Asia tennis commercial future remains bright

Updated: 2012-01-25 15:41


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MELBOURNE - Li Na and Peng Shuai's early exit from the Australian Open will effect its television penetration in China this year, but organisers are confident their long-term Asian strategy can offset the effects of any 'great switch off'.

Li's progress to last year's women's singles final witnessed a massive increase in cumulative television figures in China from 59 million in 2010 to 135 million in 2011, with almost 18 million tuning in for the title decider against Kim Clijsters.

Li and Zheng Jie had also made the semi-finals in 2010, though world number 17 Peng crashed out in the second round this year while Li and Zheng were beaten in the fourth.

"Television ratings are enormous (when Chinese players do well) and the falloff when players are knocked out does have an effect." Tennis Australia commercial director Steve Ayles told Reuters.

"But it's important to remember that people watch the Australian Open for the Australian Open," he added.

"It's a global event... and it really balances itself out with the global broadcasting, because people will still watch their own local players and ratings will continue to be high."

Ayles said the progress of Japan's Kei Nishikori to the  men's quarter-finals had also been a boost for their Asian exposure and organisers had noticed an increase in visitors from Japan and China this year, with ticket sales for Chinese tour packages up 30 percent from 2011.

The Australian Open branded itself as " The Grand Slam of  Asia/Pacific" more than a decade ago and Tennis Australia began to develop commercial partnerships and relationships throughout the continent.

The two singles trophies went on tours to three cities in China last October, while the tournament recruits ballkids from Asian countries and runs coaching and umpiring symposiums throughout the continent.

"Generally when we talk about out Asia-Pacific strategy the performance of any Asian players will help... but it's not just about (that)," Ayles said.

"It's about making sure you have got the programmes and activities going around those regions to directly benefit from that.

"The more you have got out there, the more tentacles in place, then when these things (Asian player success) come along the more you can benefit."

Time Zones

One of the strategic benefits for the tournament was that it was in "the same time zones" as the major markets in East Asia, which boosted the value of its television contracts - contributing about 25 percent of tournament revenue.

Television exposure was critical Ayles added, to first get people engaged in the sport then as the middle classes grew in Asia with increased access to tennis facilities and coaching to get them playing.

"Tennis is becoming of greater interest but the accessibility of it has grown as well and it will continue to grow over the next 20 years.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that we are ready for that growth.

"The Australian Open is 100 years old and we're looking ahead not to the next 20 to 30 years but trying to ensure its next 100 years."

Despite projections of slowing growth in Asian economies, Ayles said the positive was they were still growing, which was only beneficial for the sport.

"In 20 years, these countries will still have more in terms of economic development and infrastructure, which leads to more people playing the sport, so we're not worried about it," he added.

The Australian Open, which earns about A$135 million ($141.27 million) in revenue a year, also partnered with state and federal government to leverage off the exposure the tournament received, Ayles said.

The partnership with government officials has become an increasingly important one, with intermittent suggestions in the past that the tournament could be moved to another venue either domestically, or to China.

Officials had committed to an A$800 million revamp of the venue, with an A$383 million project due to start shortly that will put a roof on Margaret Court Arena, the third showcourt, and be completed in time for 2015.

"The Australian Open is guaranteed in Melbourne for the next 30 years," Ayles said. "It's the Australian Open for a reason. I don't envisage it moving."

   ($1 = A$0.95)