PGA Shows Online’s Ability to Attract International Fans

Omniture data showed South Korea accounted for .9% of Turner’s record setting web traffic for Thursday of last weekend’s PGA Championship, ranging up to 2.3% for Sunday’s final round. In absolute numbers the 30-50k unique users may not move the needle, and Y.E. Yang may not be the player that captivates a nation (at least yet). However, take South Korea, add in the many other countries on that side of the globe with an interest in the sport, either because of Tiger or country representation in the tournament, and on the aggregate these fans add significant valuable.

I’ve wrote about this in the past – golf and tennis are two of the sports that can most benefit from live streaming and in-depth, user oriented online coverage. The individual play that creates simultaneous action in multiple locations, and international tilt of the players create an opportunity. Golf embraced live, free online streaming last year, tennis more so this year, thankfully removing the pay wall from Wimbledon – or maybe not. Live streaming does call for a “fremmium” model, free sampling of coverage provided by the network, then a fee-based service to give users the opportunity to control their own experience, follow who they want, get advanced stats, etc.

Neither sport is their yet. South Korea tunes in and they want to Yang. England tunes in to tennis and they only care about Andy Murray. Digital providers need to allow fans to really customize their experience and give them the tools to watch any player they want online. Provide access to archives of that player, let them see his/her greatest shots, past performance at the tournament, even throw a camera on the practice range. An all-encompassing experience needs to be possible.

Not everything must be HD or professionally shot, sometimes a web-cam in the sky is sufficient for a tertiary view to feed the long-tail of viewer interest. Leagues can generate engagement with the data and archived video they already own. Once they put all of that online in an accessible format, expenses to provide the customized experience should remain low, with potential revenue increasing.

As a marketing tool, which digital is though people often forget this point, it promotes the game in these various countries. Live streaming, minimal spending on aggressive viral awareness campaigns can lead to audience sampling, and if they like what they see these sports can start to build a sustainable audience into the future. This increases the value of holding international events, selling international television rights, selling separate sponsorships through the digital platform, and someday integrating more overseas sponsors into live events), if they can generate enough interest.

With TV ratings suffering, particularly on the women’s side, and TV coverage waning between majors, online is a critical component to the long-time sustainability of these sports. It can drive attendance, introduce new revenue streams, enhance ancillary revenue streams, and most importantly build a new fan base.

Nadal Makes Smart Marketing Decision By Keeping Current Look

As the US Open began Monday, word leaked that Rafael Nadal, fresh off his gold medal and carrying the #1 ranking for the first time, was leaving his teen idol days behind for the more conservative traditional tennis look. When he took the court we saw Nadal and Nike scrapped the plan. Top-seeded Nadal decided to stick with his current wardrobe through the Open, preferring not to change on short notice before a big tournament.

Whether he didn’t have time to break in the new duds, or he simply doesn’t like the idea, Nadal should make this a permanent decision. Tennis oozes conservatism and lacks popularity. Each generation boasts a champion with flair – from McEnroe to Connors to Agassi, even Boris Becker brought a certain energy to the court. Federer and Sampras are all-time great players, but their stoicism only garners the interest and respect of the most die-hard tennis followers. Tennis needs Nadal to hold the torch for this generation.

His management team and endorsers may want Nadal to move away from the teen heartthrob days, but they can do it without losing style or deferring to the traditional tennis white uniform. Right now to the casual tennis fan, Nadal is the new kid on the block, the upstart that unseated Federer. Long shorts and bright shirts with cut-off sleeves to show off his muscular build define Rafa. Like they say in Vegas, let it ride. He just ascended to the top, take advantage for awhile, sell him as the top player before deciding he needs to phase into a new part of his career.

He stands out in a sport defined by blandness. Nadal’s look is unique, his game elite, and his accolades rank among the best. He could draw the casual sports fans back to the tennis courts. He may not display the passionate behavior of a McEnroe, but his image pervades it. In addition, Nadal speaks at least three languages and has the looks to appeal to the broader audience.

Traditional tennis sponsors like high end watch retailers and luxury car brands can still leverage Nadal because his personality is polished and professional, while his attire and fan base attract a different set of marketers. The conflict may not work forever, but now it opens the door to marketing deals from two diverse sets of endorsers. Nadal can have that younger appeal to move tennis into the Web 2.0 era of social networking. Important, not because of the additional revenue it may generate, but because that’s where the young fans are, the fans tennis needs to sustain itself in the future, the age group tennis executives want playing the game now.

