Wimbledon's strict dress code banning color and flashy corporate logos has made the tournament a bastion of tradition for more than a century.
But the grass courts of the All England Lawn Tennis Club finally have been infiltrated — by a U.S. fashion house, no less.
Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. will become the first external company in 129 years to outfit the tournament's on-court officials, who will exchange their green polyester grass-blending jackets for smart navy blue ones. In the past, Wimbledon has done its own design of officials' uniforms.
Rob McCowen, Wimbledon's marketing director, said it was time the current uniforms got a "smartening up and a refreshing'' — but drew the line at anything too drastic.
"The very English and timeless look of Ralph Lauren fits very well,'' he said. "They are not a company that is aggressive like a sports company, wanting their name plastered all over the fabric of the shirt.''
10-million dollar deal
The deal, worth just under $10 million, will give Ralph Lauren's polo logo a visible presence on court at Wimbledon when the Grand Slam event begins June 26.
While the players must stick to the club's all-white rule, the 570 umpires, ball girls and ball boys will sport Polo Ralph Lauren shorts, skirts, pants and blazers in navy blue with both Wimbledon's logo — two crossed tennis rackets — on the shirt sleeve and Polo's pony on the breast pocket.
Wimbledon's traditional green and purple colors will be retained in the officials' ties.
The Polo deal follows a steady increase in the number of sponsorships at Wimbledon, including one signed this year making Nestle SA's Haagen-Dazs the official ice cream supplier.
The tournament now has 15 commercial sponsors, including IBM Corp., American Express Co. and Coca-Cola Co. That is just a few short of the U.S. Open, where players sport much larger logos and the courts are adorned with sponsorship advertisements.
But McCowen said Wimbledon has chosen its sponsors carefully, largely restricting itself to those providing services it needs such as clocks, computers and champagne.
"That's our unique difference for Wimbledon, we believe we get better television revenue because our pictures are so clean,'' he said.
Wimbledon fiercely has guarded the genteel reputation that sets it apart from other tournaments on the Grand Slam circuit.
Former Wimbledon champion Andre Agassi, known for long hair and loud outfits early in his career, refused to play the London tournament from 1988 to 1990 because of his distaste for the grass surface and stuffy atmosphere, particularly the all-white dress code.
When he decided to play in 1991, the media speculated for weeks about what he would wear — he eventually emerged for the first round in a completely white outfit to spectator applause.
No black shorts allowed
More recently, Russia's Anna Kournikova was ordered to change in 2002 before the tournament even got underway when she was caught by security cameras practicing in black shorts.
The rule also has raised the ire of players' sponsors - Germany's Adidas AG is suing the All England Lawn Tennis Club and the International Tennis Federation for trying to restrict the size of its three-stripe shoulder design.
Wimbledon says the stripes are bigger than its logo size limit of 4 square inches. Adidas this week won a temporary injunction from London's High Court that allows the logo to appear at Wimbledon. A full case will be heard later in the year.
McCowen said there is no conflict between the Adidas dispute and the Ralph Lauren deal. The Polo pony on the Wimbledon uniforms are 3 inches square, compared to the 5-inch square pony logo worn by officials at the U.S. Open.
"We're not playing different rules,'' McCowen said.
Ralph Lauren went through the club's archive of pictures to create its uniform, basing it on the classic navy-blue blazers and cream-colored trousers worn by umpires in the 1930s and 1940s.
David Lauren, senior vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications at the fashion house, said that Wimbledon was "the pinnacle of sports marketing.''
"We've always been inspired by Europe and England, by the world of Wimbledon, by the style and the elegance and the sportsmanship,'' said Lauren, the son of the eponymous designer.
The deal gives Ralph Lauren greater exposure in an upmarket European market it is keen to penetrate. It will sell a 100-piece line of official Wimbledon attire online and in stores across Europe, the United States and in its new Japanese flagship store.
Nader Tavassoli, a marketing professor at the London Business School, said Ralph Lauren's style made it a winning deal for both sides, but warned it would be wise for Wimbledon not to stray too far from tradition.
"They are selling an experience, and that experience includes strawberries and cream and the grass courts and the rain breaks and a sense of Britishness, maybe snobbishness even,'' he said. "The bride wearing white at a wedding is part of the tradition. Does it change the experience if the bride wears a miniskirt? I think it does.''