Not only have the Queen’s Club Championships held a special place in the British sporting calendar since the late 19th century, but the men’s grass court tennis tournament also boasts a healthy history of long and fruitful commercial partnerships.
Indeed, so strong is the desire of brands to be associated with the London-based tournament that the event organisers have only had to seek a new title sponsor twice. Belgian beer giant Stella Artois was the first to put its name to the competition in 1979, and relinquished that role nearly 30 years later in 2008 when Edinburgh-based insurance firm Aegon signed a comprehensive deal with the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), the governing body responsible for organising the event.
After nine years, Aegon opted not to renew a contract which expired at the end of last year’s tournament, leaving the door ajar for popular premium mixer drinks brand Fever-Tree to claim its first title sponsorship of a sporting event.
Founded in 2004, Fever-Tree and its array of tonic waters have quickly become the go-to accompaniment for British gin lovers, and the company’s partnership with one of tennis’ more fashionable events is likely to have the tournament’s regular visitors agreeably doffing their caps.
Beyond that, the collaboration marks the first title deal the LTA has done for the tournament - which is treated by players as a warm-up for the Wimbledon Grand Slam - since it was upgraded to ATP 500 status in 2015. That was soon followed by a decision in 2017 to expand the Queen’s Club’s centre court by 30 per cent to satisfy the annual demand that only the world’s best players - including home favourite Andy Murray - can draw.
Clearly, then, one of the world’s oldest tennis tournaments is evolving. With the ink on the LTA’s contract with Fever-Tree barely dry, SportsPro caught up with Stephen Farrow, tournament director of the newly christened Fever-Tree Championships, to find out how the event’s new title partnership came about, and why the tournament continues to be marked on the calendars of players and fans alike.
SportsPro: How did the new partnership with Fever-Tree come about, and what makes the brand a good fit for Queen’s?
Stephen Farrow: We had Aegon finishing a nine-year stint as our title sponsor and the lead partner of British Tennis at the end of last year. They were replacing Stella Artois, who were with us for 30 years, so we’re lucky that we’ve had two partners who have invested a significant amount over a long period of time. It’s a difficult one to replace, because you want to get a brand that’s going to be committed to the event long-term, and ideally you want to get a brand that’s going to share the values of the event. It’s a premium event, we want it to be fun, we try to be innovative, and we are always looking to do things differently every year.
Fever-Tree is a premium, fun and quality brand, and they’ve also experienced some incredible growth. They’re a very successful British brand who are very passionate about what they do, and also very passionate about tennis as well, so it’s a fantastic fit for us.
Farrow (centre) says Fever-Tree is a "fantastic fit" for Queen's
In terms of how the partnership came about, we’ve known them for quite a few years, and we were talking to them about ways that we could potentially work with them at the tournament because the product itself is such a fantastic fit for an event which is such an intrinsic part of the British summer. So we were talking to them about how they could get involved, this opportunity came up and we were very keen, so we approached them about doing something a bit broader and they wanted to do it.
I think you can see by the reaction we’ve had just how cool people think it is. I’ve had so many messages from players, ex-players, commentators and coaches saying what a great fit it is for Queen’s, which makes us even more excited about it. What’s nice is how excited Fever-Tree is, because this is their first foray into a big sports sponsorship, so we’re already talking about lots of different ways we can work together in different areas.
Was there a particular reason Aegon decided not to renew?
They’d been with us for nine years, which is a long period of time. Their decision was not to continue with the sponsorship because they were going to approach their marketing spend in a different way - their sponsorship deal with us took up a lot of their marketing spend in the UK. There had also been a lot of change in the business, in the sense that they’d gone from being a business-facing brand to a consumer-facing brand.
Queen’s has always had a prestige that people want to be associated with, and becoming an ATP 500 event makes very little difference to that.
We part ways feeling very good about each other. They were an incredible partner for us, and I think when you’ve had a nine-year sponsorship deal with someone, when it comes to an end there doesn’t need to be any particular negative reason that it comes to an end - it’s just that nine years is a long time. They invested a huge amount in British tennis and they decided to go elsewhere, and for us it creates an opportunity to look for something different. And what we’ve found in Fever-Tree is a terrific fit for all the reasons I said before.
How have you seen the tournament grow since it became part of the ATP World Tour 500 series in 2015? What impact has the upgrade had on your sponsorship proposition in general?
It’s difficult to say. The Queen’s tournament is the Queen’s tournament; it’s always had a very special place in the British sporting calendar, it’s always been an event with a high profile and it’s always attracted the best players. So Queen’s has always had a prestige that people want to be associated with, and becoming an ATP 500 event makes very little difference to that.
But what has happened is our player field has significantly improved. We’ve always had a great player field, but we’ve gone from typically getting three or four top ten players to now getting five or six. So if you look at our draw, it means we have phenomenal matches from the first round, and what that does is drive broadcast figures both domestically and internationally. We’ve seen record broadcast figures over the last few years, our international TV audience is significantly up, and our revenue from international TV is significantly up from being part of the 500 group.
But what I would say is that there’s a combination of factors as to why the tournament has been really successful in recent years. One is that we became a 500 tournament. Another is that we had an extra week between the French Open and Wimbledon, which meant players have come to Queen’s fully rested, so we’ve had better matches and produced a better product for the fans as a result. The last five years have also been a sort of boom time for men’s tennis, and we’ve had the greatest British tennis player of all time, and the attention that has brought on the event has also enabled us to grow.
So it’s a combination of all these things coming together which means that our sponsorship revenues are up, our broadcast figures and revenues are up, our hospitality revenues are up, and we’re in a really good position.
Last year, the Queen’s Club’s centre court was expanded by 30 per cent, creating space for more than 2,000 additional seats
What’s the effect of having no Andy Murray?
Look, it’s an absolute fact that from a domestic interest perspective, if Andy Murray wins the event, we get four million viewers on BBC One watching our final. If Andy’s not in the final, we don’t get four million people watching, we get significantly less. He is a great ambassador for sport in general and is hugely popular, so if he is having success here, it helps the profile of our event.
What I would always say to this is that we’re so lucky to have had him, and he’s been such a great champion for our event, but that’s not normal. What this event has got is a fantastic history, a fantastic heritage, and a tradition of great players playing. Andy has won it five times, but if you go down to the people who have won it four times, you’ve got the likes of Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, John McEnroe and Boris Becker.
It’s an absolute fact that from a domestic interest perspective, if Andy Murray wins the event, we get four million viewers on BBC One watching our final. If Andy’s not in the final, we don’t get four million people watching, we get significantly less.
So this has always been a great event but it is undeniably true that as a British tennis tournament, if you have the greatest British tennis player of all time playing at your event it’s going to increase the domestic audience. Having said that, internationally, Andy won’t make that much of a difference, because our international TV audiences have been good regardless.
So of course Andy makes a difference, but he’s not finished yet. We’re talking to him and his team and he’ll be back this year. We’re confident of that and look forward to having him back in June.
In what ways are you planning to improve the tournament experience for fans?
We’re a temporary venue so we have six weeks in order to build all the facilities, and if you went to Queen’s today, there are just a load of courts and a clubhouse. So every year we’re building, and we only have so much space in which we can do new things, but we are always trying to improve.
From a fan perspective, last year was a big change because we expanded the north stand and we introduced some new facilities on site. We always try and make it feel like you’re having a hospitality experience even if you’re a general admission ticket holder. Obviously we have our hospitality which we’re very proud of, but when you come as a fan on the day, we want you to feel like you’re having a really special experience, so we dress everything nicely, we try and make sure the facilities are really good, we try and make sure we’ve got high-quality products that people can buy, and we try and make sure there are nice places where people can sit, have a drink and enjoy the festival atmosphere we try to engender.
Home favourite Andy Murray is a regular at Queen's as part of his preparations for Wimbledon
What are some of the challenges in trying to preserve the tradition and prestige of the event while trying to make the tournament appealing for the next generation?
Like I said, we’re a tournament with a long history. We thought about this long and hard last year when we expanded capacity because if you ask the hospitality guests and ticket holders what they like about the event, they’ll say it’s a great venue for watching tennis. But if you ask them why it’s a great venue for watching tennis, it’s the intimacy of it, because you can get close to the players and the action.
So you get that proximity that you don’t get anywhere else, where it feels like wherever you look you’re seeing a player. We were very conscious when we expanded that we didn’t want to lose that, and we didn’t want it to become too busy and too big. I think we managed to preserve that by thinking about things like crowd flow, facilities and all those sorts of things. It is a challenge because we’re a constrained site, and we have to maintain that special Queen’s Club atmosphere.
But I think there’s a broader challenge for tennis more generally in terms of making the sport appealing to the next generation. For us as a tournament, we’re very happy with how we’re doing, but there is a challenge for tennis right now because we have this generation of unbelievable players who are close to the end of their careers, so we have to promote the next generation of talent. There are some great players coming through, and as a sport collectively, we need to be promoting these guys the best we can, because we know they’re great, but we need the public to identify with them the same way they currently do with [Roger] Federer, [Rafael] Nadal, Murray and [Novak] Djokovic.