And while we haven’t seen the new wardrobe Nike planned for Nadal, there are ways to remain on the cutting edge of style without going to the boring all-white tennis look.

New King of Tennis

Never count out the champion until they are completely dead. The Spurs remained the favorites until beaten, the Yankees are always lurking until the last out of the playoffs, Tiger is a threat until the 72nd hold on Sunday. Roger Federer took that concept to a new level on Sunday, refusing to die, before finally succumbing to Rafael Nadal after 4-hours 48-minutes of playing, 6-hours 16-minutes since the players took the court, and five legendary sets.

The longest mens singles final on record went right to the brink of darkness. Nadal winning the first two sets 6-4, 6-4 by holding serve and breaking Federer once in each set. It appeared the 22-year-old Spaniard was on the brink of accomplishing the unthinkable, sweeping Federer on grass. Nadal had more spring to his step, was a step quicker, and had Federer on his heels.

Federer was walking the plank in the  third set before a rain delay broke Nadal’s momentum. After exchanging breaks the set went to a tiebreak, where Federer is virtually unbeatable at Wimbledon, and he continue his dominance in tiebreaks taking the set.

The fourth set stayed on serve, leading to another tiebreak. This time Federer served with his 40-match streak on the line, down to his last breathe. But each time the champion went to the stake, he responded like a true champion with an ace or forehand winner. Not to be outdone, Nadal continued his spectacular play, pushing Federer. Each time the trophy was within reach though, Nadal seemed to clinch the racket a little tighter, and allow nerves to get the better of him. Federer prevailed 10-8 in the tiebreak setting up a fantastic final set.

It quickly became evident neither player would lose this match, someone was going to win it. Nadal and Federer continue to top each other with amazing shots, captivating the audience, both at home and in-person. This was tennis at its best, two warriors exchanging blows. I didn’t have the opportunity to watch the Borg-McEnroe-Connors matches live, and was too young to appreciate the Becker-Lendl-Edberg battles, but I have no doubt this was as good if not better than any of those matches.

After Federer dropped the first set, I envisioned he would have a tough time winning because he simply could not break Nadal. Admittedly, after he won the second tiebreak, I did not know how Nadal would react, and put the momentum clearly behind Federer. A lesser man would crack. Not Nadal. He responded with his best tennis. Again, the top two players in the world held onto their respective serves for dear life all the way to 7-7. Wimbledon championships cannot be decided on tiebreaks – Advantage Nadal.

Federer simply could not break Nadal, converting only one break point in 13 chances. Credit Nadal, he remained aggressive and hit big time shots when he needed. Federer had him on the run during one rally late in the fifth set, Nadal running left, almost off the court, managed to hit a fore-hand passing shot right down the line for a winner. Absolutely amazing that he could even get to the ball, never mind muster the strength to hit a winner past Federer down the line, the only chance he had to win the point.

Not to be outdone, Federer continued to respond with his own array of clutch shots. WHen the pressure mounted, the champ responded with an ace, 25 in all. Federer also pulled off a beautiful cross-court backhand winner late in the fifth set, one of the best tennis shots you’ll ever see.

In the fifteenth game of the fifth set, Nadal broke through against Federer, then held serve, with the sun quickly setting on the All-England club, to win the set 9-7. Exhausted and exhilerated he laid out on the grass before approaching the net, his face filled with emotion, tears of happiness, to pay his respects to Federer.

Five straight titles, 40- straight wins, 65 straight on grass, all gone in what will go down as potentially the greatest match the hollowed grounds of WImbledon has ever seen. It’s hard to put in historic perspective the next day, but it will rank among the best championship matches played in tennis history.

The two men stood side by side, with dusk setting in, posing with their respective trophy’s. A formal changing of the guard. It appeared inevitable after Nadal’s dominance in France and close call at last year’s Wimbledon. Now the five-time WImbledon champion, 12-time Grand Slam winner, is no longer the best in the world. That distinction belongs to Nadal. With three straight Grand Slam losses, the question begins with how much more Federer has to give? Before answering, remember he lost in the Finals twice, and semi’s once – hint, he’s not done.

But the day and night belonged to Nadal. Remember the moment, it may very well be the most captivating tennis you see in your liftime.

Tennis At A Crossroads

Tennis has more problems than momentum right now, leaving the sport at risk of disappearing into oblivion on the US landscape along side such nice sports as Arena Football and Major League Soccer. Steeped in tradition, tennis has typically garnered strong interest in the US thanks to a lineage of notable stars on both the mens and womens side, now its in need of a new direction.

