New ATP President Etienne de Villiers took a wrong turn this week at the Masters Series-Paris.But that’s OK.
de Villiers has made a number of positive, bold moves since taking over the reins of the ATP, and he’s been on a steep learning
curve, immersing himself over the last couple years in a sport he didn’t know a whole lot about. He’s still learning.
At Disney, de Villiers could throw out an idea and five different divisions leapt into action. In tennis, de Villers throws out an idea
via the ATP and the four Grand Slams and the International Tennis Federation goes “Eh. You go ahead and play with your doubles scoring. We won’t be doing that.”
The men’s tour continued what has become an annual affair when a tired Roger Federer and an injured Rafael Nadal left one of the ATP’s biggest events high and dry, pulling out of the last event of the regular season, the MS-Paris. In fact five of the Top 6 players pulled out, seeking to heal injuries or get an extra week of rest before the Masters Cup in that sports Mecca of Shanghai.
“Some injures are serious, but some are maybe not as serious,” MS-Paris Tournament Co-Director Alain Riou told the media.
de Villiers, responding to the angry tournament director and fans, reached back and unveiled his new plan for marketing success in the men’s game — the old stand-by — “creating more characters.”
“We need to tell a better story of tennis,” de Villiers announced in Paris. “We need to build tournaments that tell a better story. We need more characters, players who people care about…What we’ve never done in tennis is give the fans what they want, so we’re doing a lot of research now. As a sport we have done a lousy job of developing characters. It was easier in the past to be a character, but now it’s a lot harder to get some awareness like (Jimmy) Connors and (John) McEnroe…We need to identify 12-15 guys and say: ‘How are we going to manage them?”
Say it isn’t so Etienne. Please, please give this a second thought. Whichever ATP marketing or communications head, still there since the 1990s, whichever one whispered this in your ear, please give it a second thought.
You don’t need to be picking out a handful of players and making videos with Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” blaring (remember that one? Brilliant!), or another “New Balls” campaign. You don’t need to create characters. You need to control the characters you have. And if you haven’t already picked out a top crop of players to promote/manage — well that’s another blog in itself.
John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors lit up tennis in the U.S. because they were John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. The ATP marketing efforts have been abysmal, Etienne, you said so yourself. Your marketing boys aren’t going to be able to turn Nikolay Davydenko into John McEnroe, or Tommy Robredo into Jimmy Connors. Save a few million and put a stop to the idea of “creating characters.”
You have characters. Federer (cool character). Nadal (musclely character). Andy Roddick (spastic chest-thumping character). Marat Safin (if only you could clone him and keep him uninjured).
What you need is CASH.
CASH will save tennis. You know those cartoons where there’s a warm apple pie with the scent trail wafting through the air, and someone smells the scent trail, then their body floats through the air with the scent trail towards he pie? Well the guy smelling the pie is the player, and the pie is CASH, and the players always gravitate toward cash.
Why do Roger Federer or Maria Sharapova suddenly pick up and fly to Dubai or Asia to play an exhibition? Why does Federer play a smaller event like Tokyo, or Basel, then skip the MS-Paris? CASH.
The Masters Series events can’t offer players appearance fees, because all the players are “required” to play, as opposed to other smaller events that are allowed to offer “under-the-table” monies. But what used to balance this out, even for the MS events, was CASH, as in a year-end bonus pool.
For the uninitiated, this was when the ATP used to hold out, say, $10 million or so until then end of the year, when the pool of monies would be split among the top players depending on how well they met their commitments (say, attended Masters Series events). The bonus pool went bottom-up around 2001 when the ATP’s marketing deal with ISL imploded. So for the past five years or so, there has been no CASH to lead the top players around.
If the bonus pool still existed, Roger Federer would be playing in Paris this week – instead of skipping one of the ATP’s biggest tournaments because he chose to play the little Basel event last week and is now “exhausted.”
If the bonus pool was in effect, Roger would tell the ATP, ‘I’m too tired fellas, I won’t be showing up in Paris.’
Then the ATP would remind him, ‘But Roger, you’ve met all your commitments up to this point in the year, and skipping Paris will drop your year-end Bonus Pool check, as the No. 1 player, from $4 million to $2 million.’
Then Roger would think ‘Damn, $2 mil, that’s a lot to throw away to sit on the couch watching TV for a week. Maybe I’ll go to Paris after all.’
That’s what CASH does.
Now you hear a couple frantic people shrieking, ‘But that will only encourage tanking! Players will show up at tournaments and just tank so they can go home!’
Maybe. That used to happen too. But know what? That happens right now, believe it or not. But after a settling-in period, the Bonus Pool will have players restructuring their schedules. You’ll have less of players competing at small tournaments because they pocket big appearance fees, then the next week pulling out of Masters Series events complaining ‘I’m too tired!’ — they will schedule around the Masters Series events, like they do the Slams.
The priority for the ATP needs to be spending money in the right places: re-instituting the Bonus Pool, getting tennis on TV, experimenting with outside-the-box initiatives like round robin play and Monday-night prime time finals. Not on trying to get kids to put Nikolay Davydenko posters on their walls. Not on trying to popularize a Tommy Robredo Halloween costume.
The game already has plenty of “characters.” Take Federer and Nadal and Roddick and Safin and Marcos Baghdatis and Andy Murray and run with them. And like other sports, tell them where you want them to play, and reward them with giant wheelbarrels full of cash for meeting those commitments.
CASH. As the credit card commercial goes, “It’s everywhere you want to be.” For pro tennis players, it dictates everywhere you want them to be.
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