Can Pointless Wimbledon Maintain its Appeal?

Wimbledon has an aura of perfection. It is a British institution. With over 500,000 attendees each year, millions more on TV and multi-millions more online it is also one of the most prestigious events in world sport.

But as Wimbledon prepares to celebrate the Centenary of its famous Centre court in 2022, for perhaps the first time in history, its reputation as an internationally esteemed tournament is in question. 

This year more than ever, the players that take part will be determined to win it. That’s because, for the first time since the establishment of the ATP and WTA world rankings in the mid-1970s, reaching the latter stages of the tournament will receive nothing for their efforts in the form of ranking points, meaning this year’s event will contribute nothing towards their pursuit of becoming world number one.

The joint ATP/WTA decision to suspend the award of ranking points is the Tours’ retaliation against Wimbledon’s choice to ban Russian and Belarusian players from participating because of their nations’ involvement in the war in Ukraine.

Player responses have been mixed with many aggrieved at what they see as the penalising of individual players for the actions of their governments. Six-time and reigning Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic, himself barred from participating at the Australian Open (and potentially the US Open) because of his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19, has been critical of the tournament’s stance, said: “I think it [Wimbledon’s ban] was a wrong decision. I don’t support that at all. But at these times it is a sensitive subject and whatever you decide will create a lot of conflict.”

Meanwhile, four-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka complained: “I feel like if I play Wimbledon without points it’ll be more like an exhibition. I know this isn’t true, but my brain just feels like that way and whenever I think of something like an exhibition I just can’t go at it 100 percent.”

On the other hand, two-time Wimbledon winner Andy Murray tweeted: “I follow golf very closely and have no idea how many ranking points the winner of the Masters gets, me and my friends love football and none of us know or care how many ranking points a team gets for winning the World Cup… But I could tell you exactly who won the World Cup and the Masters. I’d hazard a guess that most people watching on Centre Court at Wimbledon in a few weeks’ time wouldn’t know or care about how many ranking points a player gets for winning a third-round match…But I guarantee they will remember who wins. Wimbledon will never be an exhibition and will never feel like an exhibition. The end.”

Murray’s claim seems fair, not least since Russian-born Natela Dzalamidze has taken the dramtic step to switch her nationality to Georgian to compete in SW19.

So, with players divided, what will the real impact be for this year’s tournament? Will its renowned prestige be tainted?

Sponsors of Wimbledon rely on playing talent to deliver messages of determination, grit, and resilience that they align their brands with. If the level of competition appears affected though, will consumers perceive such analogies as authentic or credible?

It is possible that the power of the players’ community will also disrupt commercial appeal. With some players far from happy, will they remain keen to work with tournament sponsors?

There is, perhaps, an opportunity for brand sponsors to lean into the concept of support for the players over and above the tournament, to become part of the player’s team. In the context of the reasons for the ban on certain players, this does seem a hazardous path to take though.

If anything, the furore seems to have had little impact on Wimbledon’s commercial appeal.

Sponsorship agreements with premium brands including Lanson, Ralph Lauren, Jaguar, HSBC and new arrivals Vodafone are testament to its timeless appeal. This is maintained despite the Championships being amongst the ‘cleanest’ sponsorship environments in the world, with very little on-court branding on show.

So, despite this year’s withdrawal of ranking points, Wimbledon never really has to prove its point to anyone.

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