tell.
James Ralley, AELTC head of commercial and brand
“One of the things that we’ve tried to do is embrace and encourage the players to take part in that build-up with us. If you look at social media now – and it started probably a year or so ago – when players are having their first practices on grass, they’re sharing that feeling of excitement and anticipation through their own social media platforms but we’re also encouraging them to embrace our campaign and embrace the build-up to Wimbledon. Because we obviously know that that drives traction as well.”
For Ralley, another challenge is to incentivise Wimbledon’s partners to play a role, using their promotional clout to take the Championships into new and challenging media settings.
“The fee is always going to be important,” Ralley says. “We’re not going to pretend that it isn’t. But more and more now, when we’re taking these partnerships to our board, they’re equally interested in how these brands are going to activate and take Wimbledon to a broader audience in key markets as they are in the financial side, really.”
As the tournament’s commercial portfolio internationalises, that creates other fresh opportunities. Ralley cites payments giant American Express and Chinese smartphone manufacturer Oppo, a new signing this year, as “two partners who can genuinely take the Wimbledon brand to a global audience”.
Germany's Angelique Kerber greets fans after her women's singles final victory over Serena Williams in 2018
Seeding future growth
For Wimbledon to be able to manage such an ambitious communications strategy at such scale, it has needed to steadily build out its capabilities in content creation and distribution. Some of this has come with the help of partners - IBM, for example, has supported the introduction of an AI-powered highlights clipping service. But much of it has been in-house and that, Willis says, has been the result of careful growth.
“I think one of the reasons we’ve been successful is that we haven’t tried to do too much in any one year,” she explains. “As James mentioned, this has been a steady progression from establishing a strategy, gaining an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve and then delivering a little bit more every single year.”
Keeping those activities within the AELTC’s control has also helped to rationalise that development.
“That’s probably helped us be more measured about where we are and make sure that we have a good reason to be on all of these platforms,” says Willis, “and that it fits as part of that overall matrix of what we’re doing - as James says, across the six weeks, not just two weeks - thinking about how we’re building it up and that everything has its place.”
I think one of the reasons we’ve been successful is that we haven’t tried to do too much in any one year.
Alexandra Willis, AELTC head of communications, digital and content
One thing that Ralley is keen to emphasise is that the investment in content at Wimbledon over the last few years is that it has come in the service of building value, rather than as a “vanity play”.
“What we’ve done is taken a step back and thought, it’s a tough market out there,” he adds. “We don’t want partners to look at us as: ‘These are rights that I’m buying, and I’ll activate them in any way I see fit.’ That’s the same with the broadcasters.
“It’s more about: what is the value that they derive from these rights? Our behaviour is almost like a media owner rather than a rights owner. All of the deals that we have with our official suppliers are all pretty much bespoke. We don’t have tiers where everybody gets the same rights. Obviously, there’s rights that are shared. Each partner has a particular thing that they want to focus on and celebrate, and we tailor accordingly.
“The investment has not just been in content. We’ve taken the host broadcast in-house. Retail has come in-house. We’ve taken much more ownership of our audience, so we’ve worked with Two Circles to create our first segmentation. We’re looking to create as many owned consumer relationships as possible, and we’ve done that because it improves the way that we interact with our fans and with people coming on site, people watching around the world.
“But ultimately, what it also does is create a much more robust commercial model that we can sell against. We’ve taken much more responsibility for the Wimbledon brand but we’re also future-proofing ourselves, and that’s key.”
Popular British star Andy Murray is teaming up with AELTC partner American Express this year on a new virtual reality experience
Embracing the experience from The Queue to Wimbledon Rematch
“You see it with music festivals,” says Ralley. “The experience economy is going through the roof.
“Wimbledon is an amazing articulation of that. We’re actually seeing a much younger crowd coming through the gates than we have previously, and I think that’s proof that young people want to experience things. They want to feel and touch it.”
