Probably the most powerful brands in today’s connected world can be found in sports. Now that we understand a brand is more than a visual identity and an advertising slogan, it is clear that events like the Olympics or the World Cup, or teams like the New York Yankees or Manchester United, incite emotions and loyalty in a way that few products or services can rival. Fans of these sports brands form active communities that go well beyond buying tickets: affiliation is a part of their experience, their identity, even. Sports brands can bring entire countries to a standstill.
Sitting proudly in this elite group is Wimbledon, the annual two-week tennis tournament organised and hosted by London’s All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club (AELTC). Widely cited by players as the tournament they most want to win, Wimbledon appears to have achieved its self-declared goals of being “the pinnacle of tennis” and, arguably, being “the world’s most prestigious sports club.” Even in the US and Australia, which each host another of tennis’ four grand-slam tournaments, Wimbledon commands the highest TV tennis audiences. Demand for Wimbledon tickets outstrips supply 10 times. Brand research conducted by the AELTC showed that Wimbledon has the second-highest awareness of any sporting event in the world (behind the Super Bowl) and is regarded as the epitome of excellence.
Thanks to the digital revolution, Wimbledon, despite its image of tradition, is changing its relationship with its audiences. As is the case for most big sporting events, TV broadcasting rights are a healthy source of revenues; some 50% in the case of Wimbledon, the majority accounted for by multi-year deals with the BBC in the UK and ESPN in the US. But the traditional ‘appointment viewing’ model, where consumers sit down in front of a screen and watch a sports event for an extended period, is declining at breakneck speed. In most developed countries, traditional TV viewing is declining by 100–150 hours annually, while viewing on mobile devices is increasing by 200–300 hours annually. In the UK, over 50% of mobile devices viewing (as opposed to messaging) is sports-related, and 70% of this is short-form (less than five minutes’ long). As TV audiences for sporting events reduces, brands like Wimbledon need to adapt their communications strategy, fast.
New content, new viewing habits
Wimbledon has made a notable success of adapting to this new media landscape, under the leadership of Alexandra Willis, the AELTC’s Head of Digital and Content. Most fans enjoying the unchanging elegance of Wimbledon’s green beflowered buildings and lawns are unaware of the hidden technology that records every fact of the event and broadcasts it almost instantly over myriad online media. Below ground, in a room resembling a military-style command centre, a small army relays to the world a new fastest serve, a spectacular trick shot, an improvised joke between a player and spectator, or a celebrity in the Royal Box. This investment is delivering online audiences growing by hundreds of percent year-on-year, making Wimbledon one of the most-watched sporting events online in the world.
Two marketing lessons emerge from Wimbledon’s experience. First, the content has to change to accommodate new viewing behaviours. While tennis still takes centre stage, the decline of appointment viewing requires a new stream of highlights or other short-form packages. The two most-viewed clips of 2017 illustrate this. Most popular was ‘Man in Skirt’, when during a casual exhibition match on an outside court, Kim Clijsters, a former champion, invited a noisy spectator to join her on the court, and proceeded to dress him in the obligatory Wimbledon white kit with a spare skirt and shirt from her own bag. Second was ‘Nadal Bumps his Head’, which occurred when the Spanish champion was jumping on the spot to warm up in the corridor before coming onto court. Only in fourth place was the moment when Roger Federer broke several records by winning the men’s singles title, and even then it was his emotional on-court interview rather than the winning point that proved most popular. In a similar way, the Wimbledon website showcases behind-the-scenes points of interest, such as training of the famous ball girls and ball boys, and sourcing the famous strawberries.
Contrast this with the traditional broadcast model, in which long periods of tennis are interrupted with advertisements shown at high frequency. People now demand a stream of unusual nuggets related to the core brand but novel enough to gain attention.
Second, the new media landscape offers enormous potential for increased engagement and reach. To unpick this, what, exactly, is engagement? “Traditionally the interpretation of fandom is willingness to pay. Today, it’s willingness to have a relationship,” ventures Willis. Much segmentation work has helped refine Wimbledon’s audience. There are, broadly, six categories.
