Now that Wimbledon has started at the All England Club, we are being fed the familiar images of quaintness and gentility: players walking into the arena, their all-white attire contrasting with the green of the lawns; blades of grass standing militarily upright on Centre Court and, of course, the obligatory strawberries and cream. The cameras pull back, and we see fans taking afternoon tea; and then pull farther to show Big Ben and the London skyline.
Yet for its undeniable charms, so much of Wimbledon's real appeal stems not from what you see, but from what you don't see. You'll notice that there are no corporate logos splayed on the playing surface. There are zero courtside billboards or rotating signs. No luxury suites with flat screens, stocked bars and carving boards to make the actual sporting event feel like so much background hum. During breaks in the action, note that there is no music, no sponsored dot races on the scoreboard, no unnaturally peppy cheerleaders or mascots air-cannoning T-shirts provided by still another sponsor. At no time will you hear the phrase, "Brought to you by... ."
Particularly in these sour economic times, most professional sports teams and leagues do everything short of looking under the bleachers for loose change in an effort to tap into new revenue streams. The Yankees have a sponsored pitching change. On the surface area of the Mets' scoreboard, there are logos representing 12 "corporate partners." Tennis events have gotten in on this land grab, too.
The companies that have a presence at Wimbledon? Centre Court features an understated Rolex insignia on the scoreboard. An IBM logo adorns the service-speed board. There is a small sign for Slazenger, the tournament's longtime ball provider. Finally, the umpire's chair is adorned with a worn decal for Robinson's, a brand of barley water. That's it.
Last month at the French Open, first-round play began on a Sunday, so organizers—stealing a leaf from the Olympics business playbook—could seduce the television partners with three weekends' worth of coverage. Wimbledon doesn't merely start on a Monday. It closes its gates on the middle Sunday, the most profitable day for sports broadcasting. Why? Way back when, the organizers reckoned that Sunday play would be disrespectful to the neighbors on their day of worship. And this hardened into tradition.
Wimbledon is broadcast on the terrestrial networks BBC and BBC1, which are publicly funded and air no commercials. The tournament receives a rights fee from the BBC, but surely another network—starting with the Rupert Murdoch--owned Sky—would happily cough up more dough. But, apart from the tradition, another network would mean less attractive hours of coverage. So the Beeb it is.
If fans would rather watch in person, they have that option, too. Most of the seats are distributed to members of the All England Club, but for the first 10 days of the tournament, Wimbledon makes 6,000 grounds passes and 500 Centre Court tickets available at face value to the "queuers." Mostly kids in their 20s, who look like they might otherwise be going to a Coldplay show, they camp out all night at a park near the courts. The next morning they fold up their tents and sleeping bags, wait in line and pay as little as ¬£50 ($80 or so) for a ticket. At the Super Bowl common fans paid more than $1,000 for a ticket, only to learn that the seats were in violation of the fire code. At tennis's Super Bowl equivalent, common fans can get in for less than $100.
It all leads to one of sports' great ironies. Wimbledon has a reputation for patrician elegance, even snobbishness. In truth, it's the most populist and least mercenary sporting event going. On television it looks like a Victorian era garden party. On the grounds it more closely resembles a minor league baseball game.
A management consultant would spit-take his Pimms pondering how much money the tournament leaves on the table each year. In 2010, for perspective, tennis's U.S. Open set a record for sponsorship revenue, with $60 million. The Australian Open brought in about $29 million in '09. An informed estimate puts the potential sponsorship for Wimbledon at more than $100 million. If the Mets can get $20 million in annual naming rights for Citi Field, imagine what, say, Barclays Centre Court or British Airways Court One would fetch. A deck or two of luxury suites in the two main stadiums would bring in millions. So would a ticketing scheme that more accurately reflects supply and demand.
Alan Mills, the longtime tournament referee, was once asked why the event bypassed so much revenue. He seemed confused by the question. It was pointed out, for example, that the U.S. Open took advantage of its real estate, going so far as to slather corporate logos on the umbrellas that shield the players from rain and sun during changeovers. He responded with a confused look. "If we did that, I suppose it wouldn't be Wimbledon, would it?"
No, it wouldn't.
Still, for all the money it passes up, Wimbledon makes out fine. The tournament doesn't disclose financials but last year reported a "surplus" (never the gauche "profit") of more than ¬£31 million ($50 million). Who knows how much of that comes from the equity of tradition, from being singularly resistant to easy money? Maybe the moral for sports properties is this: Sure, you can make money from selling your soul. But there's also value in hanging on to it.
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Famously elegant Wimbledon is, in truth, the MOST POPULIST SPORTING EVENT going.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW