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Serena Williams and the road ahead for tennis

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Good morning from sweltering Brooklyn, where the dog days of summer lead to my neighbors blasting off fireworks in the streets and local basketball titans shooting off fireworks in their tweets. (Sorry.) This week the National Basketball Association off season took a turn when Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant reportedly offered team owner Joe Tsai an ultimatum on his demand for a trade, leading the Alibaba vice-chair to blast off an indirect dig at KD.

Across team sports, trade deadlines and front office machinations are the stuff of intense palace intrigue. What makes the Nets conundrum peculiar is its potent combination of a star player in Durant — caught in the embarrassing limbo of asking for a trade and still waiting for an answer — with the thus-far unprecedented public pushback by an owner. Whatever the outcome in Brooklyn, this situation will be a litmus test for the player-empowerment era.

Speaking of empowerment, we lead off this week with a look at the legacy of Serena Williamsand proceed with a report card on the conclusion of the Commonwealth Games. Do read on — Sara Germano, US sports business correspondent

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Serena Williams and the tennis she leaves behind

Williams: final service © AP

This month’s US Open championships are to be the curtain call for Serena Williams, after a more than two-decade professional tennis career that has shattered barriers and broken records.

In a first-person cover story for Vogue published this week, Williams said her desire to expand her family with her husband, the Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohaniancoupled with her deepening work in venture capital and sports management, led to her decision to step off the court.

With 23 Grand Slam titles to her name, Williams stands one shy of tying Margaret Court‘s all-time record, achieved before the Open era. That’s more major titles than any of the men’s Big Three (Rafael Nadal at present leads with 22 titles), placing Williams in the stratosphere as the greatest tennis player of all time.

Along the way, it’s no exaggeration to say Williams and her elder sister Venus have transformed the sport. Their precocious success in winning Wimbledon and US Open titles in their teens introduced tennis to a new generation of fans, especially black women and girls.

A pivotal moment came in 2001. Months before the US Open began, executives at Viacom’s CBS, then the domestic tournament rights holder, made a historic decision to move the women’s final to prime time, slotting it against guaranteed ratings draws of US college football. As luck would have it, the Williams sisters ended up meeting each other for the championship match — their first meeting in a Grand Slam final — making it the most-watched program on US television that night.

“It really transcended sports and became a news item”, CBS Sports president Sean McManus said at the time. “People who wouldn’t normally watch a women’s tennis event tuned in to see what all the buzz was about.”

Over time, Serena gained the competitive and marketing upper hand. Not one but two catsuits (the first by Pumathe other by her current outfitter Nike) sparked transformative conversations about fashion. Serena’s ability to transcend tennis earned her a long list of corporate sponsors, from JPMorgan Chase so Intel and Audemars Piguet. To date, she’s amassed almost $95mn in career prize money with a net worth of more than $260mn, according to Forbes.

In the two days since her retirement announcement, the average ticket price for the opening rounds of the US Open shot up 25 percent to $188, according to ticketing firm Logitix.

If Flushing will indeed be Serena’s swansong on the court, then those running global tennis are going to need fresh ideas to keep crowds and sponsors coming. As in other professional sports, there have been talks about tennis private capital investment in tour operations. Younger stars such as Naomi Osaka, Iga Świątekand Coco Gauff are dynamic players and sponsor favorites, although as tennis and the world may be about to discover, there is no comparison to Serena.

Can a smaller Commonwealth Games survive?

Ese Brume of Nigeria crosses the finish line in the women's 4 x 100 meters relay final at the Commonwealth Games

Commonwealth Games 2022: passing the baton? © AP

This week, the Commonwealth Games crossed the finishing line in Birmingham. It had already been billed as the last of its kind, amid concerns about rising costs and falling interest. The organizers are well aware of the competition’s shortcomings and set about reforming it late last year.

