It’s now three years since Tie Break Tens was introduced to the world with its inaugural event held at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
The short-form tennis format has since gone on to host further events across the world in Vienna, Madrid, Melbourne and New York City, featuring many of the best male and female players on the ATP and WTA Tour.
Sport Industry Group sat down with Tie Break Tens CEO, Felicity Barnard, to talk the future of the event, its specific grassroots strategy and where it fits in the ever-expanding pro-tennis ecosystem.
What is Tie Break Tens USP?
Tie Break Tens sees itself as the short form of tennis, a very simple and easy to understand format, which can then be rolled out into grassroots programmes.
We are an easily digestible, exciting product which provides tennis fans and non-tennis fans with an entertaining and competitive spectacle and complements what’s currently happening.
It isn’t the same as The Laver Cup, which is very exciting as a team mentality, or the Davis Cup and the new ‘World Cup,’ which revolve around nations, and the tour with its ranking points.
Tie Break Tens is a tournament held over one evening with the world’s biggest stars, as well as new young players to get excited about. We have a couple of taglines, ‘every point counts’ and ‘anything can happen.’ That really is the case, as often the top seeded player that enters the tournament doesn’t win.
How do you see Tie Break Tens fitting into the tennis ecosystem?
The ATP and WTA tours are extremely busy, however, we certainly see ourselves as a complement to the current tours, because we offer something different.
We dovetail nicely and tend to sit alongside tournaments, featuring just before at the venue, or just before in a location nearby. It’s therefore a period when players would be present anyway.
I think there’s a shift in how tennis is going to be played out over the next few years and the Davis Cup is obviously making some amendments to its schedule. It’s an exciting time for the game, with lots of changes and innovations being developed. We are one of those.
It’s important that the fans also have enough headspace to watch. You can’t overload them with yet more of the same, which is why we work so hard on our product being different.
Who are your closest competitors in the tennis market?
From a short format, I consider that we are at the forefront of what we are doing. There are other short formats out there, Fast4 for example is very successful, developed by Tennis Australia. However, Fast4 doesn’t necessarily have tournaments in different places around the world with the huge stars that we do. So, it’s not really comparing apples with apples.
We see ourselves expanding into more tournaments as we move forward. The big challenge for us is to achieve as much scale as we can over the next few years and get as many people playing this format as we can.
How do you see your product evolving in response to other moves in the tennis market?
With any new product, it’s crucial to be able to explain it in one sentence. The scoring system is very simple and the fact that it’s on one night and is a knockout winner-takes-all format, so it’s important to retain that consistency.
If you look at all our tournaments, whilst we have tweaked from the first event that took place at the Royal Albert Hall in London (2015), we keep it relatively simple and regimented. In recent tournaments, the events are similar in the way they look, which helps in commercial conversations with sponsors and broadcasters.
To what extent was the concept inspired by the success of short-format (‘sportainment’ style) properties in other sports?
There are lots of examples, Fast5 in netball and Fast Net which are doing some exciting things. It’s something we keep in mind, because we know our product is exciting, different and entertaining. At our heart, we want to stay true and respectful of our sport, which is tennis. That’s why a lot of the rules are very similar.
You have to walk a very fine line behind totally radicalising some sports and essentially changing what the sport’s essence is, to make it entertainment and not become too gimmicky. If you do that, you lose your authenticity and can potentially lose your fans.
I actually think tennis gets bad press. It’s a sport with a lot of tradition, but mostly that’s because that tradition works so well. Look at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, they do their job exceptionally well. It’s not that they are stuck in their ways and need to change. Look at the last six months in tennis, this is actually a sport that is changing and is developing.
Tell us about Tie Break Tens’ grassroots offering.
In our infancy we identified with our partner, Wilson, a catchment of players that really are at risk of falling out of love with tennis and sport. That’s why we target it (TB10 Challenger Series) at 14-15-year-olds.
Research suggests, that at this age, particularly with females, they are off to senior school and suddenly there are exciting things to also focus on, so perhaps a love of sport may wane. What we did was create a series of tournaments at selected clubs throughout the UK, encouraging both girls and boys to play and get back into tennis.
Tie Break Tens is easy to roll out and offers a very short format event that can be started and finished in one evening. If you have two hours after school, the competitive tournament can be completed with a winner. Youngsters like competition and coming out with that end result.
