Chris Kermode’s career as a professional tennis player was played out primarily on the Satellite circuit in the 1980s, where he reached a career-high world ranking of 742. Following his playing career, he went into the music business, before eventually moving back into tennis, where his track record as an innovator and visionary has seen him reach the highest echelons of the administrative side of the sport. Kermode stands as Executive Chairman and President of the ATP, the governing body of men’s professional tennis, at a time when many believe the sport to be at a crossroads. As many observers and fans worldwide prepare for the end of the so-called “Big Four” era in Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray, Kermode explains how he is leading the ATP through a key transition period in tennis.
It has been a privilege to preside as Executive Chairman and President of the ATP since January 2014. For more than a decade, men’s professional tennis has been in a golden generation of players that have taken the game to new heights. The likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray have attracted record audiences on-site, on television and online as the so-called “Big Four” have captivated audiences worldwide with titanic clashes on some of the biggest stages in world sport.
A supporting cast featuring the likes of Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martín del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and many more, has also played a critical role, and the depth of talent on the ATP World Tour has been phenomenal.
The sport has enjoyed tremendous growth during this time: total prize money at ATP World Tour tournaments will have more than doubled in the last 10 years, reaching US $135 million in 2018. The global television viewership for the ATP World Tour has grown by more than 100% since 2008, when a number of structural changes were made to the Tour. More than one billion viewers watched ATP World Tour tennis in 2016 – a tremendous milestone and achievement that the players have played a huge part in.
But, as many fans and observers think ahead to life after the ‘Big Four’, where does the sport go from here?
Finding an answer to this question is paramount. Roger and Rafa are two of the most iconic stars in sporting history. Their unexpected run to this year’s Australian Open final produced yet another massive spike in audience reach for men’s professional tennis. It’s hard to quantify precisely how much of the growth in the sport we have seen in the last 15 years or so should be attributed directly to them, but their contributions have been immense, both in terms of captivating audiences worldwide on the court, as well as leading by example away from the court.
“Attention spans are shorter and we need to be prepared to adapt our product, and the way we package and sell our product”
That being said, no player is bigger than the sport, and men’s tennis has an uncanny ability to consistently produce global stars that transcend the game. A look at some of the champions over the past 40 years – such as Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Becker, Agassi and Sampras – illustrates that. We’re confident in the ability of our sport to continue to do that, and we believe in the strength of our global platform of tournaments to continue to showcase the world’s greatest athletes.
The reality is that the sport is not going to lose the ‘Big Four’ from one year to the next. It will be a gradual process that will likely span three to five years, and that’s a long time in our sport. Where will the likes of Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Nick Kyrgios or Alexander Zverev be in five years’ time? We can’t predict which players will breakthrough on the biggest stages, yet we can have confidence in the capacity of our biggest tournaments to create stars in years to come.
As a governing body, we have a responsibility to look towards the future. That’s one reason why we’ve set up the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan this November – a new 21-and-under season finale tournament.
“Do we need shorter sets and matches? Would countdown clocks between points add to the spectacle?”
The future of men’s tennis looks promising, especially with such a strong group of emerging young players who come from such a geographically diverse spread, covering key markets around the world – from North America, to Europe, Asia, Australia and more. The ATP World Tour is one of the few truly global sports properties out there, spanning 64 tournaments in 31 countries across five continents, so to have a global spread of players is critical.
Just as importantly, the Next Gen ATP Finals will serve as a testing ground for innovation and any potential rule changes we are considering. Historically, trialling innovations or rule changes has been tough in what is a traditionally conservative sport. Yet I believe we have a responsibility to explore how we can change. We have a clean slate with this new event in Milan – a rare luxury – and we are going to make the most of it. Across everything we look at the objective will be to innovate without undermining the credibility and integrity of the competition.
So, in the coming weeks and months, we’ll be asking the fans what innovations they would like to see. As much as this event is about promoting the next generation of players, it’s also about determining how to attract the next generation of fans. Kids today are consuming entertainment in a completely different way to five years ago, never mind 20 years ago. Attention spans are shorter and we need to be prepared to adapt, package, and sell our product accordingly.
We expect this new event to provide us with some invaluable findings, not only in terms of what may work better for the product on court, but also for how we package, promote and sell the event and the players away from the court.
Do we need shorter sets and matches? Should electronic line calling replace traditional line judges? Would countdown clocks between points add to the spectacle? Do players need such a long warm up before matches? Do we provide adequate player access at tournaments to both media and fans? Should players be wearing wearable technology and how could that data enrich the fan experience? How do we effectively integrate social media channels with more traditional linear broadcast rights holders? These are just some of the questions that only scratch the surface of what we are potentially looking to address with this event.
At the end of it all, will everything we look at be successful? Almost certainly not. We may come through it all and determine that our rules should remain exactly as they are. But at the very least we will have had a look, and we will be all the more knowledgeable for it as we develop the sport for the future.