Wimbledon hopes royal-box celebrities will net Chinese fans

Wimbledon will be seeking to complete digital and television rights deals in China from 2018 © FT Montage/Getty

Zhang Shuai, 28, China’s highest ranked tennis player, has never progressed beyond the first round of singles at Wimbledon.

But as the tennis tournament gets under way next week, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club will be hoping she hits a run of form, as they target the young and affluent Chinese audience.

An estimated 280m people watched Wimbledon last year on CCTV-5, the sports channel of China’s state broadcaster, with an average of 13m tuning in at a given time, according to state media.

But Mick Desmond, commercial director of the All England Club, believes the event generates less interest in the Asian country than other Grand Slam tournaments, such as the French Open and Australian Open. Those rival events were boosted after they were won by Li Na, the female Chinese player and former women’s number two.

“[China is] one of the territories where our brand hasn’t been understood as much as it should be,” said Mr Desmond. “Therefore we’ve got to do a lot of hard work in terms of educating, sharing, trying to create content for media partners in territories like China.”

David Beckham and US Vogue editor Anna Wintour in Wimbledon’s royal box last year © Getty

Most of Wimbledon’s most important broadcast deals are locked up for many years. In the UK, the tournament’s agreement with the BBC runs until 2020; in Japan, its deal with NHK runs until 2019; in the US, its arrangement with ESPN runs until 2023.

So the biggest opportunity for growth comes from new markets, and Wimbledon will be seeking to complete digital and television rights deals in China from 2018.

Earlier this year, the All England Club created a digital partnership with Sina Sports, part of the Chinese digital conglomerate Sina, to focus on short clips and “snackable” content, designed to interest younger users.

“The Chinese culture in particular — I’m talking about TV and media culture — is very celebrity-based,” said Mr Desmond. “While we don’t want to over-glorify our royal box, the fact that we have a very global representation in the royal box, where there are Hollywood A-list actors and actresses, the royal family, leading sports stars from around the world — it’s great, there’s huge interest.”

Shuai Zhang of China in her match against Maria Sakkari of Greece last year © Getty

Wimbledon will also have a “chatbot” service on WeChat, the messaging platform run by Chinese internet group Tencent, through which hundreds of millions of users will be able to receive content about the Championships. During the past two years, the tournament has also taken its “Road to Wimbledon” junior tennis programme to Beijing and Nanjing, aiming to promote the game among young players in the country.

Mr Desmond said these efforts were focused on building audiences, rather than driven by commercial interests, but that China also represented one of the tournament’s best chances of short-term revenue growth.

According to the All England Club’s latest Companies House filing, income from broadcasters represents about half its 2016 revenue of £204.7m. Wimbledon’s organisers said that “a small number of key broadcast markets, notably the UK and the USA, provide the majority of that income”.

“In China, digital broadcast rights deals are more lucrative than TV broadcast deals, which are generally made with CCTV,” said Tom Elsden, a senior client manager of Mailman Group, a sports marketing company in Shanghai. “A typical digital rights deal for a grand slam tennis tournament would be worth several million dollars.”

Tennis deals pale in comparison with football and basketball. Last year, the NBA, the US basketball league, signed a five-year extension to its internet streaming deal with Tencent worth a reported $700m. In the same year, England’s Premier League also agreed a record $700m television rights deal with the Chinese digital broadcaster PPTV, which is owned by the Jiangsu-based online retailer Suning.

The ATP, the men’s tennis tour, struck a deal with Chinese broadcaster LeSports until 2020 worth $20m a year, although it lost this contract because of financing problems this year, Chinese media has reported.

Chinese online streaming site iQiyi’s 10-year contract with the WTA, the women’s tour, is reportedly worth a nine-digit amount.

“Tennis in China is becoming like tennis in Britain,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports enterprise at Salford Business School, who has studied China’s rising influence in sport. “It’s a preserve of the middle classes, an aspirational sport and a status symbol.

“Wimbledon will need a balancing act between promoting its traditions and being modern and progressive.”

Newsletter Signup

Want to recieve regular updates from us, sign up to our newsletter to be in the know.