The mens tour is riddled with leadership problems. Management has allowed a betting scandal, much worse than Spygate can ever be, manifest itself and threaten the integrity of the sport. Then they decided to stir up controversy by shifting the schedule, creating lawsuits from tournaments dropped in status, and a revolt by players that led to the world’s Top 3 players positioning for spots on the board of governors to represent the players and prevent renewing the commissioner’s contract.

Meanwhile, Andy Roddick and James Blake, the two most prominent US players, have failed to live up to expectations. Both making a habit of early exits in Grand Slam tournaments. It all adds up to chaos.

The tour needs to find a strong leader with a plan immediately. A la Roger Goodell, the betting scandal must be addressed swiftly and sternly. It appears gambling outposts can provide solid evidence of match fixing. Penalty for a first offense is a one year ban and a million dollar fine, second offense is lifetime banishment. That will help clean the sport up quickly.

Next, address this scheduling issue with the players and tournaments. FInally, the sport needs a new image and a new marketing plan. Casual sports fans in the US hardly know Rafael Nadal, yet he is one of the cornerstones to this era of tennis. Perhaps the greatest clay court player ever, and currently second to only Roger Federer on all other surfaces, on the brink of surpassing him. Nadal speaks multiple languages, including English, is young and extremely marketable. Federer is already an all-time great. He appears in a few advertisements, notably the Gillette series with Tiger Woods (and now Derek Jeter) and has a lucrative deal with Nike. Yet, I don’t feel the American public knows Roger Federer. Not like they knew Sampras and Agassi, or McEnroe and Connors. Yes, neither Federer nor Nadal are American, but its turning into one of the better rivals in modern tennis, the sports must take advantage.

I can’t remember one time either man has been interviewed on radio or TV in the US. Networks and tour officials need to make this a year round effort, not just a one month push leading into the US Open. Tennis is a year round sport. ESPN should have these players on during the French and Wimbledon. Show us more McEnroe as well to stir the pot and draw attention to tennis.

Tennis is a great way to appeal to the upper class. Nadal and Federer should appear in commercials for luxury items and travel companies. Digital media fits tennis to a tee, given the simultaneous, densely packed action at tennis tournaments, and the international appeal. ESPN and NBC streamed Wimbledon matches – albeit at a cost. More than the matches, use viral marketing to get their names out, reach out to tennis players.

On the women’s side, I watched the Williams’ sisters Wimbledon final this morning, then wondered why they did not follow the path of Tiger Woods. Individual sport, father that pushed them from an early age, one of the first notable African-Americans to make a dent in a predominantly white sport, great human interest story, polarizing character, unbelieveable talent. Unfortunately, off the court issues cost the sisters a few years of dominance on the court in the middle of the decade. Still, why have they not transformed women’s tennis the way Tiger has golf?

As much as I’d like to believe it’s not the case in 2008, it could partially relate to gender. I’m not convinced. Tennis has not received the media coverage it deserves, nor has it pushed for it. The Williams’ sisters matches should have received tremendous hype this week, considering the are the only US link to the tournament right now, and they were both playing dominant tennis. Nothing, slicence.

Part of the problem, the game has changed signifcantly and many fans left. The days of tremendous volleys succumbed to the 145-mph serve thanks to technology advances, all but exttinguishing prolonged rallies. Tennis became unwatchable. And more fans have left without the appeal of a US rivalry, and none have come back. Eventually the standards board has to push back, though the sports has become less serve oriented in the past year or two.

Tennis needs to re-create its image and re-connect with its fan base. A weekend at Wimbledon featuring an all Williams women’s final and Nadal-Federer on the men’s side should generate the same buzz as Tiger in the final round of a major. While it will register on the sports landscape, it will not be nearly where it should.

Tennis Grand Slam Opens Digital Doors for ESPN

ESPN completed the coverage grand slam of tennis last week, inking a combined six-year, $140M deal in conjunction with The Tennis Channel for US Open cable coverage beginning next year. Included in the agreement, ESPN procured “massive amounts” of digital rights. Networks and leagues clearly realize digital is on the verge of becoming a prominent player in sports media – if it’s not already – as shown by its inclusion in recent contracts, such as this one and the NBA-TNT agreement. But what is included, how a monetary value is placed on it, and how the partners quantify the unknown future remains a question.

