Past misdeeds are catching up with the world of tennis. But the sport has a bright future out east
Tennis is in trouble. Last week it emerged that, over the last decade, 16 players of the top 50 were repeatedly flagged for match-fixing to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), the sport’s police. Doubts had arisen over a combination of suspiciously large bets and unlikely results on matches going back to 2003. No player ever got punished, however, and the TIU now stands accused of failing to uphold its “zero-tolerance” policy. It is responding by downplaying the problem.
That is an unforced error. Match-rigging could do a lot of damage to tennis. The gambling industry, which some value at up to $1 trillion, is now a bigger business than sport itself; modern technology is allowing this money to transfer fast and in less traceable ways. Tennis is an easy sport to fix, because only one player needs to be bribed. A serious push by organised crime could thus put a big dent in the game’s credibility. And once people stop believing, they'll simply stop watching.
Yet there are reasons to think tennis will bounce back. For one, the allegations presented in the media last week largely relate to a time before the TIU was established. They also lack specificity – no names were released – and hard evidence beyond betting patterns hasn't been disclosed. And while some say the existence of fixing is a well-known secret on the tour, insiders reckon tennis remains in a corruption league well below football or athletics anyway.
But the best reason to hope the game will weather the current storm does not lie in London (where the TIU’s headquarters are). It lies in Asia.
Tennis is one of the oldest widely played sports in the Western world. The US Open was created in 1881, 65 years before the NBA first formed. Like any mature corporate giant, the game is seeing its growth margins slim in Europe and North America, its core markets. A lacklustre economic recovery is adding to the pain.
Tennis must therefore focus on regions where it has yet to make a significant mark – and the world counts a number of them. But none offer as much potential as emerging Asia. The region’s stocks and currencies may have been smashed, but its GDP is still expected to expand by around 6 percent this year. Its fledging middle class carries on growing. About 25 million Americans – or 8 percent of the US population – play tennis. If 8 percent of China’s 1.3 billion did the same, the sport would get a massive lift.
On paper, of course, there’s no particular reason why the country would suddenly want to make tennis one of its favourite disciplines. But a mix of chance and shrewd strategising has already planted the seeds. And in some quarters of tennis, handsome fruit is ready to be picked.
Start with chance. Between 2011 and 2012, tennis TV viewership worldwide increased 60 percent. The boom coincided with a startling run of victories by China’s Li Na, who in 2011 reached the finals of the Australian Open and became the first Asian player – of either gender – to raise a Gran Slam trophy at the French one. Li then reached her career-high ranking of world No. 2 on 17 February 2014, after winning the Australian Open. Women’s tennis viewership rose 22.5 percent that year.
Li retired in September 2014, and a successor of her rank has yet to emerge. But last year again women’s tennis audience jumped 25 percent. That brought it to an all-time high of 395 million viewers. So how to explain the continued boom?
Part of the answer lies in the burgeoning class of champions Li has sown in her wake: China currently counts 12 women in the top 200. With the best of them ranked 83th in the world, these come somewhat short of their mentor’s achievements. But they can occasionally pull off amazing wins, as 112th-ranked Zhang Shuai proved by knocking world No. 2 Simona Halep out of the Australian Open last week (she did it again today).
But just as important has been the Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA) push into the Asian market. Thirteen of this year’s 62 women tournaments are being held in Asia ex-Australia, including six in mainland China (plus one in Hong Kong and one in Taiwan). There were only two in 2004. Events have explicitly been moved to give the tour a more eastern flavour: the Palermo tournament was relocated to Kuala Lumpur in 2013, for instance, while the WTA Finals – the season-ending showdown – is now held in Singapore.
The association’s bet is paying off. Its top-two events last year were the Beijing-based China Open (with 34.64 million viewers) and the WTA Finals (at 32.49 million). Relocating the latter has allowed WTA to clinch new, local sponsors such as luxury property developer SC Global Developments, Chinese finance house OCC Bank and Singapore isotonic drink 100Plus. The WTA Finals alone now accounts for 35 percent of the association’s revenues.
For a counterfactual, look at the men’s championship. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) only counts three tournaments in China, among five in emerging Asia. None of the events it is launching in 2016 will be held in the region (they’ll be in Bulgaria, Mexico and Belgium instead). ATP viewership, which at 1 billion admittedly started from a higher base, ‘only’ grew 10 percent last year.
The ATP’s less aggressive strategy in emerging Asia partly stems from the region’s puny representation on the court. China’s first and only man in the top 200 is Ze Zhang, ranked 193rd. Ze did catch the attention of his home country last year after playing in the Shanghai Masters – but that was because he talked to the press about the difficulties many lower-ranked players face today. “What I need most is money,” he said.
Talent development and industry coverage, granted, are running after each other like chicken and egg. Better domestic players attract more viewers which justify local tournaments that inspire new players. But it’s worth noting that the WTA initiated its pivot towards Asia in 2008 – well before Li Na became a superstar. “We made a big bet on Asia-Pacific,” WTA chief executive Stacey Allaster said recently. Perhaps it’s time her counterpart at the ATP also started gambling.
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