Tennis stars Gael Monfils and Andy Murray launched their coverage of this week’s ATP Finals with a two-hour conversation on the video live streaming service Twitch on Friday, analysing the competition and sharing some personal anecdotes from their previous experiences at the O2 Arena.
Whether it was Murray recalling the 6-0, 6-1 beatdown he received from Roger Federer – a loss he described as “embarrassing” – and the consolation hug he got later from Jose Mourinho, or Monfils looking back at his five-set defeat to the Brit at Roland Garros, it was a raw and insightful chat.
The interaction was between two fan favourites, which took place on a platform that is mostly known for video-game live streaming but is now becoming increasingly popular with professional athletes looking to reach a younger audience and a different demographic.
One of tennis’ biggest challenges has been the increase in the average age of its viewers. A study from four years ago claimed that the average age of ATP tennis viewers in the United States grew from 51 in 2000 to 61 in 2016. The trends are not dissimilar in other regions around the world.
Monfils, the current world No 11, launched his Twitch channel at the beginning of lockdown in March and has since built up a considerable following that exceeds 110,000.
While the Frenchman started by streaming his gaming sessions, he quickly realised he wasn’t as good as the professional gamers on Twitch and soon came up with new ideas to engage with viewers.
He held several Q&A sessions, held roundtables with other French tennis players, athletes and celebrities like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tony Parker, Teddy Riner and Bob Sinclar, and recently started a show with his girlfriend, WTA star Elina Svitolina, called ‘Catch-up’, in which they take a look at the latest happenings on the men’s and women’s tennis tours.
Monfils managed to secure footage from the ATP and the WTA to show some highlights in his show with Svitolina, and their most recent episode garnered 187,000 views.
Twitch recently launched a sports category, to go with the live sports coverage of its owner Amazon, and several organisations, like the Premier League, Uefa, the NBA and MLB rushed to form partnerships with the platform to push their content on it.
Tennis has yet to establish a formal presence on Twitch, and Monfils is the first prominent player to make use of it so far. His success prompted the ATP to approach him last week about a daily show during the ATP Finals.
The 34-year-old was happy to host it on his own channel and called up Murray to join him for the week, where they’ll be breaking down the matches in a setting that is a first-of-its-kind when it comes to tennis.
"We are often reminded that the tennis audience is getting older and that tennis needs to look at new ways of targeting the next generation of fans," Monfils told The National in an email.
“This is exactly what I am trying to achieve on Twitch by reaching out directly to the 15-25 age group which is greatly represented on this platform.
“I am very excited to be able to share the Finals behind the scenes with my community. This is not the normal kind of content that you would be watching on TV and it brings a new dimension to the event by making athletes closer to the audience especially at a time when people are not able to travel or watch live events.”
According to a post on wearesocial.com written by the website’s executive creative director Gareth Leeding, 1.5 million people are tuned in to Twitch at any given moment, and over the course of a day, it attracts around 17 million visitors.
Friday’s episode with Murray broke the record for Monfils’ channel with the stream hitting more than 18,000 concurrent live viewers at one point. In total, over 166,000 people watched the two players converse and they’re expecting that figure to rise for upcoming episodes throughout the tournament.
“We have obviously been watching what Gael has been doing on Twitch and I think it’s been amazing and he’s really a bit of a trailblazer for the players on that platform specifically, which is great to see,” said Andreas Plastiras, Senior Director, Digital Content at the ATP.
The tour’s sister company, ATP Media, is providing Monfils with some match footage while the ATP is giving him other assets like video messages from the players competing at the event, logos, daily catch-ups and graphics like the draw etc.
Monfils has his own production team and is taking the show – and his channel – very seriously.
“I think it works very well for both parties – the ATP and Gael,” said Monfils’ Dubai-based agent Nicolas Lamperin.
“It was funny to see Andy’s reaction when he actually saw Gael’s set-up for the first time. Gael had his proper studio around him and Andy was sitting in his bed with his laptop, which was great, because it was very natural, but it was also showing that Gael is doing it very seriously and he wants it to work.”
The tour is giving Monfils full freedom to take the show in any direction he wants and the unfiltered way both he and Murray have been chatting is in itself a new thing for tennis – a sport that is often very guarded and conservative.
“I think the guys generally did a fantastic job of really providing some amazing insight to fans that hopefully is new, especially to the audience on that platform,” explained Plastiras.
“From our understanding of the platform, it is a very young audience, it’s an audience that perhaps is not your hardcore tennis fans and actually to just get their perspective, I think is interesting to the fans. We trust that Andy and Gael in particular, who does so much on the platform, know how to take it to that audience in terms of the topics they cover.”
Monfils is eager to keep up his activity on Twitch and plans on continuing the ‘Catch-Up’ show with Svitolina through the 2021 season.
Lamperin says Twitch is part of almost every conversation Monfils and his team are having with his existing sponsors and potential new ones, adding that the brands recognise the power of his client’s presence on such a platform.
The ATP is also looking at ways of getting involved with Twitch, but have no concrete plans and are still figuring out their strategy. The same goes for the tour’s vision towards e-sports and gaming. Tennis is one of the few sports organisations not to have an official video game and the tour is well aware of the fact they are lagging in that arena.
“For us, digital and investment and real focus on digital is, I’m not going to say new to the ATP, but perhaps while many sports rights owners were looking at platforms like Twitch in the past, perhaps the ATP wasn’t sure how to approach it,” Plastiras said.
“And I think we all believe that if we’re going to do something we do it properly and we do it with the right expertise and the right focus. But there’s different ways you can approach it.
“For some, it’s about empowering the players to actually have their own voices. Look at some of the success we’ve had with a show like Tennis United in the past. It was a natural forum and fans and people want to hear that experience. But it’s great to see the growth of the likes of F1.”
F1 driver Lando Norris has been an avid Twitch streamer for years but this season, the young Brit saw his following more than triple during lockdown, and he broke multiple streaming records along the way. With nearly 700,000 followers, Norris has become F1’s unofficial face of e-sports and it looks like Monfils has the potential to do that, in a different way, for tennis.
“The story of Lando Norris is incredible. We’re aware of what’s happening in other sports and we know now is a good time because we know Twitch as a platform is really focusing its efforts on sports content and we think tennis can be a real core part of that content offering. We recognise the opportunity on this platform,” said Plastiras.
“There is a strategic question we have to figure out as to how we do it, but I would like to think you’ll see more tennis content, broadly, on Twitch next year.”
With lots of tournaments held behind closed doors due to the pandemic, now is the perfect time for tennis to come up with new ways to engage with fans. Targeting a younger audience and packaging content in shorter formats is key.