1. Tennis lovers – they watch Wimbledon because it is a tennis tournament
2. Sports fans – they enjoy watching elite sports and believe Wimbledon is the best in its category
3. Socially motivated – they deem it as culturally significant, like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding
4. Proudly British – they are nationally-driven and love their country, thus, they love Wimbledon
5. Two-weekers – just as they might follow the Grand Prix, because it fits into their calendar, they watch the event
6. Utterly passive – thanks to the likes of the BBC, they can’t help but get swept up in the tennis because, simply, it is on.
The enhanced content increases the engagement of serious tennis fans, who are intrigued by every detail of this famous tournament, but also draws in transient fans, who are more interested in Wimbledon as an event, and do not follow tennis for the rest of the year. The viral nature of social media increases reach. For example, in 2017 there were 134.5 million video-on-demand plays of Wimbledon material on Facebook during the two weeks of the tournament, a majority of which were friend referrals.
This illustrates a key characteristic of networked markets – when consumers communicate with each other, rather than relying on supplier brands for their information, key opinion leaders emerge. If interesting material is provided to these keystones of the market, they will spread the material across their networks.
“Clickbait isn’t consistent with the Wimbledon way,” says Willis. “Often, the first point of contact people have is with a piece of content. This is the foundation of our commercial model: it’s based on our audience. We need to nurture and grow that audience year after year.”
Communications: content versus clickbait
Wimbledon’s approach to the shift in its audience is distinctive and somewhat at odds with the direction of travel of most sports. “Clickbait isn’t consistent with the Wimbledon way,” says Willis. “Often, the first point of contact people have is with a piece of content. This is the foundation of our commercial model: it’s based on our audience. We need to nurture and grow that audience year after year.”
Growing, for the AELTC, can mean targeting particular territories, such as Korea. Chung Hyeon, who made history as the first South Korean to reach a tennis Grand Slam semi-final at the 2018 Australian Open, has a following, for example, worthy of translating Wimbledon content for a Korean audience.
This is a communications strategy referred to as “content marketing”, usually defined as the generation and distribution of material in which interest is prioritised over brand promotion. This is a rather unsatisfactory definition, given that most brands would claim that most of their communications is designed for engagement, but the distinction is made when comparing Wimbledon with other sports events.
Consider these two pictures of post-match interview settings, one at Wimbledon, one in football’s Premier League, and it becomes clear that one strategy is a controlled communication of one brand, while the other, the football, is a platform for maximising the exposure of as many brands as possible. This latter strategy is known as ‘clickbait’, and is measured simply by the size of the audience – the more people who click on an ad, the better. Most sports are committed to this maximum-eyeballs approach, and extend their platform to the kit, the stadium, and more.
By contrast, Wimbledon strictly controls exposure of other brands, partly because a non-commercial environment is a large part of its brand appeal, but also because it believes in the primacy of its own content, The Championships. Of its 13 sponsors, only four are visible on court, in a rather subdued manner. For example, the kit for officials, ball boys and ball girls, is provided by Ralph Lauren, but is branded as Wimbledon. Ralph Lauren has the opportunity to produce and sell ‘Crafted for Wimbledon’ apparel and promote Wimbledon-generated material.
Critics of the clickbait approach argue that the huge audiences generated are meaningless because of a lack of engagement – it is merely background noise that consumers filter out. Supporters of this approach point to the substantial revenues it generates for the sports brands in question. Content marketing advocates, however, not only point to the higher levels of consumer engagement with their material, but argue that this communications strategy is far better suited to the digital age, in which attention is a scarce resource. Interestingly, there are early signs that prices for sponsorship of major sports has peaked – the 2018 deals on TV rights for the Premier League, for example, showed no increase after eight previous rounds of ever-climbing prices.
The challenge of revenue generation from digital audiences
Under Willis’ leadership, the AELTC has adapted to new audience trends and become a widely recognised leader in its field, scooping a series of industry honours such as the Sport Industry, Sports Technology and Webby Awards. It claimed the Best Digital Development in the 2018 Yahoo Sports Technology Awards for being innovative in an unmistakably Wimbledon way, according to the judges. “The element of surprise carries weight,” notes Willis.