The experience of Wimbledon, Ralley adds, is “absolutely central to everything we do”. And the segmentation activities the AELTC is undertaking are confirming what many would have suspected for some time: that tennis and sports fans make up only some of the core audience of the Championships. Others are enticed by “the celebrity”, “the connection that we have to the Royal Family”, or the “quirks” in how things are done at the All-England Club.
“The Queue’s almost become it’s own event,” says Ralley of the public lines for on-the-day tickets. “You’ve got the Hill, which is all about the social enjoyment side. You’ve got the tennis element. And then you’ve got the food and drink and the ambience and just being here. I can’t think of many events that have that.”
Spectators patiently queue to enter day one of this year's Championships
Those unique qualities are also at the core of what makes Wimbledon work on social media, according to Willis. She recalls that when the AELTC became “one of the first sports properties in Europe to do a partnership with Snapchat for their Live Stories product”, the team wondered how much of their supporter base would use the service and how they would put it to work.
“The most amazing thing,” Willis says, “was that the things they were choosing to share was exactly the kind of things that James described.”
With fans wanting to highlight “all those different aspects that mean something to them”, the tournament benefits from “advocacy” in promoting qualities that underpin its identity. Willis adds: “It’s that feeling of really being in this incredible atmosphere: ‘It’s on my bucket list and I’ve achieved it!’”
Yet however taken those spectators who do attend are by the actual Wimbledon experience, it has an obvious limitation as part of a marketing exercise.
“We’re very privileged to have an event here that is oversubscribed,” notes Willis, “and sometimes we feel like we’re marketing the idea of Wimbledon for people who are never going to get to go and actually watch it.”
We’re actually seeing a much younger crowd coming through the gates than we have previously, and I think that’s proof that young people want to experience things. They want to feel and touch it.
James Ralley, AELTC head of commercial and brand
What is on the agenda for the AELTC, then, is a push to create alternative Wimbledon experiences that can be enjoyed by “people in other territories around the world”. One experiment that has been tried for 2019 is Wimbledon Rematch 1980, an immersive theatrical experience held in the weekend before the tournament proper at a venue in another famous part of sporting London, Wembley Park.
With echoes of cultural events like the popular Secret Cinema series, Wimbledon Rematch 1980 combined live performances, light and video installations, interactive exhibits and food and drink to recreate a tournament capped by that famous final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Visitors were encouraged to wear 1980s-style fashions as the producers tried to put a 21st century spin on an edition that did so much to inform the modern Wimbledon identity.
“We were challenging ourselves, ultimately,” says Ralley. “What could we do that was a little bit different, that could potentially position us in a slightly different way? Again, it’s that challenge of celebrating heritage and history but doing it in a modern way. We’ve all seen how immersive cinema has exploded and we thought this was an opportunity that surely could work in sport as well.
“It is a first and it’s great for us to be doing this. The challenge we’ve got is for people to understand it and really gather what this is all about. I think once we’ve done it once we’re going to have so many different learnings and how we communicate it will naturally improve.
“What we didn’t want to do was another big screening. It’s an opportunity to take the experience of Wimbledon outside of the club itself and we wanted to do it in a more creative way, in a way that we think a younger consumer wants to engage with Wimbledon so that they can feel and touch it.”
The AELTC aims to learn as much as it can from the pilot edition, hoping to be able to “create content at the event that’s going to appeal to a broader audience” and to “get sponsors and broadcasters involved as well”. A “proof of concept” is the goal for 2019, but Rematch is seen as having the potential to educate new fans about the tournament’s heritage in a compelling way. Other projects will also be considered for the same purpose.
Radical thinking, within the context of a competition of rare pedigree, is seen as vital to Wimbledon’s future health. “We had a meeting yesterday and we’re talking about what Wimbledon 2025 might look like,” says Ralley.
Planning for the future continues even as this year’s workload hits its peak. As Willis explains, Wimbledon 2019 will be used an opportunity to test new ideas, picking things up and plotting for 2020. “We’re working on some content pilots during the Championships this year all about who the future stars are and who the next generation of players might be,” she adds.
Ralley says: “We’re able to take that long-term view and that’s what’s going to ensure that we maintain our relevance and that we keep our place at the top table of sport.”