Including digital rights in TV contracts is step one of new media’s emergence on the sports landscape, a move away from the wild west of the unregulated Internet now that Internet video and mobile have become more prominent. The release mentions ESPN360.com coverage of matches during the ESPN2 TV window, rights for ESPN Mobile to stream events. Good start for now, however the contract is six years. Where will technology be in six years, three years, or even by time the deal starts in 2009? If ESPN holds the rights to take the US Open to any digital platforms that develop between now and then, its a coo for John Skipper and the worldwide leader. The network paid pennies on the dollar for digital rights, if you compare the $140M over six years to the previous cable deal with USA Network. Digital rights could feasibly bring in significantly more profit than the TV side, as revenues continue to increase and expenses remain low compared to television, especially the annual value of the rights fee paid to the USTA.

The next step in this maturation process is for leagues to peel off digital rights into separate contracts, almost how cable and broadcast television rights are separate. As digital consumption moves to mainstream, monetization increases, leagues stand to collect more rights fees by separating digital. New media contracts should never exceed two years anymore. ESPN wrapping up six years, as part of a TV deal is a great opportunity. A low-risk, high-reward to take advantage of an exploding market. Both technology and user habits shift so quick in today’s world, it’s impossible to predict a dollar value for digital media rights six years from now, never mind know what language needs to be included in the contract. Who knew the iPod would hold a place in sports media consumption six years ago?

Similar to my thoughts on golf, tennis is a perfect sport for new media because it has a massive amount of simultaneous action that goes untelevised, and it has international appeal. The simultaneous action gives ESPN the opportunity to further engage fans attending the event. They can only be at one court at one time watching one match. Tennis fans may have an interest in another match going on (streaming mobile), may want to know if a top seed is at risk of losing (text alert), or if a significant event occurs like an injury or miraculous shot (mobile highlights). This just scratches the surface. Incremental revenue is available by further engaging the current consumers. Fans are already at the event, maximize their consumption, these users want more. If research finds not enough people have the technology, look into a rental program, or handheld for a day.

Most tennis players are from outside the US, therefore many tennis fans don’t live in the US and may not watch ESPN or ESPN2. Further, many consumers may follow certain players and not care about the tournament as a whole. Give those users the opportunity to create their own experience. Beyond simple text alerts with player news, stream all the matches on ESPN Video that are not already on the network. It doesn’t cannibalize the audience, only non-televised matches stream online. Rather it supplements the audience by opening the door for fans that want to follow one specific player, or a matchup between two countrymen.

Interactivity is a cornerstone to new media. In terms of creating their own experience, allow users to select from one of a few camera angles to watch the match, as the NBA and TNT are experimenting with. Make the highlight reels that television uses to showcase a player, available online so a user watching a match can click and watch highlights, or a pre-recorded package about the player.

Social networking is another key aspect of interactivity. With each match, create some form of message board for fans of each player, and perhaps a separate one to comment specifically on a match. Let’s fans comment on a bad call, or a great shot, or the strategy a player is using, or why Roddick can’t get a first serve in. At this point, users at the match come back into play. Mobile social networks are growing, and live sports is a great place to engage a community. Make the users part of the process. Connect users at home with fans at the match.

Since I don’t know the details on availability of archived footage, I’ll avoid that discussion here, except to say its another opportunity for deeper engagement with users already drawn in.

Jumping back to online streaming of matches, ESPN holds monetization potential by charging for access. Ad-supported is the model of choice nowadays – the stream it and they will come, then we’ll figure out some way to monetize it mentality. Another approach is PPV style, similar to CBS College Sports and MLB.tv. ESPN does not stream live sports for Internet users today. The ESPN360 product requires a cable or satellite service provider. The network could create a player, stream select matches, then institute a tiered pricing model that charges users either per match, per day, or for the entire tournament, to stream the remaining matches – blackout free.

Take that one step farther, with all four grand slam events, ESPN can create offerings for users to purchase insider access for the tennis grand slam, or they can leverage the individual player fan market discussed earlier, and charge for all matches for a certain player, which is more of a glimpse at the possibilities than a true idea to move on.

New media remains a blip on the network television landscape, as far as viewership and revenue. Still, its a new opportunity for media companies to expand their reach and create new business. ESPN was smart to grab digital rights for six years, now its up to them to maximize those rights. Soon enough, networks will have to ante up for these rights, and possibly even compete with non-traditional online entities. New media success in sports stems comes down to three I’s: Instantaneous access, Information on-demand, and Interactivity. CBS started to deliver with MMOD in March, ESPN has a full year to make tennis, a more niche sport, more successful.