THE 128 men's and women's players in the second round of the Australian Open (including Roger Federer, right) represented 35 countries; only six were from the U.S., which a decade ago typically had about four times that many players alive after round 1. While U.S. TV ratings of the sport are flagging, a far-reaching viewership is tuning in online. And elite-level training academies, once found almost exclusively in Florida, have opened in several countries including Spain and China. As tennis has transcended borders, deepening its talent pool and expanding its fan base, tournaments have left the U.S. for places such as Doha, Dubai, Johannesburg and Madrid.
That global reach has helped give tennis, at least temporarily, a buffer against the financial crisis. The American insurance giant AIG might have terminated its Davis Cup sponsorship, but the French bank BMP Paribas just decided to underwrite the prestigious tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., an investment, sources say, of $5 million a year over the next five years. Mercedes-Benz has withdrawn as a major ATP sponsor, but the circuit has newly negotiated deals with companies ranging from South African Airways to the British bank Barclays.
The ATP has hired Adam Helfant, formerly Nike's head of global marketing, as its executive chairman and president. Helfant lacks a tennis-insider pedigree but was chosen for his grasp of the larger marketplace. A New Yorker who graduated from Harvard Law School, Helfant will be based in London and will likely spend significant time in Dubai courting potential investors. ATP communications executive Kris Dent says the aim is to focus on "many different areas of the world where there are long-term opportunities both financially and from a fan-interest perspective."
At the Australian Open, prize money was up more than 12% (in Aussie dollars) from 2008, an increase made possible in part by tournament sponsorship agreements with companies such as the Korean carmaker Kia and the French-based cosmetics company Garnier. In all, ATP and WTA players will go after an unprecedented $181 million in prize money at roughly 120 events this year. The moral: True recession-proofing may be impossible in sports, but going global helps.