Serving variety: how Wimbledon’s content chief courts fans
"There’s a hero out there for everyone. We don’t all have to be following the same ones.”
By Justine Jablonska | 6 minute read | June 27, 2019
This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.
A billion fans engage with Wimbledon in any given year, and it’s up to Alexandra Willis to decide what the majority of those fans see and hear.
“My role is to be the guardian of Wimbledon’s external voice,” Willis said.
Willis is head of communications, content and digital at The All England Lawn Tennis Club. This year’s championships will be her ninth. She spoke to Industrious from her London home base.
Wimbledon is the world’s oldest tennis tournament, and the only major that’s still played on grass. Throughout its 140+ years of existence, it’s hosted some of the sports world’s most thrilling triumphs, most devastating defeats, most hairpin comebacks.
Willis’ team brings Wimbledon’s stories to the world.
“What content will inspire people, bring people to us, and truly reflect the amazing breadth and opportunity of the event?” she said.
This year, her team is highlighting stories impacted by worldwide events.
One is that of Althea Gibson, the first black player to win Wimbledon. The year was 1957, the height of the civil rights movement in her US home. Gibson spoke of the stark contrast between meeting the Queen of England after her win, and the segregation she and so many other black Americans experienced back home.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King often quoted Gibson as one of her first inspirations. Willis’ team is highlighting King this year as well—for her accomplishments on and off the court.
“For sports, and for women’s rights,” Willis said. “For saying that we women have a voice.”
And then there’s Andy Murray, and the complicated, love-hate relationship between him and the UK. Once widely criticized, he’s become one of Britain’s most loved spokespeople, and Willis’ content dives into how that transformation happened. (Yes, the crying helped.)
While it’s players like Gibson, King and Murray who draw those nearly billion-strong crowds, Willis’ focus is on the fans—both those who physically attend, and those who watch from one of the 200+ territories the event is broadcast.
So how does her team decide which content will resonate with all those fans?
Willis firmly believes that the best outcomes occur when there’s diversity of thought—whether age, gender, background. Wimbledon’s extraordinarily global fan base is an opportunity to bring that diversity of thought to life.
One way her team does that is through research. There’s a perception, for example, that the men’s game is the most exciting, powerful, with intense rivalries. But when asked, Wimbledon’s fans said they love variety.
“We were being led by perception,” Willis said. “Our fans said, we love men’s tennis but we love women’s tennis too. And we love wheelchair tennis. We love long sets and thrilling matches, and interesting tactical matches. All types of tennis.”
Conversations are ongoingly happening in the sport around equality, she notes. Last year, her team pledged that all its content would be 50/50 split between men and women—like the draw itself. That also reflects a 50/50 balance in terms of gender viewership—a rarity in sports.
Wimbledon’s fans have responded positively, Willis said. Her team has also done some educating some vocal fans about why their accounts aren’t posting about Roger Federer every day of the week. Though he’s the most popular player in the world and would certainly drive clicks, “that’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”
Instead, her team is highlighting lesser known stories. Like the story of Heidi El Tabakh, the first Egyptian-born player to play in last year’s Grand Slam. “Who happened to be a woman,” she said. “There are lots of different ways to support that without forcing it.”
Willis loves that aspect of today’s digitally connected world, where everyone has the opportunity to connect with and learn from different types of people regardless of their industry.
“The brilliant thing is that there’s a hero / role model out there for everyone,” she said. “We don’t all have to be following the same ones.” She sees that as a positive force in developing people’s own identities.
“I think about that a lot when I think about the future leaders of tomorrow,” she said.
Willis was born in New York city, and grew up in London. She’s always had a passion for sports. As a child, she watched Wimbledon on TV with her grandfather and father. When she brought her grandfather to the championships in 2010, he was ecstatic.
Her family is filled with doctors, but she studied history at Oxford University, where she also played lacrosse. She played tennis too, “just not particularly well.”
At university, she remembers thinking, “not many women worked in sports. I’ll be different.”
And while she brings her love of history to keeping Wimbledon’s traditions and history relevant, she also works to expand and stretch the brand so that it keeps that relevancy for decades to come.
To that end, her team is continuously working on creating personalized experiences for Wimbledon fans.
In 2018, her team partnered with IBM on AI-powered video highlights. This year, they’re launching MyWimbledon. The app tailors content based on whether a user is a ticket holder, hospitality guest, player, ball boy. Users can also control the experience by noting which players they’re interested in, which content they’d like to see.
“The reality is we’ve always got limited capacity inside the gates,” she said. “It’s about half a million people across the two weeks. And the appetite for Wimbledon is far greater than that.”
Though she and her team can’t recreate what it’s like inside those gates, “we’re going to do our best. We’re saying, ‘you’re very important to us.’”
IBM is Wimbledon’s official IT supplier and consultant, and this year marks the 30th of the partnership.
“We’re work together to figure out ways that whatever the tech might be, it supports Wimbledon’s business challenge—which is keeping Wimbledon relevant,” she said. The teams iterate each year, and begin their work by focusing on the problem they want to solve, versus the tech itself.
As customer expectations shift, so does her team’s work around how to best serve the fans.
“We used to think that our fans were measuring us on what they’d experienced the year before, at Wimbledon,” Willis said. “The reality is they’re measuring us on what happened yesterday. They went to the theater. They bought something online, or in a store.”
So how much of Wimbledon does she herself watch?
“It’s a bit of a running joke,” she said, “and I’ve probably managed to watch a full match in person if you craft it together.”
One of her favorite memories is the 2013 championships. Andy Murray was on the verge of winning.
“We had this feeling: this could be it. He could be about to make amazing history,” she said.
She ran up to the soundproofed media boxes, and from there watched the movie-like scene. Two ant-like figures running back and forth. And no sound whatsoever.
“He wins the point,” she said. “He wins the match. He wins the tournament. He makes history. And there’s this roar from the stadium that erupted through the glass. It was the most amazing moment.”