Tennis at a Crossroads: Why the Year-end Championships Are a Bust
Posted on November 25, 2003
By Richard Vach
There are few people in professional tennis who "get it." And those who do generally aren't in a position to make radical changes in the game, as evidenced by the year-end ATP and WTA Championships in November.
ATP head honcho Mark Miles has sat in the driver's seat of men's professional tennis for almost 15 years, by most accounts showing himself a competent enough politician not to get fired, but at the same time without the skills to break tennis big, especially in the U.S. On the women's side, new WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott has launched a few nitiatives like the humdrum "Get in Touch With Your Feminine Side" campaign, and has now realized that sometimes women don't show up when they are suppose to, though as a married man, he probably knew that going in.
So Miles, Scott and the ITF brass all got together this November in the U.S. to close out a memorable 2003 season with a bang. Instead, it turned out to be a bust.
Up first, the WTA Championships, which suffered miserably due to lack of promotion and fan support in 2002. But this year, with attendance slightly up, was again off the radar screen. No Venus and Serena and an early and uneventful end to the No. 1 race left little on-court drama.
Off court, Scott, who did his internship under Miles at the ATP and executed some of the carry-over men's tour's initiatives, talked about changes including making the WTA Championships a more mobile event.
"The initial strategy was this event should move from time to time," Scott said. Time to time is after two years? "It is the crown jewel of the tour circuit. We have different constituents in different parts of the world that need to be served. Being in L.A. is not the ideal time zone for our European television broadcast partners, as an example."
That's great and all, but the problem was no one told the tournament co-owners that their event was going to be moving. As such, Tim Leiweke, head of the Anschutz Entertainment Group which owns 50 percent of the WTA Championships, was not amused nor excited about selling a lame-duck event to sponsors.
"You have somebody like our company and Octagon, to their credit, that have lost millions of dollars on this tournament, trying to build it over a period of time and make it work in L.A.," Leiweke told the L.A. Times after hearing Scott's announcement. "I didn't know they were going to publicly announce that next year is our last year...I'm a little bewildered that we could lose as much money as we've lost, and then we learn about this through a press conference."
Scott defends the decision to move the championships as "bringing tennis to the masses," not to mention closing the money-sucking black hole that is the event at the Staples Center.
But some in the tennis media weren't buying that.
"Just when you thought WTA CEO Larry Scott would be a better leader than his predecessors Moe and Curly, he comes out to Los Angeles and embarrasses the tour," wrote the Palm Springs Desert Sun.
Now Scott, if he gets his way, will take the WTA Championships on the same roller coaster ride as the ATP does, sprinting toward whoever holds out the biggest wad of cash, much to the displeasure of Billie Jean King, one of the WTA's founders.
The WTA put Billie Jean on a pedestal this year during the year-end championships to celebrate 30 years of professional tennis, due in large part to BJK herself. But when it comes to listening to the legend's advice, the WTA turns a deaf ear.
'You need to keep the WTA Championships in one place!' shouts King, 'Let it build a following! Grow the event!' But the WTA knows better than to listen to a washed-up commodity like King, who merely splits her time between coaching the U.S. Fed Cup team, running World Team Tennis, and working to keep tennis in the spotlight with tireless effort. 'What's that, Billie?' shouts the WTA brass. 'Can't hear you over these loud air conditioners echoing throughout the empty Staples Center...during the WTA final. Write it down and put it in that suggestion box over there, we'll get to it real soon. And stay healthy, we'll be dragging you out in another 20 years for the 50th celebration!'
Scott's round-the-world plans for the WTA Championships are much like what the ATP has done over the years with their globe-trotting Masters Cup, which has worked well by all accounts (if you discount media coverage) until this year in Houston.
Furniture magnate Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale is pedaling a message along the same lines of King, 'Keep the Masters Cup in one place and grow it.' And like King, he is finding resistance, albeit for different and somewhat hilarious reasons.
The first-time promoter for this year's Masters Cup in Houston, McIngvale is half-way through a two-year contract with the ATP for hosting the event in Houston, and has even grander plans. Mattress Mac, who has spent tens of millions out of his own pocket to put on the Houston event, wants to bring the men's and women's year-end championships together as early as 2005.
"I told Larry Scott and Mark Miles that what they need to do is put their season-ending championships in one town and build the event, otherwise it'll never be anything," McIngvale told the Houston Chronicle.
The ATP, naturally, is talking about moving the event out of Houston after next year if they can find a suitable host (read: someone, anyone with money).
"I can't tell you how many people called and said, `I had no idea it was such a big event,'" McIngvale said. "Well, if we can keep it here, they'll know it's a big event and we'll be able to get big-time sponsors and monetize tennis. That's the opportunity and the challenge." Apparently when you're a millionaire, you can make up words like "monetize."
Mattress Mac hopes to work his business magic in uniting the two events and thus bringing greater visibility to a game that struggles for attention in November in the United States, and of course to help further pad his wallet. This year the Masters Cup displayed high-quality tennis and rolled out a plethora of new (and old) stars, but was virtually ignored by the media at large in the U.S. That doesn't faze Double M in moving forward with his "master" plan.
"Larry Scott was absolutely receptive," said McIngvale to the Houston Chronicle. "He flew to Houston from Florida just for that meeting with us and Miles. He's receptive to it because it's real simple -- he knows where the fans are. The fans are right here." He was also receptive because Scott played a large role in Houston securing the Masters Cup. Miles, however, was unwilling to commit.
What could be better than a tennis-loving millionaire coming out of nowhere to spend millions out of pocket to promote the game? Well, here's the rub.
