the tennis world are trying to engage younger viewers and they’re going about it the wrong way – here’s how a 19 year old thinks it should really be done

yasmin stefanie us open tennis

The deadline on this post is tight. I turn 20 in four days and I call myself a 19yo in the title so I need to get it up before my birthday because not to be dramatic but the younger I am for this post, the better it sounds. lol

Hello and welcome to my second points to defend! If you’re not familiar, it’s a lil series I created to talk about tennis related stuff without it needing to be time-bound to a recent tournament because I wanted a place to just be able to discuss anything related to the tennis world and also try to make people who don’t follow tennis aware of any issues that are present in the sport.

Just to catch you up before we get into this one – if you missed the last one that I wrote just before the US Open I spoke about the French Tennis Federation banning outfits like Serena’s catsuit and how people online were jumping to make comments with incorrect knowledge behind them just to look ~woke~, how some players had started opening up about their mental health which seems to be something we don’t really speak about in this sport, how we need to appreciate the big five even more than we already do – especially now that all five are technically back, and how I feel that we respond differently to different players showing the same negative behaviour depending on whether or not they’ve been framed in the media as a good guy or a bad guy, using Kyrgios and Lil Zverev as my examples.

This one is gonna be a bit diff because I’m gonna speak about one topic in full rather than a few in brief. It’s something insanely close to my heart and something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time. Tennis as a sport is trying to engage a younger audience and draw more people into watching the sport – especially ATP and WTA tournaments as well as just the Slams that casual viewers might watch one to four times a year – but as someone in the age group they’re trying to target and as someone who already watches tennis religiously, it is clear as day to me that nobody is using the right approach to actually do this. And as someone in the age group they’re trying to target who already watches tennis the way they want to encourage others to, I think I can warrant giving my two cents on how I think tennis should engage younger viewers.

You know when you see some teen TV shows or movies and you can just tell that they were created by a group of adults who actually have zero clue what younger people are doing with their lives so they just go with any stereotype they assume to be true? It always ends up as 30-90 minutes of some peppy kids shouting YOLO or swag or lit every two minutes and posting shit selfies and photos of everything they pass by in the street to Instagram. They think we’re always on our phones and always speaking in weird words and acronyms we’ve made up, so they overload the episode or movie with just that when, in reality, that’s probably 1% of what we actually do. In the nicest way possible, it feels a little like this is what lots of people in tennis are doing.

They think that the ~kidz~ have no attention span, so they’re introducing fast-4 sets to try and speed up the whole thing before we get bored and lose interest. They think we spend our lives on the Internet, and that just because Netflix and chill x is a phrase people say to take the piss that must mean we all exclusively watch things via streaming services, so they’re selling the rights to tennis coverage to online streaming platforms only. Let’s say the age group tennis wants to try and attract more fans from is anything under 30 – those age groups are either too young to work and make money, students in debt, or people working hard just to barely be able to afford the cost of living because the government and economy have fucked us over. Or maybe that’s our fault because we spend all our money on avocado toast x. Can most of this age group even afford fifty different streaming subscriptions unless our parents are paying for the whole family?

If there’s a way to go about engaging a younger audience, this isn’t it. I know what I want, I know what other people around my age want. I know what things got me to engage with tennis in the first place to know what works and what doesn’t, I’m basically your case study. Even if it is proven that fast-4 sets get more people watching or that selling tennis broadcasting rights to a streaming platform will attract a whole new audience, people won’t try out these new things if they didn’t already like tennis beforehand. So allow me – your case study, your test subject, your living proof, your guinea pig x – to tell you how I think we’ll be able to get a younger audience watching and engaging with tennis.

 yasmin stefanie us open tennis serena venus williams

it doesn’t matter if you make tennis quicker to watch when nobody cares about the players in the first place

The narrative at the moment in tennis seems to be ‘we need to make tennis really quick and fast to engage the kidzZzz‘, yet they forget that there’s a huge percentage of young people who will sit through a 90+ minute football match with the build up, halftime and reaction coverage on top of that. Young people will wake up in the middle of the night to watch a boxing match and spend time watching undercards before the main event. To me, the length of a tennis match isn’t the issue. If someone has free time to sit and watch over six hours of Kevin Anderson and John Isner’s Wimbledon match, they’ll sit and watch it – or, at the very least, leave it on TV while they do stuff around the house. If someone has to work or has plans, they won’t sit and watch it all, irrespective of age.

The #NextGenATP tournament plays a first to four games, best of five set format. After this year’s edition, which admittedly did create some amazing matches, and the lack of tight three-setters in the actual ATP Finals, people started talking about how the format the Next Gen Finals used might be good to introduce at some tournaments. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of pros of implementing this format at more tournaments, but ‘it’ll make the younger people more likely to watch tennis‘ is not one of them.

