Whether it’s the FA Cup or Formula 1, watching archive footage of almost any major sporting event brings one thing to the fore for people like us: The impact of sponsorship and marketing has transformed the game… except that is, down at SW19.
While logos and branding have popped up on the shirts, the turf, the ground and the even the adjudicators across the entire sporting spectrum, at Wimbledon things look pretty much the same as they did in the days of Fred Perry.
So just why do big names rally round Brand Wimbledon?
Wimbledon’s marketing strategy contrasts sharply with the other three grand slams in the game. Courtside sponsorship is not permitted and the organiser’s “all white” rule means that the big brands behind Federer and friends need to keep their logos to an unobtrusive three inches square or less. Off the court, sponsorship opportunities are limited too, with organisers largely restricting opportunities to those providing essential services for the tournament; like clocks, computers and, erm… champagne.
By keeping the look and feel of the tournament clean, the stage is cleared for “Brand Wimbledon” to step up to the centre court argue the marketers, and the statistics seem to back-up the claim.
Racking up over five million hits during the two weeks of the competition last year, Wimbledon.org is the most visited of all the grand slam websites. Having established at least 24 licensees in seven different countries, the brand also beats all the others in the game when it comes to official merchandise: Wimbledon generates official merchandise revenues that outstrip those of Roland Garros – the second strongest Grand Slam brand – by five to one.
So while sponsors down at SW19 may not benefit from the courtside branding that comes with the other major tournaments, they’re drawn in by the brand prestige that comes with supporting what Wimbledon’s organisers call the world’s “premier tournament”. And while the marketing business may not like handing over cash without being able to call the tune, keeping the elite character of the Wimbledon show means businesses are never far from the sponsorship manager’s door.
Wimbledon’s roster of official sponsors actually sits quite respectably amongst the others. While they may be hard to spot on the courts, the tournament actually has 14 official suppliers including IBM, HSBC and Evian. That’s just a few short of the U.S. Open where players sport much larger logos and the courts are adorned with sponsorship advertisements.
IBM and Rolex are two of the tournament’s most established supporters and both brands have a presence on clocks and scoreboards across the Wimbledon courts. Since 2006 US operation Ralph Lauren has also been sneaking under the brand umpire’s nose with an innovative strategy that supplies designer gear to the tournament’s officials. No longer required to dust off the gym shorts and the plimsolls, today’s Wimbledon ball boys and girls are togged out with clothes that “feature high performance, fast-drying fabrics for maximum comfort and full range of motion”, says the RL communications team. (Anyone wondering what’s happened to Boris Becker’s dress sense in recent tournaments should note that the US designer is kitting him out too while he plays the pundit on BBC).
So how can Wimbledon sponsors make a racket?
If they’re hidden under a bushel on the court, what can these sponsors do to maximise a return from their investment on the other side of the fence. For most, it’s about leveraging the Wimbledon brand prestige via offsite events or “by association” tactics.
Official card to the tournament, AMEX, kicked off its multi year deal with Wimbledon in 2004 by hosting a four-day promotion called “Wimbledon at Tower Bridge.” The event featured a floating court on the Thames River with a live concert by Alicia Keys, a charity pro-celebrity tennis night, and giant live-screen coverage of the tournament. Meanwhile IBM and Rolex routinely build entire marketing campaign’s based solely on the equity afforded by their relationship with the tournament.
By keeping the ball firmly in its own court, Wimbledon has, arguably, become a brand that needs its sponsors less than it’s sponsors need it. At a reported cost of $10 million, Ralph Lauren’s deal is designed to put the Wimbledon logo on Lauren’s clothes rather than the other way around. Leveraging the prestige that comes with the Wimbledon brand delivers greater exposure in an elite European market it is keen to penetrate says the RL team. The business sells a 100-piece line of official Wimbledon attire online and in stores across Europe, the United States and Japan.
“Wimbledon is selling an experience,” says Nader Tavassoli, marketing professor at the London Business School. “That experience includes strawberries and cream, the grass courts and a sense of Britishness, maybe snobbishness even. The bride wearing white at a wedding is part of the tradition. Does it change the experience if the bride wears a miniskirt? I think it does.”
We might not have a winner on the court, but Britain’s been winning the game in marketing terms for years.