London: The All England Club, home to the annual championships at Wimbledon, is embarking on a more challenging journey than winning the fabled Grand Slam of the sport. It is coveting higher viewership for Wimbledon and tennis in India, which remains under the spell of the Indian Premier League. This weekend, Wimbledon will host a two-day event at the St Regis in Mumbai centred around the men’s and women’s finals. The evening will feature stars such as doubles great Leander Paes and Ankita Raina, and actors from Bollywood and industry titans. The hope is that a boost to social media presence in India for Wimbledon will boost viewership on TV and streaming.
Wimbledon attracts 650 million viewers worldwide, but relatively few of those are in India. Having succeeded in raising viewership in Japan and in China, particularly over the last decade, the All England Club believes India could be next. “We believe India is one of those markets that is a great opportunity for us,” said Usama Al-Qassab, marketing and commercial director of the All England Club whose previous job was vice president of marketing at Disney+, part of The Walt Disney Company.
The huge hurdle for the All England Club, say experts, is that Indians are not very receptive to watching sport, despite what the IPL’s blockbuster success might suggest. Saurav Chatterjee, who runs the sports management firm High Life, points out that IPL’s success does not cross over to Ranji trophy events in cricket. Unlike the UK and Australia where the Ashes is a frequent subject of conversation this summer, test cricket seats don’t sell out in India, even if IPL does consistently. “Indian sport is very strange. When we are good at something—and we are not good at many sports—it becomes popular,” says Chatterjee, pointing to the example of badminton. “To get a country involved you need national champions.”
The All England Club knows this but buoyed by its success as the annual sporting event in the UK that delivers the highest economic boost to the country, it is hoping to attract some of the viewers who are riveted by IPL’s razzmatazz and regional loyalties. Last month, the Broadcast Audience Research Council revealed that even without counting the finals between Chennai Super Kings and Gujarat Titans, IPL had attracted 496 million viewers, an all-time record. It is unclear whether many of these viewers could be persuaded to watch tennis when most are immune to watching longer duration cricket.
Al-Qassab will not reveal how many viewers Star Sports attracts via its broadcast of Wimbledon but Chatterjee guesstimates that the number is limited to people who play tennis and a small upmarket viewership. The analog for the push to broaden the audience in India is China, where tennis has enjoyed a growing following, in part because the Association of Tennis Professionals moved the elite year-end Tennis Masters Cup to Shanghai in 2005 for a few years, where many tickets were given away and many were unsold. The event then moved to London, where it was far more successful at the O2 arena than the event had been in China.
A more lasting boost to tennis viewership in China has been the growing number of Chinese players in the men’s and women’s game, including in doubles. “Unfortunately, this is the lowest point in Indian tennis,” says Chatterjee. Raina lost in the first round of the qualifiers, while no Indian men even made it to the qualifying event. The lone survivor on the courts of All England Club lawns, at the end of play on Monday, is 43-year-old Rohan Bopanna. The doubles specialist was being warmly greeted by British spectators after winning his second round match on Monday, partnering with the Australian Matthew Ebden.
The only other Indian in the news at Wimbledon this year was a hapless Indian reporter who wandered into a press conference after Paula Badosa, the Spanish star, had retired injured because of a stress fracture. The reporter persisted with questions about her prospects in the tournament ahead, until he was informed by Badosa and the moderator that she had lost. “I lost. I didn’t win,” Badosa said in what has sadly become a popular first week meme. It was a reminder that the All England Club may find itself up against a herculean challenge trying to popularise tennis in India.
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.