2004 Person of the year: Arlen Kantarian
By Mitch Rustad
For a tennis fan, the US Open Series was almost too good to be true. Ten summer tournaments on the WTA and ATP tours, 100 hours of live national television coverage, a player-bonus system to ensure top draws at every event and a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign, all providing increased visibility to tennis while building even more excitement for the granddaddy of all U.S. tournaments, the US Open.
A dynamic yet relatively simple concept, right? In truth, the creation of the inaugural US Open Series was anything but. In the alphabet soup that is professional tennis — where long-held traditions and private agendas often bog down any comprehensive attempts to truly modernize the sport — this kind of unity has been historically rare.
That history certainly didn’t faze US Open Series innovator Arlen Kantarian, the USTA’s chief executive of Professional Tennis since 2000. Kantarian successfully merged entertainment and sports throughout a career that has included successful stints at Pepsi, the NFL, and Radio City Entertainment. Kantarian — the man who got Michael Jackson to perform for the Super Bowl’s first halftime show and pushed the US Open women’s final into prime time — wasn’t about to be stopped by petty politics. Armed with a reputation as an innovator and consensus-builder, Kantarian bucked the odds by uniting the International Tennis Federation, ATP and WTA Tour, 10 tournaments, 10 founding partners and four television networks (ESPN, NBC, CBS, and The Tennis Channel) to create the US Open Series. The new pro tennis series of tournaments was a hit with players, sponsors and fans, generating increased TV ratings and positive buzz that should only build in the years to come. Thanks to this Herculean effort, Arlen Kantarian is Racquet Sports Industry’s Person of the Year for 2004.
Though the 51-year-old Kantarian often is reluctant to take the credit for his successes (in fact, Kantarian politely declined to be interviewed for this story), there’s no shortage of influential heavy-hitters ready to sing his praises.
Of the launch of the US Open Series, Chris Clouser, CEO of ATP Properties, said: “[Arlen] did it with class; he did it with determination; he did it with an unbelievable amount of energy; but I guess you have to say, he did it with integrity. I’ll always respect him for not what he did, but how he did it.”
Adds Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports: “I know for a fact that when [Arlen] had the idea three years ago, every meeting he went to, people spent an awful lot of time telling him why he could not pull this off, why this group could not come together for a unified tennis package. He really put his money where his mouth is. In the coming years, [the US Open Series] will pay enormous dividends for the sport of tennis, for existing fans, new fans and broadcasters across America. I think it’s only going to get better for the sport.”
Ultimately, industry leaders hope that high-profile marketing concepts including the US Open Series will translate into an industry-wide boom in participation, resulting in a trickle-down effect for the entire industry.
“Tennis had a triple threat going this summer,” says Kurt Kamperman, the USTA’s chief executive of its Community Tennis division. Kamperman is referring to the launch of the US Open Series, the debut of the “Tennis — Come Out Swinging” marketing campaign (featuring endorsements by such celebrities as Jeff Gordon and Donald Trump), and the start of the Tennis Welcome Center initiative. In fact, the Tennis Welcome Center website (www.TennisWelcomeCenter.com) had more than 250,000 unique visitors this spring and summer, a big spike that was due in large part to the US Open Series’ increased TV coverage. “It was a call to action to get in the game that was very visible” through on-court signage at Series events, including at the US Open itself, says Kamperman.
“This summer, tennis was elevated once again into the pop culture of America, and if we can build on that momentum the next two or three spring and summer seasons, we’re going to see the type of growth we’ve always wanted,” Kamperman adds.
While piecing the US Open Series puzzle together has kept Kantarian hopping, his accomplishments certainly don’t end there. His vision has resulted in everything from new fan enhancements at the Open — including in-stadium video screens and star-studded entertainment — to higher profiles for the U.S. Davis Cup, Fed Cup and Olympic team events and the USTA’s 96 Pro Circuit events throughout the country. Not to say Kantarian’s job is all glitz and glamour. After this year’s controversy over line calls in the heated Jennifer Capriati-Serena Williams US Open quarterfinal, Kantarian was on the hot seat to debate the merits of instant replay with a frenzied media and to make an apology call to Williams for the umpire’s well-publicized blunder. As for the future, Kantarian is, not surprisingly, thinking big: He hopes to get the US Open men’s final into prime time and boost the Open’s television ratings to rival sports biggest events, like the NBA Finals.
See all articles by Mitch Rustad
About the Author
Mitch Rustad has been a long-time freelance writer based in New York City.