Why you should care
Because women’s tennis may have discovered the sports marketing fountain of youth.
A trip through Simona Halep’s Instagram reveals a lot of what you’d expect from a 26-year-old — selfies, pics from a costume party, inspirational quotes — interspersed with reminders that she’s the world’s No. 1 female tennis player. In one practice video, she chases down a lob and fires a no-look, between-the-legs winner. Hundreds of her 625,000 followers reply to heap praise, in several languages, on the Romanian powerhouse.
Halep “absolutely kills it on social, because she’s got such a following,” says Heather Bowler, the Women’s Tennis Association senior vice president of marketing and communications. Social-media-savvy stars are a critical part of Bowler’s drive to appeal to younger fans. The numbers show a smash success.
Of 24 major sports surveyed, the average TV viewer got older from 2006 to 2016 in every one except women’s tennis.
In fact, according to the report conducted by Magna Global with the SportsBusiness Journal, the age of the average women’s tennis viewer fell dramatically, from 63 to 55 years old. That put women’s tennis in the middle of the pack when it comes to age range, still far from the 40ish average NBA or Major League Soccer viewer, but far better than the 64-year-old average men’s pro golf viewer.
“What makes it a story is that everybody else is just getting absolutely bludgeoned with the youth crowd,” says Laurence DeGaris, a sports marketing professor at the University of Indianapolis. DeGaris’ own research into professional sports fans in Indianapolis found many who stopped going to games for health reasons: “Sports fans are literally dying.”
Economic trends — from stagnant wages to student loans — put rising ticket prices out of reach for potential millennial fans. And few spring for a cable TV package anymore. That’s why the WTA is pushing hard on saturation streaming. Its WTA TV streaming service now makes every match in every event available online and on mobile, though the production values are often bare-bones compared with those of big networks. As the social media boom shows, fans are eager to delve into stars’ off-court lives, so the streaming service pushes behind-the-scenes video content to subscribers as well as to outlets like Yahoo, CNN and beIN Sports — the main TV broadcaster for WTA.
I’m not sure we would get any men’s sports knocking on our door.
Heather Bowler, Women’s Tennis Association
Streaming services are now commonplace, but women’s tennis’ push into alternative distribution channels is particularly urgent because it’s always been tougher to find the sport on TV than, say, football. And it hasn’t come without hiccups: At the beginning of 2017 when the WTA switched broadcasters for its overseas tournaments and left the men’s tennis streaming network but had not yet launched its own, a coverage gap meant that fans had to seek out pirated online streams for some matches — including Serena Williams’ first match in four months.
The minor uproar also showed how much the Williams sisters have driven women’s tennis popularity for two decades. DeGaris points out that the rise and fall in the average WTA viewer age tracks closely with the Williams phenomenon — much in the same way Tiger Woods brought a new audience to golf. “The big differences is the amount of marketing muscle that corporate America put behind Serena,” DeGaris says. “She got some great endorsements. Corporate partners can really promote a sport. Conversely, if you don’t get corporate support, it’s really hard to get a sport off the ground — like women’s pro soccer.”
Bowler, meanwhile, contends that Williams doesn’t drive audience so much as “the surprise wins and the charismatic players.” She points to Sloane Stephens, the shock U.S. Open winner last year who generated an instant following, and now boasts more than 250,000 Instagram followers. Bowler says the league gives social media and other brand-building pointers to its stars. It starts with “be yourself,” as the online audience can easily spot a fake.
Have other sports come to WTA asking for advice on how to appeal to Generations Y and Z? “No,” Bowler says. “And I’m not sure we would get any men’s sports knocking on our door.” But she’s confident the WTA does provide a model for women’s sports to be a self-sufficient business. Unlike the WNBA and others, the WTA doesn’t rely on a men’s league counterpart to stay afloat. “That’s a great place to be,” Bowler says. “But it’s not always an easy place to be.”