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Fans and media were salivating over the match up held earlier today in Perth, Australia at the tennis exhibition called the Hopman Cup. Note: the general mainstream media doesn’t realize it’s a paid exhibition as you will notice in the clip below.
By far the most progressive in sports, tennis remains the only sport that draws the gender comparison and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. It started in the early 70s when 55 year old Bobby Riggs dismantled then number #1 Women’s tennis player in the world Margaret Court entitled the Mother’s Day Massacre. Four months later Billy Jean King then took the growing movement of gender equality to another level beyond tennis with the Battle of the Sexes tennis match. Ninety million American viewers tuned in to watch them play in the Houston Astrodome. Yet with all of the good that tennis has brought to women’s rights it led me to wonder.
ATP vs WTA or more simply put: Men vs Women
I was at an ITF 60k Tennis Tournament in Lancaster, PA in August and one thing that struck me was how much more impressive the women were as athletes in person as compared to on the television set. The power they hit with surprises you. Because I must be frank watching WTA matches on television is a snooze fest. I can count on one hand how many compelling matches I saw in 2018.
Wozniacki’s run in Australia from the semi-final’s onward.
Halep’s victory in Paris.
Serena’s meltdown at the US Open was memorable not for the tennis but the social commentary that followed. It robbed us and Osaka of recognizing the high level tennis she played.
That’s it off the top of my head.
It’s partly because the WTA lacked a good TV deal so they weren’t on TV much. They got over exposed at Wimbledon where there were too many WTA matches on Center Court that weren’t compelling match ups and were there just for gender equality purposes. I’m here to support women’s tennis. I just hate watching bad tennis and the women’s product is bad right now and I think I know the reason, but I’m not sure of the solution.
It’s the men’s fault. No seriously, the men are running around like gazelles on the tennis court making these incredible shots and gets that when you watch a women’s match it’s very vanilla. Here is a perfect example from the Next Gen finals in Milan, Italy.
Three great gets with friction slides that rip the rubber off the souls. We don’t get enough of that on the WTA Tour and most of it doesn’t have to do with the lack of female athleticism, it has mostly to do with shot selection and playing style. The top 50 WTA Players are loaded bashers with one-dimensional playing style, who bash the ball hard and if that doesn’t work, they bash it harder.
If you go thru the rankings, it’s hard to find a player that has a multi-dimensional playing style. In fairness to the WTA players, this mono dimensional strategy works. They are making a living, winning matches, and gaining valuable ranking points. But from a product development standpoint, they are stuck in malaise.
In sports, development and playing style starts in juniors and high school. One of the reasons the NFL has become a pass happy league that is breaking records held for decades is because coaches have adapted how they develop players. The run-pass-option that started in high school, advanced to college and is not a full flown package in professional football. Even traditional drop back quarterbacks like Tom Brady utilize RPO packages and miss direction to throw off the defense even though Brady at 41 years of age is no threat to run the football.
Coaches adopt and steal other concepts and repurpose into their playbook. This innovation has cause a shift in player’s development and recruitment. Men’s tennis has adapted to innovation in the way players are developed. Twenty years ago players over 6’3″ would never be considered viable clay court tennis players and clay court specialist like Rafael Nadal had little chance of advancing on fast surfaces such as grass. But as the Men’s evolve and push the playing style, the WTA product stays the same.
Living in NYC in the late 90’s I remember walking into a sports bar in Manhattan at 10pm on a Friday night and asking the bartender if we could watch the Australian Open Women’s Final on one of the TV’s. After an incredulous look, he found it. But since the late 90s and early 2000’s when Hingis, Williams Sisters, Kournikova, Seles, Capriati, Graf where playing for Grand Slam titles, we’ve been told tennis is cyclical. We’re going on twenty years now.
The playing styles were what made women’s tennis so interesting then. Hingis was a master tactician, Williams Sisters where amazing athletic specimens and ultimate competitive warriors. Graf was legend who ran around hitting forehands and knifing slice backhands. Monica Seles was a baseline hugger that chewed balls up and spit them out creating relentless pressure on her opponents. Seles uses signature two-handed shots on both forehand and backhands. Kournikova was crowd pleasing sex kitten that won two Grand Slam in doubles titles and created a crowd frenzy ever tournament she entered. The media would build them up and break them down along the way and prepare the world for the comeback story. None more famous then teen prodigy turned Grand Slam champion Jennifer Capriati.
Check out the first point in the middle of the second set of the ’93 Australian Open Final and you will see a stark difference in playing style to the current WTA product in 2018. Seles hits TWO bounce overheads on the first point! You will have to watch a lot of WTA matches to see this shot. The bounce overhead is not in many tool belts of the modern player WTA player. The tennis is simply incredible.
