By Elizabeth Broomhall
Association of Tennis Professionals president Brad Drewett says marketing interest in one of the world’s most popular sports has remained strong, despite the credit crunch
Managing a tennis tour is a bit like being a player. You have to be competitive but prepared for setbacks. Certainly that is the view of Brad Drewett. Following a successful stint as a player, and an even longer career as a businessman, the current president of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) believes there are many similarities between the two industries.
That said, you don’t need to have played the sport prior to managing the tour, nor does it give you a spring board into the organisation, he says. Despite his experience, Drewett believes “business is business”, and feels lucky to have been given the opportunity to be involved.
“It’s fairly unusual to have someone with a tennis background in the senior management,” he says, speaking from the grounds of the ATP 500 tennis championship in Dubai. “I feel very fortunate to be involved. I love the sport, but I also love the business. To be able to combine the two, I feel very fortunate.”
Of course the last few months have been particularly exciting for Drewett. Though he has held the title of CEO of the ATP's International Group since 1993, it wasn’t until December last year he was appointed president of the non-profit organisation, replacing Adam Helfant. Seeing in the 2012 world tour, he says everything seems to be running smoothly. Not only has the business come out of the economic crisis largely unscathed, but if anything, the industry seems to be in better shape than ever.
“As a sport that relies on sponsorship, we rely on marketing budgets to support us, so when you hear that many marketing budgets are being cut, obviously we were very worried, and kept a close eye on that trend,” Drewett says. “But what was gratifying for us was that... all sponsorships remained intact, which I think is a reflection of how strong our tournaments are in individual markets.”
This in turn, reveals a lot about men’s tennis today, he says.
“Men’s tennis right now is in what I call a golden era, both on and off the court. What is happening on the court is as good as it’s ever been. The quality of play and also the personalities that we have drives core interest in the sport, from the public, from television and from the sponsors. We’re a sport that’s at the top of its game.”
Certainly the figures would have us believe it. According to Drewett, ATP revenues earned from the purchase of television rights increased 30 percent over the last three years, whilst sponsorship of the tour as a whole and of individual tournaments was up by half. Attendance also reached a staggering 4.3 million viewers in 2011, having risen five percent on the year before.
In a bid to keep this up, Drewett says it will be important to maintain the hype around the sport.
“We need to find ways to keep that growth that we experienced over the last five or ten years, and keep that momentum. By being innovative and creative we can find ways to keep servicing our partners, whether it is TV, sponsors or the public. I expect to see the same growth over the next three years. Well that’s what I’m working towards.”
One thing that will definitely need attention is the players themselves. In September last year, Andy Murray told reporters that some of the top players were considering downing racquets over problems with the tennis schedule, which sparked rumours of possible strike action and heightened tensions within ATP.
The world's number-four-ranked player said some of the sport’s biggest stars were serious about instigating changes to the tennis calendar, which left them little time to rest between events, whilst concerns were also raised about the prize money for tennis professionals, which many players felt was too low. Media reports also said that some athletes had clashed on the subject, with number-two seed Rafael Nadal accusing Swiss ace Roger Federer of not doing enough to push tennis authorities on cash prizes and match scheduling. Asked about the scandal, Drewett largely dismisses the rumours, and accuses the media of slightly exaggerating the players’ grievances.
“I said when I was in Melbourne I thought [the reports] were exaggerated... we meet regularly with the players and they voice their concerns. The players in general believe the tour is going extremely well, and at the end of the next three year cycle, the prize money will be up by 20 percent.”
Quizzed about the strikes themselves, he added: “That’s not something I am concerned about... We do believe there are some issues. But the calendar and schedule have always been debated in our organisation for 20 years. It’s on the agenda, it’s always on the agenda, and we are constantly talking to our players and tournament members about ways in which we can improve that.”
Next month, Drewett says he is meeting with the board in the hopes of finding some way to ease the problem, but adds that it can be difficult to find solutions given the number of people involved in the tour and the range of opinions on how to move forward.
“I am meeting in my board in April and I am going to discuss with them some of my ideas,” he says. “We have a very strong calendar right now but one you could always improve. You have a very diverse mix of opinions about what the schedule should look like, so I have to take into account all those different perspectives and find the best answer.”
He hints that possible solutions involve shifting the schedule around without actually reducing it.
“There are ways you can add tournaments to certain weeks. This year our off-season is going to be two weeks longer than last year, so our schedule is two weeks shorter this year. This is an example of how we are constantly monitoring the players and the tournaments and responding to what they say.”
Certainly the Dubai leg of the ATP World Tour, which is a ATP World Tour 500 series tournament, was not subject to any major problems regarding the players. Drawing in huge crowds of expats, locals and visitors, it marked another successful event both for the emirate and for ATP, who rely on the region for a strong Middle Eastern presence.
“Dubai has been the cornerstone of our presence in the Middle East for the last 20 years,” Drewett says, adding that Doha is its only other host city in the Gulf. “It’s obviously very important, and as a 500 event, it is one of the top 20 on the ATP world tour.” He adds that for the players, Dubai is one of the most popular grounds, with some even having their own apartments here.
“It’s won the tournament of the year award many times in the past, so it’s a very popular tournament. It’s not just one thing, it’s from the moment they arrive at the airport to when they leave. And the players are obviously pretty good judges of what is a good tournament.”
This year, one player was particularly happy in Dubai, and that was the victorious Roger Federer. The Swiss star, who was crowned champion for the fifth time in the emirate, brushed aside British player Andy Murray in straight sets in the final. Drewett says it is difficult to know who will win each tournament, given the inclusion of ten of the world’s best players, but Federer has been in with a good chance from the start.
“His record in terms of grand slams [is very good],” Drewett says. “It is unsurpassed in this kind of era.”
As for the prospect of new tournaments in the region, Drewett says it is unlikely ATP will be adding any new destinations, given the lack of space on the calendar.
“In terms of adding events, we are very comfortable with what we have now, and there is no immediate plan to add more events to this region. It is possible some time in the future, but I don’t see it happening in the short term. We have incredible demand for our events. I could add another 20 tournaments to the tour. But simply we don’t have the capacity. We have 62 events and there are only so many weeks in the calendar and only so many weeks the players can play.”
The only way for a new city to come into the tour at the moment is to purchase one of the existing memberships from another area, subject to ATP approval, he adds. However, it is very rare for new memberships to come on the market.
“If you want to have an ATP world tour event you have to be very patient, you have to wait for an opportunity to become available,” says Drewett. “Obviously we don’t talk about confidential [enquiries]. But we have many people constantly contacting us.”
The Grand Slams, of course, are very unlikely to be held anywhere else, he adds, given their long history of being held in the same markets. However, with tennis gaining more and more interest in the Middle East, Drewett sees no reason why the region couldn’t spawn its own world-class player.
“Events like this give young players the aspirations to become a tennis player, but you also need a very strong junior development programme at the grass roots,” he says. “Hopefully in the next five or ten years, with the two working together, you may end up with a great player.”