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Wimbledon 2023: The charm and mystique that make the tournament special

At Wimbledon, tennis almost always comes first. Yet, this cathedral of the game also pulls in millions of pounds in TV broadcasting rights and sponsorship deals

A fourth round match between Brandon Nakashima and Nick Kyrgios on Centre Court on 4 July 2022.
A fourth round match between Brandon Nakashima and Nick Kyrgios on Centre Court on 4 July 2022. (Getty Images)

In any other sporting event, a new sponsor would not be news at all. But at Wimbledon, the beginning of a new corporate partnership is a relatively rare event. Rolex and IBM, which provides match statistics, have had relationships with the All England Club since 1978 and 1990, respectively, Slazenger has been providing balls since 1902. Unlike other Grand Slam tournaments and football clubs, where stadiums look as if hit by a hailstorm of billboards and corporate logos on garish T-shirts assail the sports fan, at Wimbledon each sponsor has an assigned and relevant role—Slazenger provides the balls and Evian the bottled water sold at the tournament, for instance.

This year, the new sponsor is Barclays, which is replacing HSBC as the tournament’s official bank. Don’t expect to see giant Barclays advertising billboards on Centre Court, however. There are none. Barclays’ presence will be via the ATMs on site and in a Barclays “club” area, set away from the courts. The bank has also made the largest contribution in Wimbledon’s history to its foundation, which provides sporting opportunities for disadvantaged youth.

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For another example of how the All England Club builds relationships, look at the way it works with its debenture holders. Debentures, in this case akin to a bond but one that unusually pays no interest, have been used by the club for just over 100 years to finance all its major investment projects. The two main show courts have had concertina-styled roofs that reportedly cost £100 million (around 1,040 crore now) each installed in the past decade; these were financed by the sale of debentures.

The chief attraction of each debenture is that it provides a seat to either Centre Court or Court 1 for five years if bought when issued. The club has an elaborate system whereby debenture holders can dispose of their tickets and enjoy the premium of a couple of thousand pounds—and considerably more over the ticket price in the later stages of the tournament. Many do but most appear to simply enjoy the tournament. Last autumn, a retired banker in Hong Kong took advantage of the weakness of the pound and bought two Centre Court debentures of the 2021-25 series. Even though this means he will be able to attend the tournament for three years rather than five, owning a debenture gives the holder right of first refusal when the next Centre Court debentures are sold. The debentures had a face value of £80,000; the retired banker bought each for more than £100,000.

Buying a debenture in 2023 means fewer chances to be at Centre Court but the most recent resale of a debenture was for £115,000. A recent offer of £120,000 found no sellers, Dowgate Capital reports. There are less complicated ways to invest money, the retired banker wryly observes, but the attraction is attending Wimbledon rather than financial gain. Looking ahead to this year’s tournament, he has received a flurry of communication from the All England Club about how to sell the tickets if he wishes to and how to book tables for lunch in the debenture holders’ separate dining area. “You are treated as if you are a member of the club,” he says. He already plans to buy the next series of Centre Court debentures when they are offered to existing debenture holders.

Umpires oversee matches during the Wimbledon qualifying tennis tournament in Roehampton, west London, on 26 June.
Umpires oversee matches during the Wimbledon qualifying tennis tournament in Roehampton, west London, on 26 June. (AFP)

One of the relatively untold stories about Wimbledon is that the All England Club’s success has been built on Japanese-styled keiretsu principles of seeking and sustaining relationships with suppliers, sponsors, customers and employees. The average tennis fan may regard it as the defining Grand Slam tournament to win and a place of grass courts of yesteryear and strawberries and cream and scones at teatime, but the tournament is a management case study of a unique kind.

The carefully nurtured relationships with fans, debenture holders, sponsors and the local community suggest the All England Club intuitively follows the principles former Stanford University business professor Jim Collins identified as being part of the DNA of visionary companies, such as American Express and 3M, in Built To Last, the book he co-authored with Jerry Porras. Some of the characteristics such companies exhibit and that the All England Club has as well include that they are the premier institution in their industry, have been around since at least 1950 and have left an “indelible imprint” on the world while treating employees, customers and suppliers well. Some of the blue-blazered honorary stewards, all volunteers, who act as ushers in the stadiums, have been playing that role for a couple of decades. Other stewards help by charmingly welcoming the thousands of fans who queue in the park across the club for 500 Centre Court and 500 Court 1 tickets as well as a few thousand ground passes sold daily, even giving the overnight queuers a 6am wake-up call.

Another of the “only at Wimbledon” quirks that make the tournament special is that members of the British armed services and fire brigade are allowed to take leave to volunteer at the tournament. The practice began after World War II. In the 21st century, what it means is that instead of being pointed to your seat by an usher in a T-shirt with corporate insignia all over it, as would happen at other sporting events, a spectator at Wimbledon is likely to be escorted to their seating area by someone in military uniform. It’s not quite a presidential honour guard but there is ceremony to it.

The reason seats are rarely unused at Wimbledon is that the club operates an elaborate ballot system by which tennis clubs in the UK and members of its tennis association receive tickets. There is also a postal lottery system by which fans in the UK and overseas can apply for tickets at the end of December. Centre Court ticket holders leaving early hand their tickets to staff; anyone willing to queue then gets a chance to get on to Centre Court early evening, and the proceeds go to charity.