WTA Tennis doesn’t suffer from bad tennis players as much as suffers from bad optics. Mostly because we unconsciously compare the WTA to the ATP. Here is a court level comparison of both products shots from a fan’s phone to give you equal perspective from the highest priced seats at tennis tournaments with baseline perspective.
WTA Product / Court Level
ATP Product / Court Level
Both videos are a year old. The WTA video has 3k views the ATP video has 112k views.
DUNK CONTEST OR LAY UP LINE?
It’s like watching the NBA Slam Dunk competition and then trying to get pumped up for the layup line during pregame.
Lay Up Line at the University of Miami.
Actually, this was kind of pretty cool for a layup line down the street from where I live here in Coral Gables. But you get the point. Sports is about entertainment. Michael Jordan famous free throw dunk got 12 million views just in that version. The U of M basketball team has 816 views and counting.
To me, Women’s Tennis doesn’t suffer from sexism or lack of athleticism, it suffers from things that are under the control of the gatekeepers of the game: product development and player development. There isn’t enough innovation. The last big innovation in tennis was hawk eye line calling technology. Tournaments also started to see the value in brand and venue development. But you would be hard pressed to see much else outside of mainstream nutrition and off court training. The actual on court play has become stagnant and uninteresting.
I have a few suggestions to help the WTA cause as they come back into relevancy with their new Tennis Channel television contract set to start in 2019.
When I watch WTA and ITF women’s professional tennis matches you will notice what I call a 3 x 3 rule.
Make the player take 3 steps within 3 shots. Notice how Plishkova was going for broke on the return with short rallies and all or nothing line scraping returns. This is rampant on the WTA Tour and it’s killing the entertainment value of the product.
Players such as Monica Puig and Sloane Steven’s will win a major event and then not win a match for months. With such simplistic playing styles and little tools in their belt to combat different environments it’s hard for the public to support.
ME TOO MOVEMENT
The Me Too Movement has caused many to pause and reflect in empathy for the women’s movement. I takes some personal introspection to put yourself in the shoes of another person to see the world from their eyes.
If you find my own perspective alarming or down right sexists I was too wondering if my perspective was too narrow. Was I simply blinded by the ATP showmanship and shotmaking. So I dug further and looked up the analytics and not surprisingly the data supports the commentary as matches are filled with elevated unforced to winner ratios and low shot tolerance. A great website for data hounds who love tennis is: Tennis Abstract.
How many errors would you think a professional WTA tennis player would make in a 6-2, 6-4 first round win at a Grand Slam?
Check out the Winners to Errors ratio of Kaia Kanepi’s win over World #1 Simona Halep at this years US Open first round. The match lasted 1 hour and 16 minutes. But to achieve the lopsided and surprisingly easy win over the number one player in the world, Kanepi swung at the ball 215 times during the match. Out of these 215 touches, she missed 27 shots. This mean’s she missed 12.% of the time she touched the ball. It’s on the high side for a professional tennis player. But she made up for it with an aggressive mindset by knocking off 25 winners.
As you can see the typically lopsided error filled stat sheet isn’t a glaring red flag. It might be in other sports such as the NFL or NBA where every turnover is a momentum changing event that can swing and outcome. On the WTA Tour, errors are accepted as long as the intent is fundamentally sound. It’s a conundrum to the old expression, if it’s not broken don’t fix it.
As you can see, this hyper aggressive playing style works well for winning prize money and points, but it doesn’t translate well on the media devices people consume tennis on. Translation: it’s boring to watch. So players just spend a lot of time in the gym, getting stronger so they can bludgeon their way thru the draw. But when things aren’t working, you see lopsided losses from the world’s best players.
PERCEPTION & BRANDING
Do a search on YouTube and use the key words “women’s tennis” and see what pops up. Check out the options that google finds relevant of the women’s tennis brand
A breakdown of the fan base shows that the following key words are actively searched among match results including:
women’s tennis grunts
women’s tennis hot
women’s tennis moaning
As you can see a bit part of the brand is sex appeal. Short skirts and revealing tennis dresses are part of the game. Warm blooded males appreciate these efforts as well as female fashionistas.
Alize Cornet and the Double Standard Shirt Change
At last year’s oppressively hot US Open players were constantly changing their shirts. But when French Player Alize Cornet accidentally put her shirt on backwards in the changing room during the 10 minute break, she decided to flip it around quickly on court to keep play moving. Unbelievably, the Chair Umpire gave her a code violation for the quick flip.
