The Australian Open ended on an extraordinarily high note that had looked unlikely when it began, with the Novak Djokovic debacle eclipsing all the rest of the tennis news for weeks, and a resurgence of the pandemic reducing the ground capacity at Melbourne Park.
We were restricted this year to 50 per cent [crowd capacity] for most of the event. We're now at 80 per cent, but still it's pretty late - but we'll take anything. I think we'll still lose money this year, but our recovery's started and, when we get to 2023, we'll bounce back real fast, and we'll put ourselves back in a very positive position. Craig Tiley, Tennis Australia Chief Executive and AO Tournament Director
The media focused on other stories once Djokovic was eventually deported because of his visa issues and a high court ruling that upheld Australia’s immigration of restricting entry into the country to only those who are vaccinated, which the Serb was not.
“He has taken his own position and everybody is free to take their position,” Rafael Nadal said. “But there are consequences. I don’t like the situation. In some ways, I feel sorry for him.
“But he knew the conditions months ago. He made his own decision.”
Some decreed that the loss of the men’s top seed and 9-time champion would impact interest and devalue the tournament, but they were proven wrong.
Djokovic’s absence did benefit the Spaniard, although he had to battle long and hard to land his record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title, but it was by no means a shoe-in, and provided a goodly amount of high drama, especially the 5-and-a-half hour final against top seed Daniil Medvedev that had the capacity crowd and a worldwide on the edge of their seats, utterly enthralled.
The day before, Ash Barty’s popular title win ended a drought of 44 years since an Aussie woman had won their home Grand Slam, with a crowd of 80 percent capacity allowed into Rod Laver Arena.
For Tennis Australia, the weekend provided a desperately needed income boost to its seriously depleted coffers.
Tournament Director Craig Tiley conceded that the first major of the year had run in the red for a second straight year.
After emptying its cash reserves of $80 million, and taking out a $40 million loan to stage the COVID-19-ravaged 2021 Australian Open, TA had hoped this year’s edition would help make up the deficit.
Tiley, who is also TA’s Chief Executive, revealed on Sunday that the association would still lose money because of the caps on crowds resulting in ticket sales being down, once again, and travel and COVID-19 testing costs.
“We were restricted this year to 50 per cent [crowd capacity] for most of the event,” Tiley told AAP on Saturday. “We’re now at 80 per cent, but still it’s pretty late – but we’ll take anything.
“I think we’ll still lose money this year, but our recovery’s started and, when we get to 2023, we’ll bounce back real fast, and we’ll put ourselves back in a very positive position.”
Tiley is confident that TA will emerge from the pandemic without debt.
“That is what my plan is, by the middle of the year, and having a platform where everyone keeps their jobs, and we can move into the next round of opportunity,” he added, saying that Barty’s AO triumph is central to TA’s financial recovery.
“We put a lot of infrastructure over the last years in building the product, and we’ve enjoyed during COVID an exponential increase in [playing] participation,” Tiley said.
“That’s not our survey – that’s the government’s survey – so it’s comparative to everything. So that’s been great.
“But now we’ve got the marketing vehicle with Ash’s success, and we can match that with the infrastructure we have in place, and we’ll see really a strong growth in our sport and ongoing growth in it.
“It’s a beautiful sport to play – we’ve been saying it for boys and girls, and especially for little girls who want to be like Ash.
“So we’re so proud of her and this will really accelerate us into another level of participation.”
Barty’s march to the title, an all-Australian doubles men’s final and Nadal shooting for the Grand Slam titles record, all served to make this AO edition one of the greatest.
“It was a tough start but, at the end of the day, we just put our heads down and kept on working day in and day out to make it a great event, and it ascended absolutely perfectly,” Tiley said.
All is not entirely rosey, though, with a grave risk of Chinese sponsors and broadcasters pulling out of supporting AO because of the Peng Shuai affair.
Organisers were forced to back-pedal on their decision to ban spectators from wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ and, as a result, TA could now face a backlash that could well end up costing it millions in support.
Peng, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, sparked worldwide fears when she disappeared after making allegations of sexual abuse against a former top-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party.
Mark Dreyer, a sports industry analyst and author of Sporting Superpower, who is based in Beijing, warns it is impossible for Chinese brands and broadcasters to separate politics and business from sport.
“These things are seen as just incredibly sensitive and non-negotiable from a Chinese perspective,” he told the Australian Financial Review. “We’ve seen in the past that sponsors will just pull out en masse if there’s something they don’t like.”
In 2018, TA signed a 5-year deal with Chinese distillery Luzhou Laojiao, which included prominent signage on the Rod Laver and Margaret Court arenas.
Then-Chief Revenue Officer Richard Heaselgrave described it as ‘one of the largest deals that Tennis Australia has ever negotiated’, hinting that it was worth the same as a 5-year sponsorship with car maker Kia reported to top $85 million.
Back in 2018, Tiley added: “Indeed, it is one of the biggest partnership deals we have done.
“It helps us push very strongly into the next phase of our global business growth.”
The issue with Peng has made the relationship with China a tricky one for TA, according to Dreyer, with the financial gains potentially not worth the risk to the organisation’s public perception.
“If you take the money, then you’re seen … as pandering towards the Chinese government line, and that, in turn, creates a huge backlash overseas, as you’re alienating your original audience and fans,” Dreyer said.
He added that organisations are having to make a choice between China and the rest of the world.
“And as big as the China market is, and as much as everyone wants to be connected to the China market, it’s still not bigger than the rest of the world combined,” he said.
Perception is important to TA, testimony of which lies in the organisation ending its controversial multi-year deal with oil and gas producer Santos after less than 12 months last November.
Santos was confirmed as the AO and ATP Cup’s official natural gas partner in February 2021, before the delayed first major of the year, with TA claiming it would ‘provide a platform for Santos to showcase how natural gas is used in everyday life’.
The partnership, however, was brought to a premature end due to pressure from climate activists, with a TA spokesperson commenting: “Santos was a partner of AO2021, however they are no longer a partner now.”
350.org Australia, an international movement of ordinary people working to end the age of fossil fuels and build a world of community-led renewable energy for all, accused AO organisers of allowing Santos to ‘sport-wash’ its image, but Chief Executive Lucy Manne applauded TA’s decision.
“Tennis Australia should be congratulated for ending their association with Santos,” Manne said. “Fossil fuel companies like Santos are driving climate damage, including increased heatwaves, drought, bushfires, coral bleaching and sea level rise – and they must not be allowed to ‘sports-wash’ their image at major events.
“The sustainability of the Australian Open depends on a sustainable climate.
“Research by the Climate Council has shown that climate change is already subjecting Australian Open players to more heat stress and the situation is expected to get worse.”
TA has since signed the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework, whose members aim to use sport to drive climate awareness and action, and have committed to achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.