WIMBLEDON: Behind the scenes -- Game, set and match

This year's Wimbledon was a triumph for Rafael Nadal and Venus Williams, but what goes on in the All England Club press office behind the glamour? Anne Wainscott-Sargent investigates.

Like many other big sporting institutions, the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) relies on an agency rather than an in-house PR team. Fast Track (owned by Bell Pottinger parent Chime) handles all media enquiries apart from accreditation for the AELTC and the Wimbledon Championship itself on a year-round basis.

Now in his 13th year as the tournament's media spokesperson, Fast Track's Johnny Perkins and his colleague Susan Hames act as the club's brand guardians and press gatekeepers. He claims they handle 3,000 press calls a year, and some 1,400 journalists are on site during Championship fortnight. Perkins says their job is to 'answer questions, educate the uninformed and provide local colour', especially for journalists covering the non-sports angles.

Perkins, a sports enthusiast from his college days, came to the PR field at age 29 - after six years in the Army. He cut his PR teeth working for a small firm in Chiswick where his first-ever sports event was the World Darts Championships.

Hames joined Fast Track as account manager last September from Horse Power Group, a PR firm specializing in equestrian competitions.

The team's PR remit is not about selling tickets (Wimbledon could sell out six times over) and focusing on 'flashy campaigns', but has a rather more conservative bent, explains Perkins.

That is not to say the AELTC will not be proactive with major news. In February 2007, it took the decision to award men and women equal prize money for the first time.

'We did a lot of work on that,' recalls Perkins, 'and we tried not to give too much away before the press conference. But calling a conference is a story in itself because we do not do many in winter, so everyone twigged something must be up.'

This year, the first major press announcement - the seedings - occurred the Wednesday before the Championships. The draw was announced the Friday before, while the defending champions' press conference convened the day before opening day. When PRWeek visited on the Thursday, six player press conferences were being hosted at the press centre, one of which had British number one Andy Murray as the main draw.

But the tennis is not the only story. The big IT angle this year was the new scoreboards on the main courts that show Hawk-Eye replays and other information relating to each match.

During the event, the PR team starts its day by reviewing press clips from the previous day, recommending responses to unfair or inaccurate coverage. It summarises coverage to the main executives.

Daily tennis information, such as the score sheets, the weather and attendees in the royal box, is always issued, but Perkins and Hames predominantly deal with non-tennis issues - the local community and anti-doping, hospitality and ticketing.

'We are the explainers and interpreters,' says Perkins, noting that one of the most quoted people is the head groundsman Eddie Seaward. 'He is rather good at doing interviews and his job is fundamental - no grass, no tournament. You could probably run the tournament without the rest of us, but we would be in trouble without him.'

Some of the PR can be mundane, like handling the '433rd enquiry about strawberries', but Perkins takes that aspect in his stride. 'If you are not interested in doing that side of it, this job isn't for you.'

Generally, if the sun shines everything flows. 'We are busy when it is sunny, but there is a nice buzz. After a couple of days of rain, people are very grumpy.'

This was never more apparent than in 2007, when ten days of rain fell. 'After the third day of rain you get a lot of calls from journalists,' says Perkins.

'"How much rain has fallen on the courts?" they ask. "What will the delays be? What is the rain refund policy?" The British news media love the refund question.

'Last year we were compiling stats on the amount of rain that fell on each court. The year before we had a drought so we talked about what measures we were taking to reduce water usage.'

The decision not to use the middle Sunday caused fury among punters and the press in 2007, and Perkins admits lessons have been learned.

'We probably should have made a proper announcement on television,' he says.

Now the 2008 Championship is over, it is time to review this year and plan for the big story in 2009 - the new retractable roof on Centre Court. As the 12-month cycle starts again, at least the team can plan for a year with the big matches played cocooned against the vagaries of an English summer.

CASE STUDY - TWELVE YEARS OF CLIFF RICHARD, STREAKERS AND ENDLESS TEA
'1996 - my first year at Wimbledon - had two memorable moments,' recalls All England Club spokesman Johnny Perkins. 'First, we had Cliff Richard singing in the rain on Centre Court. That performance has gone down in folklore.

'Then the men's final had the first streaker. The referee was about to do the coin toss, and the next minute a girl ran across the court. The phones began to ring, asking for a reaction. We issued a statement. Our view at the time was we do not condone this kind of behaviour, but equally no one died.

We do not want more copycats though, because then we would have to put barriers up. We changed the ticket allocations so those nearest the court are not the on-day sales. The people seated closest to the courts are not anonymous day pass holders any more - we have their names and addresses.'

Hames has picked up a lot about working in a major sporting press office over the past ten months from her senior colleague. She has also learned that 'a steady supply of chocolate bars and cups of tea' is a sure-fire way of keeping Perkins happy when things get hectic.

Perkins' favourite perk is catching up with the journalists who cover the Championships.

Asked what quality best helps his job he says 'stamina', but adds it helps to love sports and tell things like they are.

'If we can help, we'll help. If we can't, we can't,' he says firmly.

BY THE NUMBERS
0.5m - Spectators during Championship fortnight

1,400 - Number of journalists on site during the tournament

3,000 - Journalist enquiries throughout the year.

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