Serve the people

A cash boost for China Open

Serve the people

Zeng: a man of lowly rank

“I have been asked to announce that Baron von Cramm pulled a muscle in his thigh in his first game, and he much regrets that he was not able to play better.”

Such was the umpire’s announcement at the end of the 1936 Wimbledon final, which had concluded in 40 minutes.

The Baron – a German, with a reputation for gentlemanly manners – is also remembered for refusing to play ball with Nazi propagandists. He spent time in prison as a result.

But von Cramm also goes down in history as the last player to lose to a British man in a Wimbledon final. This year’s tournament was the 75th since Fred Perry won for Blighty, with a string of his countrymen disappointing the crowds at SW19 ever since.

Still, at least Fred did manage a Wimbledon victory (three, in fact). That still looks some way off for China’s highest-ranker on the men’s ATP tour. Zeng Shaoxuan’s ranking comes in at a less-than-stellar 370. He’s doing his best, no doubt. But commentators say that China’s lack of world-class male players is hampering the sport’s popularity in the country.

Others dispute that, saying tennis has been slow to throw off its ideological shackles as a quintessentially bourgeois sport (the Baron may have had an aristocratic word to say on that). Others blame a lack of courts, limiting playing opportunities for youngsters.

But at least China’s women are doing their bit, with the Chinese women’s game faring much better than the men’s.

There are now three Chinese ladies ranked in the top 50 players. Li Na and Zheng Jie, who both made the Australian Open semi-finals in January, are two of China’s most popular sports stars. Beijing wants to see that success become more commonplace, and is investing in tennis programmes across the country. One showpiece investment – a 10,000-seater show court with retractable roof in Beijing – will be unveiled for the China Open, which starts in October.

The WTA Tour, which runs the leading women’s professional tennis circuit, now wants to replicate the NBA’s success in cracking the China market. It estimates that 14 million people in China regularly play tennis, up from 1 million when the sport returned to the Olympics in 1988.

Last year, the WTA upgraded the China Open to one of its four new mandatory “crown jewel” events (joining two in the US and one in Madrid). These now fit just behind the four Grand Slam tournaments in the pecking order. The tour has also set up an office in Beijing to serve as headquarters for its Asia-Pacific operations and launched a series of grassroots programmes modelled on the NBA’s successful efforts in China.

To lure the best players to Beijing, the China Open is offering a $6.6 million prize pot, says the Beijing Youth Daily. The men are playing too, with six of the world’s top 10 committed to the event, including Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Robin Soderling. For the women’s event, in addition to Li and Zheng, big names like Serena and Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova will also be playing.

Advertisers are also on the scene. Mercedes-Benz has signed up this year as title sponsor. Rolex, Sony Ericsson and Chinese computer giant Lenovo are also on board as lead sponsors.

Ticket sales, on the other hand, are said to have been disappointing, with corporate sponsorship the main revenue stream. Reuters says that last year’s tournament saw only a quarter of seats filled.

“Sponsorship covered a high proportion of 70% of our revenue, compared to 50-60% in a mature event,” says China Open Commissioner Zhang Junhui.

But that is already an improvement, and the female stars have been integral to the better revenue mix. Zhang told Business Value that sponsorship accounted for as much as 85% of revenue when the China Open first started seven years ago. But thanks to the upgrading of the women’s tournament, ticket sales have been increasing, and now account for 20% of the event’s total revenue.

Organisers hope to build up spectator interest further over time. Last year the tournament entered into a media partnership with state-owned broadcaster CCTV, which has 740 million daily viewers.

The plan is to feature 26 of the tournament’s matches on CCTV channels.

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