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Fashion, film and TikTok: Tennis is experiencing a resurgence

By Jordan Valinsky, CNN

New York (CNN) — It’s not Zendaya’s fault you can’t stop thinking about tennis.

Her magnetic performance in “Challengers,” a movie about a ménage à trois that happens to have tennis in the background, might seem to have thrust the sport into the spotlight, but it’s becoming more popular in the past few years that it’s hard to escape.

The sport is surging on a global scale, with its biggest names fronting luxe fashion campaigns from Louis Vuitton to Loewe and stars gracing the cover of Vogue. Of course, there’s a TikTok angle, with the rise of #tenniscore videos garnering tens of millions of views, and yes, even that buzzy film, which was number one at the box office in its debut weekend.

In a world of megawatt sports stars, ESPN went with tennis and chose 23-time grand slam winner Serena Williams to host this year’s ESPY Awards, airing on ABC in July, perhaps as a testament that the sport is actually a draw again.

Tennis had its heydey in the 1970s and 80s but a resurgence began at the height of Covid-19 when it was one of the few activities people could play safely while socially distanced. Its popularity has only grown since, as there’s a changing of the guard among the top-ranked players that it’s attracting new eyes and corporate interests, like fashion and Hollywood, fueling a boon.

Not only are people just watching it, they’re actually hitting the courts: The United States Tennis Association (USTA) said that nearly 24 million people are currently playing tennis, marking four consecutive years of growth.

Brands are serving

The money is following: In the past year, the number of sponsorships jumped 41% and the number of brands advertising in tennis soared 40%, according to SponsorUnited, a sports and entertainment research platform, growing faster than many other sports including MLB, MLS and the NBA.

That’s the result of a “convergence of a few important factors,” according to Bob Lynch, CEO of SponsorUnited, including rising TV ratings for the Tennis Channel and major tournaments, the docuseries “Break Point” that had a two-season run on Netflix plus the growth of tennis players’ social media accounts.

Tennis is one the rare sports that plays nearly year-round with weekly tournaments across the world, so it “attracts a diverse, global and localized fan base, which gives brands the ability to target very specific audiences for specific reasons,” Lynch told CNN.

Want to promote Swiss tourism around the world? The country tapped its greatest tennis export Roger Federer to star in a campaign for just that, with one viral ad starring Anne Hathaway that garnered more than 100 million views on YouTube. Or want to advertise to an affluent audience? That explains all the banking logos surrounding the courts at Roland Garros in Paris.

Tennis is also going through a change of guard, especially on the men’s side with Rafael Nadal likely playing his final season and Novak Djokovic, who is still the world’s no. 1 men’s player, lately struggling. Popular players on the woman’s tour such as the Williams sisters have either retired, struggled with injuries or have taken a maternity leave such as former no. 1 Naomi Osaka.

That’s prompted an opening for many players, especially younger ones, including 2023 Wimbledon winner Carlos Alcaraz, who is just 21 years old, and Iga Świątek, the 22-year-old from Poland who has already won four grand slam titles, to become global superstars.

“Digitally native and content savvy younger players like Coco Gauff are becoming more prominent,” Lynch said. “Fans have more access to tennis athletes and their lives, interests and journeys than ever before due to the increased social exposure they receive, which allows them to become more influential to fans and brands alike.”

A scroll through Gauff’s Instagram page, where the 2023 US Open women’s final winner has nearly 2 million followers, shows her various sponsors mixed with photos from her personal life. Posts on her feed range from Barilla (the pasta maker signed her in 2019 to include its logo on her clothing), to speaking about how technology helps her practice in a Microsoft ad.

How players cash in

Another brand featured heavily on Gauff’s Instagram is New Balance, her official on-court outfitter that signed her when she was just 14 years old, which has since expanded to include a lineup of shoes that the 20-year-old helps design.

When Gauff won her first Grand Slam title last year, not only was she wearing a New Balance outfit designed for the US Open, but after winning, she donned a “Call Me Coco Champion” T-shirt that sold out within a few hours.

Although she’s the brand’s biggest player, she’s also part of a select few athletes that the privately owned apparel maker has deals with, trailing bigger outfitters such as Nike and Adidas.

