A Slamming Success
When the China Open launched in 2004 as a small, ATP-only tournament, attendance was sparse and exposure was minimal. Expectations were low, too, because the sport’s focus was firmly entrenched in Europe and the United States.
This month, however, the combined ATP/WTA China Open welcomed 200,000 fans, and it is now the most-watched WTA tournament in the world, surpassing far more mature ones in the United States. Today, the WTA Tour has more events in China than it does in the U.S.
“I can remember in 2007, I think they had 29,000 spectators for the week, and now [it’s 200,000],” said WTA President Micky Lawler of the China Open, which took place in Beijing from Oct. 1-7. “It is just a completely different story, and the growth is just astronomical when you compare it to the States.”
According to the WTA, the global TV audience for the China events has grown from 4 million in 2014 to 35 million last year.
Location: North Beijing in part of Olympic Park
Venue size: 41.2 acres; 12 competition courts (4 in stadiums), six practice
Dates: Oct. 1-7
Chinese broadcasters: CCTV, iQiyi
Top international sponsors: Mercedes-Benz, Rolex
History: Inaugural year 2004 ATP only; added WTA event in 2005 and played back-to-back weeks; combined same-week event starting in 2009 with elevation of WTA stop to top status
Source: Sports Business Journal
Part of that is due to macro trends such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which sparked massive government investment in infrastructure and training, and the rise of top players, including the now-retired Li Na, a two-time Grand Slam champion.
But it’s also because of concerted efforts by the two tours to invest in China (the fourth stadium at the China Open is named after the late Brad Drewett, a top ATP executive who worked tirelessly on promoting China within tennis). When that government financing started flowing into sports, tennis was already on the ground and ready to take advantage.
Lawler herself is in the midst of a nearly two-month stretch in which she won’t leave Asia. The WTA is moving its season-ending championship to Shenzhen, China, next year (see sidebar), and the Wuhan Open is so influential that a subway stop in that Chinese city is named WTA, and the local university offers courses in running tennis tournaments.
The WTA went all-in, though, in 2009 when it elevated the Beijing event to one of its top-four tourneys out of 47 on the schedule. The men’s China Open event is one notch below the top tier of ATP events, though the tournament has ambitions to join that elite rank.
“Those behind this event are driven by a vision of showcasing Beijing much like Grand Slam cities do, combining the history and culture and industry of this nation’s capital,” said Tom Ross, the former longtime head of tennis at Octagon who is now in his second year as co-tournament director of the China Open.
The people Ross is referring to are the event’s owner, the Chinese company BYD Group, and the Chinese government. Given the public investment and control, that makes it hard to ascertain how profitable, if at all, the event is, though Ross said it certainly does not lose money.
“We have some 40 sponsors, at least a half dozen of those long-term partners are well into seven figures in their annual commitment to the China Open,” he said. “I can tell you the investment by those partners is closer in value to what the Grand Slams command than it is for most tour events.”
Besides the audience growth, perhaps the most telling indicator for the China Open’s potential is its demographic breakdown. According to tournament research, 70 percent of fans are under the age of 40. In the U.S., the average age of a WTA viewer is 55, and for the ATP it is 61, according to Magna Global.
“These [China] events are no longer in their infancy if you think about the number and caliber of tournaments, spectators, viewership, sponsorship, media coverage, and the increasing success of Chinese players on tour,” Ross said. “The sport is now in its adolescence here, and maturing nicely.”