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Serena Versus the G.O.A.Ts

Serena Williams has announced her retirement to the expected reaction. Across the board, the tributes praise her as an all-time great who overcame racism and sexism. The similarity of the “takes” highlights the current homogeneity of sports media coverage. It’s boring.

As Williams steps, or evolves, away from tennis, an important question is how the sport evolves following Williams' transition. In particular, what does US tennis fandom look like post-Serena? There are a lot of fascinating questions about tennis – we will hit on these on the podcast.

But a few basics before we get into some data on the Serena Williams' brand.

Television ratings for tennis are messy. The tournaments go on for extended periods, and interest varies significantly across countries. In 2022 ESPN reports the following US television numbers.

Sunday morning’s Gentlemen’s Championship – Novak Djokovic capturing his seventh Wimbledon crown, fourth straight at the All England Club, and 21st Major title overall 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3) against Nick Kyrgios – averaged 2.2 million viewers. That represents an increase of 22 percent from last year (Djokovic over Matteo Berrettini in four sets). The audience peaked with 3.3 million people at noon ET as the top seed closed out the Australian challenger in the fourth set tie break.

The Ladies’ Championship on Saturday morning saw No. 17 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan rally from one set down to defeat No. 3 Ons Jabeur of Tunisia 3-6, 6-2, 6-2. It was the maiden Major final for both players. The match garnered an average of 1.2 million viewers, up nine percent from a year ago (Ashleigh Barty defeated Karolína Plíšková in three sets).

Further digging suggests that 2022’s ratings represent a 44% increase over 2021 but a 33% decrease versus 2019. Over the last five years, the Men’s championship audience has ranged from just over a million viewers to 3.3 million viewers. The Women’s audience is generally significantly lower. The only exception over the last five years was 2018 when Serena was in the final. In the previous four tourneys, when Serena Williams was in the finals, the ratings were about 30% higher than when she wasn’t.

From a US perspective, Serena Williams is the dominant American tennis star. The top-ranked US men’s player is number 13, and the top woman is ranked 7. If the Saudis’ create a competing tennis circuit, the US players would be an afterthought. The television ratings for marquis tennis events in the 1980s (e.g., Borg vs. McEnroe) were 3 to 5 times higher than current ratings. Without a US star, tennis may flourish internationally but will be a niche sport in the US.

We will leave it to others to debate Williams versus Graf and Navratilova. More in our wheelhouse is where Williams rates in the world of fandom. Williams has obvious commercial success with deals with Subway and Nike.

How is Williams rated (in terms of fandom) relative to other GOATS and across different consumer segments?

I just happen to have some relevant data that we can explore.

The Next Generation Fandom Survey (from the Emory Marketing Analytics Center) is a deep dive into how fandom works across the American population. It examines how fandom varies across demographic cohorts, gender, income, political ideology, and more. Amongst its many questions, the survey asks respondents to rate how much they like a variety of sports figures and celebrities. Serena Williams is one of the featured celebrities.

How does Serena rate?

This is a story best told in pictures.

The first figure compares nine “Sports GOATs” types and Dolly Parton. The figure shows the average rating on a 7-point scale for a nationwide sample of 2,040 people.

Williams has a solid performance with an average rating of 4.22 out of 7. Among the athletes, this places her third after Michael Jordan at 4.56 and Simone Biles at 4.24. Williams outpaces US athletes LeBron James, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods, and Mike Tyson. Williams also far outpaces international stars Ronaldo Cristiano and Rodger Federer. Dolly Parton is rated higher than any all-time great athlete. Tom Brady was not included in the survey. My bad – next year.

Williams’ ratings are very high, given the limited viewership of tennis. Williams is actually an incredibly hyped rather than an underappreciated athlete. Her ratings exceed athletes who participate(d) in much more highly viewed sports.

The following figure shows the average ratings for Serena Williams and several other GOATs across generational cohorts (Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z). We use Jordan as a reference for the comparisons because he enjoys consistently strong preference across most population segments. We include Biles as a female comparison and Federer as a tennis comparison. Woods is selected because golf tends to have an older and more conservative fan base. Yes, these selections are a little arbitrary

Williams trails Jordan in every generation, but Jordan is the GOAT standard bearer. Williams’ appeal is consistent across generations. Williams’ support peaks in the Millennial cohort and is strong with Gen X and Boomers. Her support is the lowest in Gen Z. While Williams support drops in Gen Z, it is still stronger than many of the other athletes. Her support in Gen Z is evidence that she has transcended sports to become a cultural icon.

  • Williams results are very similar to Biles. Biles scores slightly higher amongst Baby Boomers.

  • Williams significantly outperforms the non-American Federer in every generation.

  • Williams outperforms Woods in every generation.

The next figure shows support for Jordan and Williams across the genders.

This figure reveals something fascinating. Male respondents rank Jordan and Williams higher than female respondents. Males rate Jordan 4.8/7 while females rate Jordan 4.35/7. The gender gap persists but narrows for Williams, with a male rating of 4.3 compared to 4.1 for females. The data suggests that Williams enjoys more support from men than women. There is a logic to this result when we consider how much more time men spend watching sports and the prominence with which Williams is featured in targeted advertising and on outlets like ESPN. But the result does raise some questions about the sexism narratives.

  • Biles is the only GOAT that scores higher with females than males

  • Williams outperforms Federer with both genders

  • Williams is tied with Woods with male respondents but scores significantly higher with female respondents.

The final figure presents the ratings for political conservative, moderate, and liberal respondents.

This one is intriguing. Jordan’s ratings peak with moderates but are high across the political spectrum. However, Williams ratings peak with liberals and drop significantly for conservatives. The merging of politics and sports has consequences.

  • Williams and Biles have strikingly similar patterns across the political spectrum.

  • Williams' scores higher with conservatives than Federer does with any group.

  • Williams' scores slightly below Woods with conservatives.

In summary, Serena Williams enjoys preference levels that actually exceed those of many other sports GOATs. A deeper dive into the data suggests significant strength for the Serena Williams brand and casts some doubt on the current narrative.

  • Williams does well across the generations, including the relatively disinterested Generation Zs.

  • Williams rates higher with male respondents than female respondents.

  • Williams is a politically polarizing figure with much greater liberal support.

The data suggest that Williams has received broad positive media coverage and become a cultural icon. However, like much of the current sports world (and popular culture), politics seems part of the Serena Williams story. William’s political advocacy has left her with much stronger preferences with liberal fans. Yet her average rating with conservative fans exceeds Tiger Woods’ overall rating and is close to Wayne Gretzky’s. Her rating with conservatives also far exceeds Rodger Federer’s overall rating. It seems likely that William’s history of advocacy has resulted in a powerful “liberal” brand rather than a weak “conservative” brand.



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