Now when you search the term “Alize Co” on YouTube now the top searches are as follows:
alize cornet shirt change
alize cornet shirt
alize cornet drama
alize cornet code violation
This unfortunate and unfair double standard drives modern day feminism. Algorithmically speaking, this is Alize Cornet’s most notable claim to fame in her tennis career to date.
One area of concern the tennis fans are trying to understand is how to decipher all of the seeming exaggerated grunting and moaning on the tennis court. The high pitch in particular seems to be the most gnawing to the tennis fan. So much so it’s appearing as top google searches. It’s the equivalent of revving your engine in NASCAR or having someone scrape the metal on chalk board.
Which would you rather hear metaphorically speaking?
Navigating this sensitive topic isn’t easy. We don’t want to condemn the sounds of female athletes in the heat of the battle. They have little choice over the audible phonetic pitch as much as they have in any other part of their DNA including their height and eye color.
A lot of incredulous fans are starting to wonder what is authentic? When will it stop? And can you enforce it? It got so bad during the Australian Open last year that fans were visibly amused by the perceived showmanships of these questionable screams and the purpose of this harmony of yelps.
“As a courtesy to the players (no screaming during the rally).”
“It’s a comparison we shouldn’t even make. Female models earn more than male models and nobody says anything. Why? Because they have a larger following. In tennis too, whoever gathers a larger audience earns more”. (Rafael Nadal).
One relevant point that is often overlooked when comparing men to women in the world of entertainment is the concept of male gaze. One reason women are paid so much more than men in modeling can be argued from the biological imperative of the male gaze. Certainly, women’s apparel has much larger market share and customer base than men’s fashion, but feeding all of this is the fundamental male gaze. Women not only want to look good for themselves and their own self esteem, but that of the opposite sex and the same sex who many women feel are too critical of each other.
Social media feeds this competition amongst women and the need to look good and be better at all time. Of course, many bring it on themselves since no one is making them post the “selfies”. The dopamine rush of validation is strong and where followers, likes and emoticons are modern day status symbols.
Ratings as a measurement can be complicated in the world of tennis. During the Australian Open, half the country is tuned in to the mid summer event where it is the Super Bowl of Australia. Europe has similar enthusiasm for the sport of tennis.
In the United States ratings have declined significantly even as revenue for the US Open has passed 325 million dollars annually. The fortnight in NYC accounts for almost 10 percent of the market capitalization for the entire world of tennis. Yet, ratings are way down over the last 10, 20 and 30 years as cable television entered the marketplace and now wide spread digital distribution channels have even further diluted how consumer watch tennis.
US Tennis TV Ratings Downward Trend
90 Million Viewers: Battle of the Sexes: Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King 1973
11 Million Viewers: US Open Men’s Final: Borg vs McEnroe (1980)
7 Million Viewers: US Open Women’s Final: Serena vs Hingis (1999)
6 Million Viewers: Agassi vs Sampras US Open Final (2002)
2 Million Viewers: Nadal vs Berdych: Wimbledon Final (2010)
What these ratings tell me is fans like a story more than they like stars. Serena’s 3.6 million fans tuned in to watch her chase history at the 2018 Women’s Final as well as see if she would have another famous meltdown at the US Open.
Federer and Nadal crushed rating in 2017 Australian Open final which has a start time of 3am on the east coast of the United States and tallied a million viewers in the middle of the night. It has gone down as one of the greatest matches and stories in tennis and lives on on YouTube with over 3.5 million views on a single fan page.
“In tennis, the value is in the continuity,” says Tennis Channel CEO Ken Soloman. “The storytelling from beginning of week to end of week is the key.”
Tennis is a global and complicated business run by a mixed bag of acronym organizations that the general fan can’t keep up with. With international broadcast restrictions, television contracts and digital platforms Women’s tennis has plenty of opportunity to get the exposure they deserve. For the female gender, tennis is hands down the most lucrative sport to play as a woman and years ahead of it peer sports for player compensation thanks to Billy Jean King and the tennis community.
But to get its viewership back on a consistent basis, it needs more stories about the tennis and a healthy balance about the drama that goes with it and to me it starts on the practice court. Players need to be less one dimensional and have a diverse arsenal of tools they can rely on when Plan A doesn’t work.
Lets work from the WTA product to set the standard ie. control the screaming, tweak the rules and equipment. On the development side, coaches need to train players a more balanced playing style and training regiment, especially in the junior ranks.
Professional tour coaches need to create a greater emphasis on the serving game to create more holds and longer, more interesting rallies, where players aren’t simply swinging for the home run balls so often.
If the WTA can’t innovate, it’s going to be a long road waiting for the next cycle to come around. It’s been 17 years and counting….
Brian Lutz / Founder
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