Over the past two lockdown-lost years, Covid has given the world’s four Grand Slam tennis tournaments – Australian Open, Wimbledon, French Open and US Open – a beating.
Some had to cancel their tournaments altogether, while the Grand Slams that did go ahead took place in sparsely attended – even empty – stadiums that sorely missed the impassioned urgency of the live spectator-generated soundtrack of oohs, aahs, shouts and jeers that helps make the game so compelling, and that had kept the organisers hitherto in sparkling financial health.
Ticket revenues at this year’s US Open are predicted to return to 2019 levels
This year, though, the full-on excitement is back. The post-pandemic crowds will be returning in droves and more enthusiastic than ever for thrills following last year’s astonishing breakthrough of British teenager Emma Raducanu, the first ever qualifier to win the US Open – indeed, any Grand Slam – with a sensational triumph that catapulted her to superstardom in a fortnight.
Beyond the fans and the fervour, however, the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments are very much about money. All four generate their revenues from sponsorships, broadcasting rights, tickets, concessions and merchandise sales. Will this year revitalise what used to be, pre-pandemic, very much a golden ticket?
The 2020 US Open was played to deserted courts, which reduced tournament revenues by a projected £115m – almost half the 2019 revenues. Fans were welcomed back to the 2021 tournament in September, although officials confirmed a dip in ticket demand. Fitch Ratings reports that paid attendance fell from 706,000 in 2019 to 592,000 in 2021.
Danny Zausner, COO of the USTA National Tennis Center, believes international travel bans, vaccination passes and the withdrawal of several big-name players, such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, hampered sales last year. Nonetheless, revenues were resilient and came in at £205m, down around 3.7% on 2019.
Wimbledon was protected against the pandemic with a £1.5m a year insurance policy that paid out £174m
The Fitch report confirms that while US Open ticket revenue fell 10% on 2019 levels, broadcasting revenues were 6.2% higher. It also predicts ticket revenues will return to 2019 levels this year, and year-on-year growth of 2% thereafter.
The tournament has managed to retain long-time sponsors such as Mercedes and JP Morgan through the pandemic, with long-term agreements in place.
Wimbledon was protected against the pandemic with a £1.5m a year insurance policy that paid out £174m in 2020. It meant the All England Lawn Tennis Club was largely unscathed despite the cancellation of the tournament that year.
Last year, the tournament was allowed a 50% capacity in the first week, climbing to full capacity for the semi-finals and finals. It made a surplus of £44m compared with £50.8m in 2019. The tournament is expected to make an estimated £60m from tickets and concessions this year, which would constitute a return to 2019 levels.
More than half of Wimbledon revenues come from long-term broadcast deals with the BBC and ESPN in the US. Wimbledon also generates £40m a year from 19 sponsors, according to sports intelligence service Sportcal. Partners such as Evian, Ralph Lauren and HSBC remained loyal to the tournament during the pandemic.
The Australian Open also suffered financial losses. While the 2019 tournament attracted one million fans and generated £213.9m revenues, Tennis Australia says it sustained a net loss of more than £57m in the 15 months around the delayed 2021 tournament, playing to restricted fan numbers.
The body's 2020/21 annual report shows Tennis Australia emptied its cash reserves of £45.6m and took a loan of £22.8m to cope with the impact of Covid. Its latest annual report showed a net loss of £57m from 30 June 2020 to 30 September 2021.
This year’s tournament – overshadowed by Novak Djokovic’s ban from the country – returned in January, with crowd capacity capped at 50%. As a result, further financial reductions are expected to continue into the next set of accounts. The cost of flying players from around the world to Melbourne and quarantining them for two weeks in hotels also put a huge financial burden on organisers this year.
2019 US Open revenues
Ticket sales (37%)
Merchandise and concessions (9%)
French officials are confident of bouncing back strongly thanks to long-term sponsorship deals
Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley remains optimistic about a surge in revenues driven by a growth of broadcast ratings and sponsorship deals. Australian Ash Barty’s historic Australian Open win in February smashed television ratings records, making it one of the most popular sporting moments of the past 20 years in the country.
Lucrative sponsorship deals have been secured and maintained with partners including Kia Motors, Rolex, ANZ Bank and Chinese water company Ganten. Tennis Australia also agreed deals with three sponsors ahead of the 2021 event – gas supplier Santos, whisky brand Canadian Club and technology company Uber.
A maximum of just 1,000 spectators were allowed each day at Roland Garros in 2020 after the French government insisted on tough restrictions to counter the resurgence of Covid for the French Open, which was pushed back from spring to autumn. The three main showcourts at Roland Garros also had 1,000 spectators in attendance during the first 10 days of the 2021 French Open, with the number increased from the quarter-finals. The limit of 1,000 fans a day represents a 97% reduction on 2019’s total attendance of almost 520,000.
The financial repercussions for the organisers are significant. In 2019, Roland Garros generated £212.6m, with ticket sales generating nearly 20% of total tournament revenues.
As with the rival Grand Slam tournaments, a decline in 2020 and 2021 revenues will be reversed, and French officials remain confident of bouncing back strongly this year thanks to the long-term nature of many sponsorship deals, coupled with the return of capacity crowds. Officials are also actively looking to expand revenues in China, India and the US.