Tuesday 13 November 2018 1:18 pm

Chris Kermode interview: ATP Tour chief on the men’s tennis circuit’s rebranding, efforts to attract new audiences and the future of London’s ATP Finals host status

The iceberg looming for men’s tennis is the shelf life of the superstar players who have virtually monopolised the game’s top prizes for the last decade – according to conventional wisdom, at least.

Chris Kermode, president and executive chairman of the ATP Tour, has bigger worries, however. For Kermode, the greatest challenge facing the elite men’s circuit is the advancing years of its fans – not those of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

The average age of the tennis television viewer is 61 and Kermode said in a presentation on Monday that sport generally is “failing to recognise the next audience”.

This is why, as the organisation’s flagship event, the season-ending ATP Finals, marks its 10th year at London’s O2, the Tour is taking the latest steps in its effort to repackage for a younger audience.

Today the ATP announces a new brand identity comprising a change of logo, slogan, visuals and the dropping of a word from its previous title, the ATP World Tour.

The rebranding is part of a wider strategy to draw casual tennis fans aged 24-45 who only engage with the game during grand slams to the 63 events that make up the ATP Tour calendar.

It also includes a specialist social media team, a new app due for launch next year and the accompanying slogan “Love It All” – in other words, not just the four major tournaments.

“This is putting a marker in the sand,” Kermode tells City A.M. “Tennis is in the best place it’s ever been, but it’s where we take it for the next 10 years. The rebrand is just part of that storytelling to set the cornerstones.”

Adapt and improve

The ATP has already raised eyebrows with more radical moves aimed at attracting new audiences.

It has embraced innovative broadcast platforms, selling the exclusive UK rights to its portfolio of events to Amazon Prime in a five-year deal which starts in 2019 and is said to be worth £50m.

The Next Gen ATP Finals, an event for the best young men’s players, has trialled first-to-five-games sets, shot clocks and Hawk-Eye technology for line calls instead of human judges since its arrival on the calendar 12 months ago.

A further addition to the schedule, the World Team Cup – a relaunched event seen as a rival to high-profile efforts to revamp the Davis Cup – is due to begin in 2020.

All this while the ATP enjoys unprecedented success, with total TV viewers doubling to 995m in the last decade and commercial income up 60 per cent to $147m since 2013, reflected in similar increases in prize money over the same period.

It’s fair to say Kermode doesn’t subscribe to the theory “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

“It’s a semi-valid argument. But my view is that when you have that mentality you will start to go backwards,” says the Englishman. “Every single year I think you have to try to adapt and improve. And it’s the same with the overall concept of the ATP Tour. Here we are, in this best position, but we’ve got to evolve and move forward.”

Engaging a new audience

Tennis traditionalists needn’t weep into their Tiger Tim T-shirts, however: Kermode’s commitment to change is balanced by a pragmatic streak.

He has pledged that innovations trialled at the Next Gen event will only be widely adopted if there is hard evidence in favour and is sceptical of the view that shorter formats are the key to attracting younger viewers.

“The big issue for me is that everyone is making this massive assumption that the importance of engaging with a new audience is making it shorter. I think it’s only a fraction of the problem,” he says. “If a product is boring for six hours it’s still boring for six minutes.”

The ATP also resisted the temptation to market the Tour at teens. “I think it’s a sport that you come to as you mature,” the 53-year-old, who played and coached professionally before moving into administration.

“As you get older and you become a more knowledgeable sports fan, you can start to see the nuances of the sport and you appreciate it more.”

Finals decision won't be money-grab

One of the next big decisions facing the Tour is over the future of the ATP Finals, with London’s status as host city uncertain beyond its existing contract, which ends in 2020.

Deloitte, engaged to test the market, received 40 expressions of interest before last week’s bid deadline and a shortlist is due to be announced next month.

A final decision is slated for March, before Britain is due to leave the EU, but Kermode plays down the impact of Brexit on The O2’s hopes of retaining an event that attracts 250,000 spectators over its eight-day run.

“Everyone on the shortlist will have positives and negatives,” he says. “Will Brexit be part of the conversation? It’ll be an element of it but it’s certainly not the focus because it’s too unknown at this stage. There are many, many other contributing factors.”

The tournament currently contributes 15 per cent of the ATP’s revenue and that figure could increase if a super-wealthy Gulf state keen to grow its sporting activity, such as Saudi Arabia, were to land the Finals.

“It’s our season-ending finale, so we will not be making any decision lightly,” says Kermode.

“We have built real equity in London and made it part of the sporting calendar. We will not be throwing that away lightly.

“Finances are a part of it, but it’s about the statement of where you move to, the funding, the attendance and the messaging for our storytelling for the whole season. This will not be a money-grab exercise.”

Kermode is fond of framing talk of change at the ATP in terms of making the Tour ready for the next 10 years, although he concedes it is difficult to know what tennis will look like in 2028, when even the evergreen Federer will have long since hung up his racket.

“It’s very difficult to know. I hope that the sport will at worst retain the levels it has now, which are the best it’s been in its history,” he says.

“But the aim for the ATP is to see whether we can go beyond that and reach new audiences, new markets and make it as global as possible.”