Ian Ritchie: Millions thud into his net and one day he'll have a roof over his head

How Wimbledon's boss embraces both change and tradition, courts the stars and plays winners on TV rights
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The Independent Online

The first ball struck tomorrow will mark not only the start of Wimbledon 2006 but the greatest challenge Ian Ritchie has faced in his career. And if Tim Henman and Andy Murray think they're under pressure, at least in their case there'll be another event along soon if things don't go to plan.

"It has a long-established reputation as the finest championship on any surface," says Ritchie. "I'm determined not to let anyone down. But there is only one chance, one tournament, each year to get it right."

This is Ritchie's first Wimbledon: the 52-year-old joined the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) as chief executive-elect in February 2005, replacing Chris Gorringe, who retired last August after doing the job for more than 20 years.

Wimbledon is managed by a committee of 12 AELTC members and seven nominees from the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), which is responsible for nurturing tennis in the UK. The profits from each tournament, £27m last year, go to the LTA to fund projects such as new courts, as well as coaching and encouraging people to take up the sport.

"While Wimbledon is about providing a spectacle - the finest tennis players in the world competing in more than 600 matches over two weeks in a classic, English country garden setting - the event must be underpinned by the best management practice," says Ritchie.

"We need to generate enough income to attract the best players, both in prize money and through state-of-the-art courts.

"On top of this, we aim for a healthy surplus to plough back into British tennis, perhaps paving the way for a home-grown Wimbledon champion."

A former director of West Ham United football club, Ritchie has sport in his blood, though not at the risk of keeping a clear head for management. "You have to have business skills - the ability, for example, to negotiate with suppliers and broadcasters. That's not to mention winning the trust of top players.

"But you also need to love the product, to be enthused by tennis and the desire to provide it in ways that combine the unique traditions of Wimbledon with innovation. Mention Wimbledon and everyone thinks of tennis. I want to keep it that way."

Believing in the product has been central to Ritchie's career. He trained as a barrister, but television was his first love and he worked his way up through the industry over 16 years before becoming chief executive of Channel 5 in 1996. There, he had the task of getting the nation's homes ready for the channel's launch.

Then, just over a year into the job, David Elstein, BSkyB's head of programming, was brought in to replace him. Ritchie was made chief operating officer but left soon after.

"The buzz and the challenge was in the preparation for what proved to be a successful launch," he recalls. "After that, I wanted something new. I took the opportunity to widen my experience beyond the UK by joining Middle East Broadcasting. The international perspective I gained there supports my present role in negotiating worldwide TV rights for Wimbledon."

Tennis has always been a passion for Ritchie. "I first visited Wimbledon in the 1960s as a schoolboy, travelling down from Leeds with a ticket from my local tennis club," he says. He plays once a week, taking advantage of the workplace facilities - though not the show courts. "These are largely reserved for the championship weeks, in line with tradition."

But while this tradition is safe, the Centre Court is changing. The big matches in 2009 will be played under a retractable roof designed to beat the tournament's greatest threat: rain. More seats will be added too, increasing spectator capacity from 13,800 to 15,000.

"A 21st-century Wimbledon will be competing with other sports and other stadiums, such as Wembley, and our facilities must match the highest standards."

It's a far cry from the first Lawn Tennis Championship: a Gentlemen's Singles in 1877. Then, 200 spectators paid a shilling each to watch Spencer Gore win a 12-guinea prize. Wimbledon 2006 offers £655,000 to the men's singles champion.

That the tournament is in a position to pay this much money owes something to its ability to exploit the new world of broadcasting. "Wimbledon was quick to spot the potential of the internet to distribute coverage of matches," says Ritchie. "Web-based technology now provides ball-by-ball coverage plus background information to a world-wide audience of many millions. But there's huge potential still to be tapped via video streaming and other means."

Play was first televised at Wimbledon in 1937 for up to half an hour each day. By 2005, this had risen to over 7,000 hours transmitted to 562 million homes in 167 countries. "Income from TV rights is hugely important," says Ritchie. "Apart from our long-running deal with the BBC, we have agreements with a range of broadcasters including the American network NBC and NHK in Japan."

The current deal with the BBC lasts until 2009. Ritchie refuses to say how much the rights are worth, citing commercial confidentiality, although sources believe the BBC paid £50m for its five-year extension in 2005.

And then there is the merchandising - a core area for Ritchie when you consider that 8,000 Men's Championship towels flew off the shelves last year alone. More than 20 licensees in seven countries sell Wimbledon branded products, ranging from rackets and balls to sunglasses, jewellery and glassware.

One of the latest deals was struck with Polo Ralph Lauren. The New York fashion house will provide outfits for Wimbledon's on-court officials until 2010 and is breaking with tradition by dressing them in blue, instead of green. Its Wimbledon Collection will also be sold to the public.

The immediate focus for Ritchie, however, is tomorrow and ensuring - British weather permitting - that this year's event goes smoothly. "Organising the retuning of TVs in living rooms throughout the UK to receive Channel 5 was challenging," he says. "But bringing together all the pieces of the Wimbledon jigsaw is a challenge and a half."


BORN 27 November 1953.

EDUCATION Studied law at Oxford University.


1976: called to the Bar.

1980: joins Granada TV as industrial relations officer.

1988: director of resources and then managing director at Tyne Tees TV.

1992: group deputy chief executive of the merged Yorkshire Tyne-Tees TV.

1993: managing director, Nottingham studios, Central TV.

1994: managing director, London News Network.

1996: chief executive, Channel 5.

1997: chief executive, Middle East Broadcasting.

2000: vice-president of global business, Associated Press.

2002: joint chairman, Sports News Television.

2005 to now: chief executive, All England Lawn Tennis Club.

Other positions: independent director, Football League.