Any time a sports superstar exits the stage, questions abound regarding the vacuum created and the impact it will have on the sport and its fans. That is definitely the case with the G.O.A.T. of women’s tennis, Serena Williams, set to retire after the U.S. Open.
Sports are star-driven. The one-namers and record-setters inspire passionate interest and loyalty from avid fans in addition to attracting legions of casual observers who otherwise might direct their time and attention to other pursuits.
No doubt the powers that be in women’s tennis have long considered what will happen to tournament viewership and attendance in Serena’s absence—and what they can do to minimize any negative effect.
Although the Hologic WTA Tour and the USTA will likely step up marketing and promotion to cushion the blow, their pockets are only so deep. But the sport’s current and prospective corporate partners now have a golden opportunity to put their money where their mouths are and invest in building interest in women’s tennis and its top players.
They will have their work cut out for them, as there is not an obvious heir apparent player to get behind. The current top five women in the singles rankings are Iga Swiatek, Anett Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari, Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur. The highest ranked U.S. player is Jessica Pegula at No. 8, followed by Coco Gauff at No. 12.
While some of the usual suspects, including sporting goods and apparel brands that are already deeply rooted in the sport are likely candidates to redouble their support, the wide-open field creates space for new partners who want to support women’s sports but are looking for a cost-effective way to do it.
Whether and how they will go about doing so will be fascinating to watch in the coming months and as the 2023 season gets underway. As I wrote in a post last year, the process for how brands select individual athletes, celebrities and influencers to partner with leaves much to be desired, as “plenty of six- and seven-figure endorsement deals are done on the basis of a single fan poll and conversations with a coach or two. Except for the addition of a quick scan of social media, this selection “system” hasn’t really changed in 50 years.”
Corporate supporters of women’s tennis not only have a chance to keep the sport front and center with fans, they also could set an example of how to do it using consumer insights and other research that will align them with the best athletes, stories and content that will benefit everyone involved.