There is a tension that lives between delighting audiences by doing what is unexpected and grounding activity in what is expected from the Wimbledon brand. For instance, who would have guessed that it would be the first European sports property to launch on Snapchat, known for its younger target audience. And few would have predicted that when The Championships clashed with the Euros in 2016, Wimbledon would take advantage of the excitement by tying with UEFA in a bid to introduce more football fans to tennis. “Digital is our gateway to ensuring we offer the millions of people around the world who can’t be at Wimbledon a Wimbledon experience,” says Willis.
Since 2015, Wimbledon’s audience has more than doubled from around 10 million unique views to its peak of 21 million uniques in 2016. Its formerly non-existent social media following has today reached the 11 million mark.
The biggest single challenge of the content marketing approach, however, is one that faces almost all organisations: how to monetise online traffic. The economics of digital channels are fundamentally different from traditional media. The TV audiences generated in traditional rights contracts would be measured in millions and all charged to advertisers as consumers of their commercials in the breaks in programming. The dominant (but not the only) model in the digital world is that advertisers only pay when a consumer responds to a commercial by, most commonly, clicking on the content. Click-through rates in most markets are about 0.5–2.0%, and even though these consumers are of higher quality, by virtue of the fact that they actively respond, they do not generate the same level of revenues as the 100% of the massive audiences commanded by traditional appointment viewing. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that digital channels tend not to pay large sums up-front for the right to broadcast material, but, more usually, enter into revenue-sharing arrangements with content providers based on various measures of active response, such as click-through behaviour.
Wimbledon reaches its segments through a blend of digital, social media and broadcast, all part of one emerging “ecosystem.” Willis says: “I don’t think the notion of traditional TV channels and online platforms battling it out will materialise. They are part of the ecosystem.” In addition, new entrants such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube are pushing the boundaries as to how people want to consume content. As audience measurement moves from passive to active viewers, “Only great content will command attention”, she says.
Willis acknowledges the challenge of measuring a return on the investment in digital content, but is guardedly optimistic about the future for Wimbledon.
“What’s critical for us is consistent measurement.” Tracing audience growth can be woolly, she admits. Eurosport, which Discovery acquired in 2015, announced a first-of-its-kind comprehensive measurement offering for advertisers at the 2018 Winter Olympics. It pledged to reach more people, across more screens and capture total video – a mix of free-to-air, pay-TV, online and social engagement. This, Willis welcomes. “There is no consistent metric for engagement. If they can solve it, great.”
Which way for sports brands?
Circle back to those powerful sports brands and it becomes clear that most are not adapting to the digital content-led world, but serve as a platform for the generation of massive audiences for whom commercials interrupt their sport viewing. There is a distinct contrast here between what might be termed the North American and the European models. The strong commercialism of American sports stops at the edge of the playing field or arena, and the players remain unbranded, except for carrying the crest or name of the team. Consider the two photos of the New York Yankees in 1923 and 2018: focus, familiarity, and consistency – elements shared by the world’s strongest brands. Contrast this with top European sports figures, who advertise an assortment of brands on their uniforms. Sponsor brands change periodically, footballers, for instance, wear up to six different colour shirts every season, and collections change in order to stimulate increased merchandise sales from their fans.
Of course, these different sports have different governance structures and economic models, and it is arguable how attentive their fans are to the sports uniforms. But what is clear is the different philosophy: one prioritises the brand integrity of the core product, while another views this product as a platform for audience generation. In the new world of digital audiences, with their different viewing patterns and emerging content demands, it is hard to imagine that the old model will prove sustainable. It is also curious that these brands, probably more powerful than any of their sponsors, should view themselves as a serving platter for other brands, rather than rigorously managing their own. In their content-led communications of Wimbledon, the AELTC is demonstrating that, despite its strongly traditional brand appeal, it is at the leading edge of far-reaching changes in marketing communications.
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