In all its actions, mostly good though occasionally stubborn and quixotic, the All England Club is guided by its mission statement: “We maintain The Championships as the premier tournament in the world—and on grass.” The All England Club was roundly criticised in 2018 when the Fifa World Cup finals clashed with the Wimbledon finals on a Sunday. But its logic was impeccable. It could not move the dates because the club had spearheaded an effort to expand the grass court season internationally—the tour had added a tournament in Stuttgart, Germany, a couple of years earlier—and it had to be played in summer.

Perhaps there was a certain amount of haughtiness to the decision not to change the dates. But being a tennis fundamentalist myself, I could not help but smile at the club’s confidence that there would be almost no empty seats at the final. The club went even further by choosing not to have a screen on the grounds that showed the football. When a few sports reporters in the press area used the TVs at their desks to watch the football alongside the tennis and spectators started to crowd the walkway nearby to peer in, the club instructed its security to lower the blinds so the TV sets were not visible to the public. It would have been disrespectful to the juniors’ match on Court 14 nearby to allow a posse of football fans to be loudly cheering another sport. Less admirably, the ban on Russian players last year after the invasion of Ukraine was ill-conceived, unjust and rightly condemned.

At Wimbledon, tennis almost always comes first. This is a large part of its charm and mystique. It is why the advertising, if it can even be called that, on Centre Court is restricted to small signs for IBM near the service speed indicator, and for Slazenger at the umpire’s chair. Puzzled by how this cathedral of tennis pulls in millions of pounds in TV broadcasting rights—the most recent contract renewal is with a private Chinese broadcaster—and in sponsorship deals, I interviewed the then commercial director at the All England Club, Mick Desmond, some years ago. He said that while the advertising at Wimbledon was “very subliminal”, research showed that brand recall was high, even though brands are making almost cameo appearances by the high-voltage, neon-lit standards we are accustomed to nowadays. The long relationships also mean the corporate “partners” continue to invest in the event. This year, IBM will use Artificial Intelligence to produce analyses of player performances that will help make predictions about a player’s most favourable path to the final by assessing match-ups against future opponents.

In his book Holding Court, the former chief executive of the club, Chris Gorringe reported that the club’s surplus (operating profits) from The Championships rose from £306.737 in 1979 to £27 million by the time he retired in 2005 because it became more aggressive about negotiating television rights and sponsorship deals. In the 1980s-90s, the club was helped by the fact that the late Mark McCormack, who founded the powerful sports management agency International Management Group, was a huge tennis fan who acted as if he was personally insulted by a low bid. Last year, the club made operating profits of £47 million, most of which is donated to the UK’s National Tennis Association. This has always seemed a poor use of the money by an organisation whose profits are derived from its uniquely British yet cosmopolitan appeal. In the UK itself, the National Health Service would be a more deserving option, while overseas countless charities could benefit.

This clubbiness aside, there are few clubs in the world where I have felt more welcome, whether as a fan queueing outside for hours in the early 2000s, with the club’s elderly volunteers in blue blazers updating us on when we could hope to get in, or as a member of the media since 2006, sitting very close to the action on Centre Court. I had started listening to the BBC radio commentary of Wimbledon in 1975 in Kolkata in a home that wouldn’t have a TV for another decade. In 1983, I had written my first Wimbledon preview for The Statesman and post-tournament wrap-ups for Kolkata-based publications a couple of years thereafter, relying mostly on radio commentary and a subscription to World Tennis, a US monthly that cost me most of my pocket money.

How I came to obtain a press pass at Wimbledon was completely unexpected. In early 2006, the Financial Times, which I then worked for in London, had published a weekend magazine cover story I had written on Roger Federer, arguing that he was possibly the most talented player the sport had seen. Richard Evans, a biographer of John McEnroe and a veteran of the tennis press corps whom I still meet every year at the tournament, casually mentioned the article to the press office.

Miraculously, the next day I found myself being escorted to the press seats on Centre Court by a member of the Royal Navy. The front row of the press section then seemed closer to the action than the Royal Box. It was early evening; the sun fell across Centre Court in dappled patches as if in an Impressionist painting. There was a kind of reverential hush as the gifted Swiss, Stanislas Wawrinka, battled the young Croatian, Mario Ančić, who would debut in the top 10 that month before injury eventually cut short his career.

Last year, I made my way up the staircase of the swanky and continually expanding media centre, walking past museum-quality black and white photographs of players such as Britain’s elegant 1977 champion Virginia Wade and Björn Borg, five-time winner between 1976-80, both of whom I had cheered for loudly while listening to the family Philips transistor radio in our dining room in Kolkata. In a corner on the third floor was a desk marked for the reporter from Mint. Incredibly, I had a desk of my own. As I have often felt watching sublime grass court tennis on Centre Court, where I have so often experienced tears of joy and goosebumps of disbelief, while oscillating between reverential silence and ecstatic applause, this seemed a blessing I did not deserve.

Rahul Jacob is a former Hong Kong bureau chief for the Financial Times, a former travel, food and drink editor of FT Weekend, and the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.

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