We ran (TB10 Challenger Series) tournaments which culminated in a final in November at the National Tennis Centre where we crowned our winner, who was then sponsored by Wilson for a year. It was a test for us to see if this format worked and the kids loved it.
That was our philanthropic angle and it really does work, so we are going to roll it out with the USTA in New York.
Why is it important for you to have a grassroots proposition as a commercial property?
If you look across any sport, what is important is that you achieve notoriety through very exciting glitzy events like Tie Break Tens Live, but then also give people the opportunity and access to play. That’s how you grow the fanbase and ultimately that’s what’s important for us.
What we did commercially was we really thought about not only that age range is the target age that falls out of love with sport, but also what will be a commercially viable property for us. They are socially mobile individuals, so they can help us with marketing on social media, they can contribute with taglines and selfies.
What have been the main challenges you’ve faced in launching the property?
We’ve been going now for three years and are still in our infancy, but we’ve got ourselves into a place where we know our product and we’ve got some great partners. The biggest challenge is where do we go next? How do we expand and make the correct decisions?
Despite the fact that tennis is on television a lot, many cities and towns don’t actually get to touch and feel the product. We have some amazing opportunities to go to some far-flung places. Looking at how we run the business, how we do that in a scalable and sensitive way?
We have great relationships with the tennis stakeholders, whether that’s from organisational level, to a tournament level. We work hard on these relationships to make sure they know what we are doing. We are partnered with the biggest tournaments in the world, which is important as we respect what they are doing, but also everyone plays nicely together.
Our relationships with agencies and broadcasters are strengthening, manifesting in the fact that revenues are going up. That’s the biggest measure for me, that people are seeing the value.
Each event that we host sells more tickets. We sold out in Melbourne and sold 8,000 tickets in Madison Square Garden. Again, it’s quite quantifiable how everyone is taking it on.
The players also love it. It’s an amazing opportunity to win a significant amount of money for a relatively small amount of time.
Tie Break Tens also opens those players up to a new demographic of fans. We know that spectators that come to Tie Break Tennis are different from those that would go to a normal tennis tournament. In terms of endorsement deals and a following on social media, the players are provided access to a completely different crowd.
With regard to broadcast strategy, how important is linear TV to a modern, start-up property like Tie Break Tens?
As it’s so topical at the moment, there’s often this debate about linear vs. digital broadcasting. You can’t ignore that we still need to achieve as much scale as we can through a linear broadcaster, which is certainly one of the strategies we are going down.
Incidentally, when we are not broadcast around the world, we stream live on Facebook on our own channels, so you can access anywhere.
I think another USP about our product is that there so many different elements that can be clipped and modelled for social sharing digital broadcasts. There are lots of behind-the-scenes content that lends itself nicely to digital programming. You can series that content which is not necessarily the case for other tournaments or sports.
What feedback will you be taking forward into the future?
The most important feedback for us is to make sure it’s a 2/2.5-hour broadcast, which we stick to. The broadcasters love that. They can place adverts where they need to.
The broadcasters are the most influential for us at the moment. We see ourselves as an original content piece, which from a business model perspective is somewhere we are really going to thrive.
What we see as a huge benefit is that we have a definite broadcast window for tennis, where you know exactly who’s playing on that night, which tennis doesn’t offer always in other competitions.
Which are the target markets you are focusing on and why?
The USA is huge and Australia is another very big market for us. We would also love to explore China, a very big target for us.
Tennis is very strong here (in the UK), therefore we need to make sure that what we do complements what’s currently being done. We are exploring having an event here. We have our headquarters here and our challenge here has been from a grassroots effective, so it’s clearly a natural place to look at.
What priorities top the list moving into next year and beyond?
It would be expanding into four or six tournaments in 2019, that’s the plan, along with growth in our revenues through broadcast and sponsorship and then having expanded our Challenger Series into another two territories at least. So, having a regular Challenger Series that runs before our tournament in that country and culminates in a prize. I’d also hope to expand on the grassroots programme.
Have you a personal favourite of the Tie Break Tens tournaments so far?
They all have their own personality. Melbourne was incredibly slick. Tennis Australia have a well-oiled machine, so that just ran like clockwork. Having Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal there was the icing on the cake.
Madison Square Gardens is so special and having Serena come back after having her baby was incredible. I was also proud of that because it was a big move for us to make a women’s only tournament.