The French Open Lifts Its Game

It's the poor relation among the world's top four tennis events. Now, to boost its image and earnings, organizers are getting creative

By Christina White

Of the four Grand Slam tournaments in the tennis year, some are grander than others. The supersized U.S. Open, played in August at Flushing Meadows, N.Y., is the largest and most lucrative of the group, drawing around 640,000 spectators. Britain's Wimbledon, always accompanied by the traditions of champagne and strawberries and cream, is classically charming. Every January, tennis fans Down Under tune in to the up-and-coming Australian Open, which has become Asia's main sporting event by doubling its attendance since 1988. The French Open, which opened the Grand Slam season this year on May 27 in Paris' Bois de Boulogne, is the runt in the litter.

The French Open just isn't attracting Grand Slam money. It generated barely half the $160 million drawn last year by the U.S. Open, which used the big bucks to finance a major athletic production and a powerful brand. The difference is that the U.S. and Australian tournaments are the lone players in their markets, while the kickoff of the tennis season at Roland Garros, the French stadium named after a pioneer aviator, is dwarfed by the looming presence of Wimbledon, which starts on June 24.


  Wimbledon draws a wider audience and nets more prestigious sponsors and better television contracts -- a Grand Slam event's biggest moneymakers -- than the French tournament. "The French Open and the Australian Open follow the same model, and the U.S. Open and Wimbledon are more like each other," says Paul McNamee, chief executive of the Australian Open.

Now, the French Open is adopting a more aggressive attitude and pushing to broaden its image. "We want to increase our presence and be seen as more professional in the future," says Christian Bimes, president of the French Tennis Federation, which organizes the tournament.

That's why the French are changing the rules of the game. Like the other Grand Slam tournaments, the French Open, which was founded in 1920, has always been a tax-exempt association, and all revenues from tournaments have been poured into tennis clubs across France. But on Sept. 30, the federation will begin paying the taxman -- and the limits placed on its commercial activity, such as selling French Open merchandise only in the stadium, will be lifted.


  Officials hope to make up for the loss of tax-exempt status by doing more branding and attracting more international sponsors. The change also will allow the federation to invest in its own development -- improving the stadium, for example -- instead of returning its revenues to local tennis programs as other Grand Slam tennis associations do.

For Bimes, 55, developing the French Open's presence and image is a priority. Tournament wear, making up almost $5 million in sales, has been available only in stadium boutiques during the two-week event. With new commercial flexibility, the federation can distribute its brand through sports stores, giving it access to a wider public that includes tennis fans who don't make it to the tournament. Says the Australian Open's McNamee: "The way they're turning a two-week brand into a distinctive year-round brand is impressive."

The stadium also is undergoing a facelift. Like Wimbledon, the French stadium will be open all year for tours. Bimes is building a classy restaurant and a "Tenniseum," a museum devoted to the sport. Construction will start this year to increase capacity and to build a covered court, perfect for those rainy days in Paris. "Our activity will become more commercial," says Bimes, who has headed the federation since 1993.


  With better facilities, Bimes will be able to play a faster game. Big French brands -- BNP Paribas, Perrier, and Peugeot -- lead the tournament's list of official sponsors and poured in $31 million last year. But the French Open hasn't been able to draw as many top multinationals as other Grand Slam events, such as the U.S. Open's partnership with IBM or the Australian Open's deal with Heineken.

Now, Bimes is on the cusp of improving the lineup. He has just signed FedEx to a five-year contract. The French Open represents a better branding opportunity than Wimbledon's elite image, says Paul Evans, vice-president for marketing and communications with FedEx EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa). There's room for FedEx to grow at the Paris tourney, whereas Wimbeldon's sponsor list is already crowded with the likes of Rolex and British Airways. Says Evans: "Any way that the French Open can drive up its global viewership is good for FedEx."

Soon, more TVs could be tuning in also. The U.S. Open proved that tennis can be prime-time material, when last year's women's final, which pitted Venus Williams against sister Serena, notched top ratings for CBS.

TV contracts represented 40% of the French Open's profits in 2001. Bimes broke off an 18-year relationship with broadcasting agent Clear Channel Entertainment this year, putting himself in charge of pursuing TV deals. His more hands-on approach has resulted in a new contract with USA Networks, which also shows the Australian Open. Bimes, a pharmacist by profession, insists that his priority is tennis. But he's showing he can play a hard game in business, too.

White is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Paris bureau

Edited by Thane Peterson

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