McIngvale, when he comes out of the back rooms in front of the TV cameras, appears as an unpolished jingoistic backwoods buffoon to international tennis fans. Then when he opens his mouth, it frequently gets worse.
While many promoters, regardless of their love for the game, treat the sport as a business, "Mattress Wack" looks at his event like a 12-year-old fan looks at the Agassi and Roddick posters on his bedroom wall. During the Masters Cup, McIngvale took to donning an American flag shirt while he stood up in the stands, cheering for the accomplishments of the two Americans, and against those of the "foreign" players.
The Brit paper The Guardian summed it up best, writing "McIngvale, in his red cap and stars and bars shirt, used the tournament to publicize himself and as a showcase for all things American."
McIngvale offered up a semi-apology after ATP officials took him aside and explained how, as the tournament promoter for the international event, openly cheering for the American players could offend some of the other participants. Mattress Mac agreed to tone it down but griped that as a promoter he would get bigger bucks with the Americans advancing.
Just how has this guy amassed $200 million? And how can he not understand he isn't supposed to be a regular American tennis fan -- he is the tournament promoter, the face-out-front guy, the guy who's supposed to make everyone at the event feel good. The pro-American cheerleading by the promoter and the last-minute construction of the small stadium, coupled with problems with the court surface, had an icy effect on the non-American players.
"This tournament is not the same as I played before," said Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero, a Masters Cup veteran who was perturbed with organizers all week and bombed out of the event with an 0-3 round robin record. "I play in Sydney, I play in Shanghai and there it was much better than here. The Masters is always special and this tournament wasn't this time. The courts, the organization -- I think this tournament is not what we expected."
Argentinean David Nalbandian was another unhappy camper after the Mattress Mac treatment.
"I think it's a lack of respect toward the (non-American) players," said Nalbandian, who got so angry at McIngvale clapping for Agassi during his match that after one winning shot against the American, he turned toward McIngvale in the stands and shouted "Applaud that!" Some coaches even requested McIngvale be barred from the locker room.
Perhaps the highlight of the ESPN-televised Masters Cup in the U.S. was McIngvale throwing his hat over the top of the bleachers in disgust after Agassi lost a key break in his match against Rainer Schuettler. For his part, Schuettler appeared more than perturbed during his matches, muttering to himself and glancing up in the stands, yet would not say what was bothering him in his post-match interviews. Since Schuettler was among the most vocal critics before the tournament began, citing the poor condition of the courts, crappy food, etc., it appeared the ATP had effectively "gotten to" the German about voicing any further displeasure with the event or its promoter.
Also not lost on the tennis-viewing public were Mattress Mac's "prayers" caught on camera after his Americans escaped a tight spot, his scowls and stomping about when they failed, nor his maniacal smiling and high-five-ing when they won. Adding insult to injury, after Agassi lost in the final to Roger Federer, Mattress Mac made a glowing speech about the runner-up, then barely acknowledged the champion Swiss.
Here the ATP has a golden goose, a man willing to give millions out-of-pocket to promote the sport, but this goose also craps all over the place and makes European and American fans alike say "Ewww."
And don't think that while Mattress Mac is working his business connections to bring the men's and women's championships together, the ATP isn't behind the scenes trying to figure out how to keep this PR nightmare to a minimum. Along with the International Tennis Federation and the Grand Slam Committee, which co-sponsor the Masters Cup, the ATP must now find a way to assure non-U.S. players and fans alike that the tour isn't being draped with the stars and stripes.
Is there a way to keep Mattress Mac out of the spotlight, yet still supporting the game? Can he maybe just, uh...hand over the checkbook? Regardless of the poor presentation, McIngvale is a valuable (if not valued) contributor, and is still enough of a business-savvy outsider to look at the big picture (if he's not watching an American play a match) with a freshperspective on both tours.
"I think that tennis needs to do a better job of getting its players to market to the corporate sponsors, which puts money into the game, which allows you to publicize the game more," McIngvale told the Star Telegram. "We did the television for the golf championships this year. And I said, 'What's the schedule?' And she said Monday some of them practice. Tuesday, all 30 players are here for the pro-am, and Wednesday is another practice day. The point of the matter is that all 30 players go to the pro-am, and they mix and mingle with those corporate types, who then invest their money in the game…That's what tennis needs to do and get all these rivals and factions and put them behind them, and let's see how we can figure out how to grow the pie -- not everyone get a bigger piece of a smaller pie."
The men's tour has always had their big piece, choosing to compete with the women's tour rather than work together.
But these days things are on a more even playing field, with the pie more evenly distributed. Over the years the women's tour has slowly caught up with the public, especially after the explosion caused by sex-bomb Anna Kournikova and the fem-bots who've followed, and the dominating Williams sisters and their assorted social baggage. Now with both tours stalled, unable to make large inroads against the other major sports despite the growing popularity of top stars such as Roddick and the Williams sisters, tennis' only hope lies in cooperation. Tennis needs to share the pie. Hell, tennis needs to find the pie.
Toward the end of the 2003 season, the ATP and WTA announced unprecedented future joint ventures such as sharing website support, producing a joint media guide, and sharing ranking/scoring systems. The tours say they will also work together to promote the game at events in 2004 where both the men and women compete, such as Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. It's a start.
But real change, and real advancement for the sport, won't happen until one of the players at the table who "get it" receive some real power (can you say "Commissioner of Professional Tennis?"). Until then, the numerous CEOs and rogue tournament promoters will keep the pro tours in the same position as their year-end championships -- scurrying around the world losing their fans.
Richard Vach is a Senior Writer for Tennis-X.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.