If someone doesn’t care about the players or the match in the first place, they won’t watch it no matter how fast or long the match will be. Tight matches are super engaging, you don’t want to leave or look away because you’re worried you might miss the one point that changes everything and finally decides the match after it’s been neck-and-neck so far, but people need to start watching that match from the beginning in order to build this drama to then keep on watching. The fast-4 set format is arguably one of the best creators of this I can’t miss a single second incase I miss the point that decides the whole match feeling because things can change so quickly but, as I keep saying, people need to have a reason to watch in the first place. A faster format doesn’t give them that reason to start watching, just to carry on if they already are. (Side note – funnily enough the other best creator of that feeling is the total opposite, a super long match when you’re deep into the final set of a Slam at some ridiculous 10-10 scoreline just waiting for someone to finally break).

A big way tennis can get over this hurdle and give people, especially a younger audience, a reason to start watching tennis in the first place is to give them something to care about, to get us invested in the players. They almost need to be made into celebrities to get people to care about them and start watching their matches. All of my friends know who Andy Murray is because we’re British and he’s milked to death in the press here. The man’s been knighted, he’s a full on famous British personality and so people end up more inclined to watch a match of his if they know it’s on or if they’re flicking through channels and see his name. Everyone knows who Serena is because she’s Serena. It’s the same as everyone knowing who Beyoncé is, there’s just that superstar power where everyone knows exactly who you’re talking about just by saying their first name. People who don’t watch tennis are far more likely to watch a tennis match if Serena is playing, just because it’s Serena. People know who Nadal is purely because he’s fit and he’s stripped down for Armani and Tommy Hilfiger adverts. It might not be the best way to know him – for his campaigns rather than his actual career – but however they’ve gotten to know him, it makes them a celebrity in his eyes and they’ll then end up watching his matches.

These are real life examples I’ve had from my friends, these are the reasons they know who Serena, Rafa and Andy are and don’t really know anyone else, maybe just Venus, Sharapova, Fed and Novak. And I have friends who had never ever heard of Federer before, they couldn’t even pronounce his name. Of course Federer is one of the world’s most marketable sportspeople and this far outweighs the fact that one teenager can’t even pronounce his name, but I do think that people who are into tennis just see Roger as this GOAT and sporting icon that surely everyone in the world must know when, newsflash, not everyone does.

We need to turn tennis players into Serenas. Obviously this is something that can’t completely be forced, and a lot of Serena’s star quality comes from her own personal journey, her story and her incredible talent and ability, but we can market tennis players as popular personalities like Serena. There might be some players who’d rather stick to being a tennis player and don’t care if they engage any new fans, and that’s fine, but for those who are willing to do some extra fun media bits to help up both their profile and the profile of tennis as a sport, they should be given the opportunity.

We need to know more about them in order to care about them, only when people care about a player will they care enough to watch their matches. From personal experience, I didn’t watch any tennis until Wimbledon 2013 and even then I exclusively watched Andy Murray because he was the only one I cared about because obvs being British he’s drilled into your head as one of our best sportspeople. I’d heard of the rest of the big four and of Serena and Venus so I started watching them when they were just on, and then by watching their opponents I got to know more players to then start watching them.

I think the problem in tennis is that we all hype up the same people constantly and don’t give fans or potential fans enough characters to potentially support and get invested in, it’s just the big four and the Williams sisters everywhere you look. All of whom deserve to be hyped up forever, but let’s turn more players into personalities to get emotionally invested in.

The ATP Uncovered videos and the similar videos that the WTA make are a nice lil way to do it, but should be distributed in a way where more people who aren’t existing tennis fans will see them. I absolutely loved the lil Next Gen behind the scenes reality show / documentary type thing that the ATP made over the course of the year and released recently during the Next Gen Finals. It’s such a good concept but wasn’t promoted anywhere near as much as it should’ve been! And Serena Williams’ HBO docu-series Being Serena (which I recommend to every single person in the whole entire world) gave the most amazing and relatable insight into her life both on and off court. Seeing more players in more humanised settings just going about their day to day life makes it a lot easier to invest and engage.

yasmin stefanie us open tennis

it doesn’t matter where you stream the coverage if that coverage isn’t engaging enough

A ~fun fact~ for you all, I care about this particular subject so much that with a few tweaks it may become my dissertation topic. Girl’s got it all figured out already x.

In the UK, Sky Sports used to have the US Open. Then Eurosport had all the Slams and now, as of this year, Amazon Prime Video UK took the US Open rights. It was also announced last year that the 2018 season would be the very last that the ATP Tour would be shown on Sky Sports, with it moving to Prime Video to join the US Open when the new season starts in a few days.

The guess is that, as well as Amazon outbidding Sky, the big bosses of tennis thought that streaming services were a good thing to tap into. They’ve done it fairly early for live sports coverage so it could be a clever early move but my concern is for the coverage itself.

We see issues with where tennis is broadcast all over the world. In the UK you get most of the British grass season on the BBC for free, you get some of the French Open on something like ITV4 for some reason, sometimes the Nitto ATP Finals also end up on the BBC, the Slams are on Eurosport – bar the US Open which used to be Sky, then went Eurosport and is now at home with Amazon Prime, the men’s tour has just left Sky for Prime, and the women’s tour is on BT. Confused? Me too babe.