In the future, the Games will be cheaper, smaller and more flexible. The goal is to attract a more diverse range of potential hosts, especially beyond the UK and Australia. Rather than host cities, the Games could be staged in host regions, nations or even continents. The 2026 event will be across the Australian state of Victoria, while the longer-term dream is a pan-Caribbean or pan-African Games.

The plans were prompted in part by Durban’s fluffed attempt to host the Games. The 2022 contest was moved to Birmingham after the South African government decided not to fund it.

But the Commonwealth Games has more problems other than just the costs. It is not the apex of athletic achievement. Not only is it missing many key nations, but those that do participate don’t always send their top athletes. This year’s event came hot on the heels of the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, causing some would-be winners to skip it.

Broadcasters and sponsors appear to be in short supply. The Games has only one long-term sponsor, a watchmaker Longines. The other sponsors at Birmingham were all on one-time deals and included a local university and the local water company. Broadcasters were still being signed up with just days to go.

There is a big risk with trying to slim down the event. With commercial opportunities in short supply, one of the main incentives to host the Games is the chance to boost local infrastructure, according to Simon Shibli, professor of sport management at Sheffield Hallam University. Birmingham was able to secure 80 per cent of the almost £800mn investment for the Games from a UK government keen to showcase post-Brexit Britain. So for some hosts, the high cost can actually be the main selling point.

“Unless you’re using it as a Trojan horse for significant infrastructure investment, it’s what used to be known as a white elephant,” Shibli told Scoreboard. “Having stripped out the Trojan horse argument — is it really an interesting product for people to watch across the globe?”

The Commonwealth Games will return in 2026, and there are hopes for a potential centenary event in Hamilton, Canada, where the competition first began. But its long-term future looks in serious doubt.


Toto Wolff at Silverstone

Toto Wolff: ready for action © REUTERS

  • Formula 1‘s Toto Wolff sits down for this week’s Lunch with the FT. The Mercedes team principal opens up about becoming a social media meme and how to sell motor racing to a new generation.

  • What’s next for the US basketball star turned political prisoner Brittney Griner? In a column for the FT Weekend Magazine, Scoreboard’s Sara Germano details why the WNBA and EuroLeague player’s detention in Russia should be a wake-up call for the business of women’s sport.

  • A US judge ruled this week that the PGA Tour can block golfers who joined rival LIV Golf from competing in this week’s FedEx Cup Playoffsthe latest twist in the legal saga roiling the sport.

  • England’s victory at Euro 2022 is boosting ticket sales for the upcoming Women’s Super League season. But low pricing and small venues mean the surge in demand will have a limited impact on the bottom line.

  • Top German football club Bayern Munich is targeting growth in the US as it pushes to close the gap with high-spending rivals in the English Premier League. The team’s chief executive Oliver Kahn spoke to the FT about plans to expand its fan base in America.

Transfer Market

Damn Leech

Damani Leech: Denver Broncos boss © Denver Broncos

  • The new owners of the Denver Broncosthe Walton-Penner family, this week officially took the helm of the National Football League franchise and named Damn Leech as the team president. Leech joins the Broncos after three seasons as the chief operating officer of NFL International.

  • Richard Thompson has been named the new chair of the England and Wales Cricket Board after serving most recently as chair of Surrey County Cricket Club. He is the founder and chairman of talent management agency M&C Saatchi Merlin and chair of the broader M&C Saatchi UK Group.

Final Putt

JR Smith

JR Smith: on the range ©

Golf is a beautiful sport but its professional landscape is at war with itself, amid the launch of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf competition and the corresponding havoc of the PGA Tour. So perhaps the most wholesome thing in the game at present is two-time NBA champion turned US collegiate golfer JR Smithwho spoke to Golf Magazine about second acts and returning to school at 36. Watch the interview here.

Scoreboard is written by Josh Noble, Samuel Agini and Arash Massoudi in London, Sara Germano, James Fontanella-Khan, and Anna Nicolaou in New York, with contributions from the team that produces the Due Diligence newsletter, the FT’s global network of correspondents and data visualization team

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