Global Economics

Wimbledon, Incorporated


It's got champagne, strawberries, and great tennis, of course, but these days, the world's most famous grass-court tournament is big business

No British summer would be complete without a dose of bad weather and the Wimbledon tennis championship. This year, storm clouds have been delightfully rare over London, and the tennis is better than ever, with top players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Venus Williams battling for bragging rights at the world's most famous tennis tournament.

Yet there's a lot more to Wimbledon than thrilling play—and the famous strawberries and cream gobbled up by attendees. Dating back to 1877, "The Championships" has become a global brand that made almost $50 million in aftertax profit last year. Televised coverage of the two-week event now reaches 562 million homes in 178 countries, and 445,000 spectators, paying anywhere from $10 to $180 per ticket (at official prices), will pass through the gates before the tournament culminates with the men's final on July 6.

All this has made the championship a golden goose for the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which hosts the event. Big-name companies, such as Rolex, IBM (IBM), and HSBC (HBC) have signed up to get a piece of the action. Organizers even tapped Polo Ralph Lauren (RL) to design the uniforms for Wimbledon staff.

Tennis Bracelets, Anyone?

Revenue generated from these corporate sponsorships has wound its way back into the tournament. Among other things, it's helping fund a three-year, multimillion-dollar refurbishment of the main center court to bring its spectator capacity up to 15,000. When the work is complete in 2009, the arena will have a retractable roof to allow play to continue even when the weather turns wet. "We want to ensure that Wimbledon remains the tournament the players want to win and that, internationally, everyone wants to watch," says Tim Philips, the All England Club's chairman.

To broaden the tournament's appeal, the organizers also have branched into retail, launching 34 Wimbledon stores around the world that sell everything from logo-bearing towels to diamond-encrusted jewelry. Asia has been a big area of focus—14 stores now are open in China, and the All England Club ran a "Wimbledon Fair" alongside the AIG (AIG) Tennis Open in Tokyo last October to showcase tournament-related products.

In the U.S., Polo Ralph Lauren is featuring the clothes it created for Wimbledon in its boutique at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. The company expects to unveil similar Wimbledon-inspired clothing lines in stores across North America and Europe by the end of 2008.

Big Business for Players Too

While leveraging the Wimbledon brand globally has helped strengthen its bottom line, the All England Club also generates a sizable income from the tournament itself. Along with ticket sales, organizers expect to sell 17,000 bottles of champagne and 31 tons of strawberries between June 23 and July 6. Add to that 100,000 pints of beer and 130,000 lunches, and Wimbledon ranks among the largest annual sports-catering operations in Europe.

Of course, the tournament's economic clout also benefits the players who flock to London every summer. More than $23 million of prize money is up for grabs this year. The men's and women's singles winners will pocket $1.5 million each, and the doubles winners can expect $460,000 per pair.

So who's likely to walk off with this year's big-money trophies? Perennial favorite Roger Federer (who's chasing his sixth consecutive title) could face a tougher test this year against world No. 2 (and recent French Open champion) Rafael Nadal, though Nadal's not usually at his best on grass courts. On the women's side, sister duo Serena and Venus Williams look likely to match up in the July 5 women's final.

No matter the outcome, the Wimbledon tennis tournament will reap a windfall. It holds a special place in tennis' long history, but this traditional All England championship also is an ace at making money.

Scott is a reporter in BusinessWeek's London bureau .

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