There’s an international streaming platform for the men’s tour – Tennis TV – which also used to show WTA tennis but then that got taken off, it became super inaccessible to watch WTA tennis online, and now I think they’re getting their act together with their own streaming platform, WTA TV. Then there’s been issues with the accessibility of women’s tennis in America, but the WTA Tour is finally making its way back to Tennis Channel for 2019. It’s all a lot of hassle and I can see why each respective tour and the Slams are doing things the way they are but they all need to make sure the coverage is actually worthy of gaining a viewership. If tennis wants to engage a new, younger audience, putting it on Prime Video to entice the age group who watch more things on streaming platforms instead of a normal TV box is only half of the way there. The rest of the journey is making the coverage good enough for people to want to keep watching.

This, for me, is the sad thing about the ATP Tour leaving Sky Sports. Annabel, Greg and Marcus made the ATP Tour coverage good because they were a lil #squad x and you enjoyed watching the coverage for them as well as just the tennis. You wouldn’t switch off after the match because you’d wanna hear them chat shit for a bit just because they were great together. I’m not sure what Prime have in mind but as far as I’m aware it’s not those three as a trio, and that’s a loss for tennis coverage.

It’s as much about the people behind the coverage as it is about the coverage itself. Of course the match speaks for itself, but to sustain an audience as a broadcasting platform you need the right presenters, pundits and commentators. Anyone can watch a match anywhere, so if they have a choice between where they can watch it then all the other variables about how engaging the coverage is will come into play. If Amazon Prime don’t put together a good team for their coverage, people will stick to Tennis TV for the men’s tour.

And in terms of engaging a younger audience, you need to get on their level. Give us someone a bit #relatable pls. As times change and younger, newer faces break out onto each respective tour – think Shapo, Lil Zverev, Sabalenka and Osaka – we also need younger, newer people introduced into the mix of tennis coverage. The coverage needs to be a bit lighter, more fun. The younger players need younger presenters to talk to so there’s a bit of common ground. As amazing as an experienced, seasoned professional is, they will never understand what it was like for Shapovalov and Sabalenka to grow up because they didn’t grow up at the same time. A younger audience will see right through any lack of common ground between a middle-aged presenter and an up-and-coming, next gen player. There needs to be a lot more diversity in tennis coverage full stop, so as well as bringing more women in and making it more racially diverse, bring some younger people in to engage the younger audience.

You need to get the perfect mix of presenters, pundits and commentators with tennis coverage. Give us diversity, give us ex-players, give us genuine fans of the game who might not be able to play but bloody love to watch, give us people who are very precise and analytical in their commentary and others who give us more candid, real reactions, who shout along at the TV like the rest of us.

And let’s not forget that when it comes to live sport, timing is everything. The worst thing about Prime Video during the US Open, something I’m terrified for when they take over the normal ATP Tour soon, was that it was way way waaaaay behind, especially when you watched it on a TV instead of a laptop. It could be a whole game behind, and if you looked anywhere other than the TV the score would end up ruined for you. Twitter? Off limits. Live app that sends you notifications? Ruins everything. If they have the whole tour on a two minute delay it’s going to make them look pretty bad, and there’s no point to watch the match if the scores are being ruined for you online a few minutes before your stream gets there.

We need a shakeup in tennis coverage to get a new, younger audience engaged and watching tennis. Make the coverage worth watching as well as the match itself, give us a good buildup and a good roundup, give us good people to carry us through the match with their commentary. Most importantly, it’s 2018 (nearly 2019) – give us diversity. Race, gender, age, background, experience. We don’t just want three, middle-aged, white men in suits who made is to the quarter final of a Grand Slam 30 years ago telling us why Roger Federer is a superior being. We want people a bit more real and relatable.

 yasmin stefanie us open tennis

So. The TL;DR:

  • make the players someone we can get behind, turn them into these personalities that we want to support, turn them into people whose matches we want to watch and tune into, just to see them playing
  •  changing the format of tennis isn’t the answer, you need to get people watching in the first place before you can start changing the format because, let’s face it, the format of tennis is ridiculously difficult to understand. I’ve been watching since wimbledon 2013, first casually and then religiously, and I don’t think I fully understood everything until last year
  • make tennis something we want to watch – make it accessible, make it worth watching beyond the match itself
  • the human aspect is the most important here – it’s the driving force behind my two big points. turn the players into people we care about, and turn the presenters, pundits and commentators behind the coverage into people we care about. once you’ve got the emotional, human interest there, you’ll keep people coming back.

I guess I’ll leave it there because this has been awfully long. I’ve been planning this post and working on it bit by bit for way too long, I’ll never be able to properly articulate what I mean if I haven’t been able to already so I thought I may as well just put this up now, and hope that you understand what I mean and where I’m coming from. I’d love to see the landscape change in tennis and more people start watching and enjoying the sport.

Less than a week to go til the 2019 season!! Buzzin.


Yasmin

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