“We say no a lot,” admits Evan Zeder, director of global sports marketing for New Balance’s tennis and baseball units. “We’re not looking to just sign a bunch of athletes to have a bunch of athletes.”

Its players, which also includes no. 14 men’s player Tommy Paul, get various forms of payment including retainers and bonuses from New Balance and clothes and footwear to wear on and off the court. Tennis is different because the athlete is wearing the brand head to toe and is the center of attention since it’s largely a solo sport.

Choosing a tennis player to sponsor takes trust on both sides, with New Balance having to prove that its clothes and shoes perform “on the highest levels of the sport” and avoid a public relations nightmare currently happening in baseball, but it’s “ultimately waiting for the right opportunities for the brand,” he told CNN.

“The opportunity for us to story tell with the athletes is more unique than any other sport out there because they’re not wearing a team or jersey, they’re wearing New Balance,” he said.

Fashion on the forefront

While New Balance is a relatively new clothier to enter the sport, others have been involved for decades. Lacoste, the French luxury brand, was born with tennis in mind since its start in 1933. After all, founder René Lacoste created the “polo shirt” that was made for tennis.

“Lacoste undoubtedly benefits from the greatest legitimacy in this universe thanks to its sporting roots, particularly in tennis,” said Lacoste’s Deputy CEO Catherine Spindler.

The crocodile-adorned brand has two of the biggest names in tennis who faced off against each other in the 2023 US Open men’s final: Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev, with the former easily winning.

Lacoste’s polo shirts have become a major part of the “tennis aesthetic,” or the luxury athleticism #tenniscore trending on social media. That’s perhaps not a surprise to Spindler because the sport “has always been associated with elegance, including from a sartorial point of view.”

“Recently, the influence of tennis on fashion has strengthened even further, and many are adopting the codes of this sport,” she told CNN. “Pieces from the tennis universe are highly praised and serve as sources of inspiration for everyone.”

Zendaya recently wore a custom-made Lacoste silhouette ensemble for her “Challengers” press stop in Australia, which is “further proof of the inspiration generated by tennis,” Spindler said.

Big business for booze

Tennis has not only raised the profile for clothing, but it’s a magnet for premium spirit brands too. The Australian Open serves up the Aperol Spritz. Roland Garros in Paris, which starts Sunday, has its Moët & Chandon champagne and no visit to Wimbledon, near London, is complete without a Pimm’s.

However, arguably the most popular cocktail in tennis is at the US Open: the Honey Deuce. The $22 drink mixes Grey Goose vodka, lemonade and Chambord and is topped with a honeydew melon ball. In 2023, a record-breaking 450,000 of these drinks were sold.

Alcohol brands trying to crack the US market see the growing popularity of tennis as an opportunity to introduce themselves to drinkers. Take Maestro Dobel, a tequila brand sold in the US since 2008 but overshadowed by its celebrity-backed competitors.

Dobel became the US Open’s official tequila sponsor last year, bringing alongs its Ace Paloma cocktail that it sells at other tennis tournaments it sponsors.

But the brand’s attraction to tennis “wasn’t something that happened overnight,” said Lander Otegui, the chief marketing officer for Proximo, noting that the brand has sponsored tournaments in Mexico for more than a decade.

Dobel, in recent years, expanded north to become sponsors of elite-level tournaments in Miami, Indian Wells and Cincinnati — all places where Otegui said Dobel sees an “uptick” in sales following the tournament.

The fans that tennis attracts are “pretty wide” in regards to ages but the affluent audience that frequent the events “goes hand-and-hand with the brand,” Otegui said.

Otegui declined to reveal specific financial numbers on sponsoring a tournament, but said it’s a “multi-million dollar investment” that involves paying a hefty fee and additional money for displays and, at the US Open, a starry suite.

Last year, it had a suite at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the US Open’s biggest court, where it attracted A-list stars like Charlize Theron and Katie Holmes, which in return, gave the brand even more publicity.

“It’s been an incredible time for tennis in the last few years, and with record attendance for pretty much every event in the US and globally,” he said. “The sport is in a really good place and it’s also helped us solidify our presence in it.”

As for the future, growth won’t fault if the USTA has its way: The organization wants to grow the number of people playing to 35 million, or 10% of the US population, within the next decade.

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