In this second of two articles on pro tennis in the U.S., we explore how tennis can grow in the crowded landscape of American pro sports.
By Richard Pagliaro
This is the sixth in a series of articles about the tennis industry’s changing landscape, and the second installment that deals with the topic of professional tennis (see the August issue of RSI for the first part of this article). Future topics in the series will deal with participation, court construction and more. We’d like to hear your comments and concerns, too. E-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “state of the industry” in the subject line.
In the last issue, we explored the importance and impact of the Olympus US Open Series on professional tennis in the U.S. and the link that community involvement plays with many pro events. And, among other things, we took a look at the challenging climate for tournaments, including how the recession has impacted attendance and, in particular, sponsorships.
This installment of our State of the Industry series will continue our look at pro tennis events and some of the challenges they face. Among other things, we’ll explore how the sport can make a bigger impact in the crowded landscape of professional sports and what pro tennis in the U.S. can do to remain vital among tennis fans while also bringing in more general consumers.
For most tournaments, prize money is the single largest expense and one that carries the biggest burden these days. There is mandatory prize money tournaments must offer, but in many cases that’s just a starting point. To attract top players in order to sell sponsorships and tickets, tournaments often pay appearance fees to top players, which can escalate expenses by as much as 25 percent.
“It’s not like a player has to play Newport,” says Mark Stenning, tournament director of the Newport, R.I., Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships, “which makes it interesting in that not only do we provide total financial commitment of half a million dollars to players and to the Tour, but if we want to attract any top-ranked player it almost invariably involves an appearance fee. So a lot of times what you see with regard to a tournament’s financial commitment may not reflect the overall financial commitment that a tournament has made to attract a field.”
Appearance fees have been around as long as pro tournaments have existed, but how much bang for the buck are tournaments really getting from players these days? Are players, particularly those who make five- and sometimes six-figure appearance fees, doing enough off the court to promote the event and effectively sell the sport and the tournaments that pay them?
That depends on whom you ask. Sometimes, player promotional performance can go to extremes at the same event.
“Last year in San Jose we had a player under contract agree to do four appearances. He lost and I find out he’s headed out of town right after the match,” says San Jose tournament director Bill Rapp. “I get the guy on the phone and said, ‘I won’t pay your appearance fee if you leave.’ An hour later he showed up at the HP Pavilion and did some dynamic appearances for us. I think some players need to understand if you want to get compensated, you need to do more than just play. Unfortunately, there is not a great system in place to help them understand that.”
Given the fact some players turn pro without even a high school education, some are quicker learners than others.
“When I was No. 1 in the world, I didn’t pick up the phone unless it was ringing,” says Hall of Famer Jim Courier, the creator of the Champions Series. “Now, I make the calls myself. We’re in a very challenging economy and players need to be taught the value of promotion. Fortunately, we have guys at the top of the game like Federer, Nadal and Roddick who understand that and set an example. Sometimes that takes time to learn.”
Indeed, within the space of a single year, Rapp has seen the promotional power players can yield and how breaking down the barrier between athletes and audience can energize an event.
“We did the first pro-am of 2010 in San Jose and followed up in Memphis, and the one in San Jose was one of the most incredibly positive experiences in my 27-year career in tennis,” Rapp says. “Tommy Haas, Robby Ginepri and the Bryan brothers all played the pro-am and more than that, they actually engaged with the fans. We had the pros introduce themselves, share their personal tennis highlights and share something about themselves that had nothing to do with tennis. It was a real highlight to see them interact with fans and it created this connection between the amateurs and the pros.”
Incentive to Play
Some former players suggest mammoth paydays can dull desire for current players on and off the court.
“In my day, to make good money you had to win, and I don’t mean win tournaments, I mean you had to win a major to make good money,” Hall of Famer Jimmy Connors says. “Now, you see some of the young players signing big endorsement deals when they’re teenagers before they’ve really won anything. So where’s the incentive?”
Given the fact top players ranging from Rafael Nadal to Juan Martin del Potro, Nikolay Davydenko to Maria Sharapova, Dinara Safina to Kim Clijsters have been sidelined with injuries in recent years and that players complain the crowded calendar and brutally unforgiving hard courts conspire to beat up their bodies until they break down, can you really blame players for pursuing quick cash from appearance fees and exhibitions?
Unlike most American team sports, there are no guaranteed contracts for tennis players. If you’re a .220 pinch-hitter for the Mets or the 11th man on the Celtics, you still get paid even if you don’t play every game. But a tennis player who suffers a string of first-round losses can walk away in debt, particularly when you consider many players pay for their own travel expenses and hotel accommodations for themselves and their coach — if they can afford a coach.
“It’s a tough time for pro tennis in America. And if I was a player and I had a limited lifespan, I’d probably follow the cash too,” says John Korff, who ran the Mahwah, N.J., exhibition event for many years. “If you think about it objectively, what’s the responsibility of a top player? Here’s a hypothetical: What’s Andy Roddick’s responsibility to make sure there’s a strong American tour? Well, nothing. It’s not his responsibility to do a damn thing. He’s 27. How many more years does he have as a Top-10 player?
“It’s Roddick’s responsibility to make as much money as he can because that’s his job,” Korff adds. “And compare tennis to golf where a player can say, ‘I’m gonna go play a couple of smaller tournaments because they need help and because I’ve got another 15 years to play top-level golf.’ You’ve got to pick and choose in tennis because the careers can be so brief.”
Some tournament directors and insiders say there is a simple — albeit unpopular — potential solution: freeze or reduce prize money at the lower-level American tournaments until the economy improves or sponsorships increase.
“Clearly, the perfect solution is a more economic-based Tour,” Korff says. “I think players just make too much money. It’s an absurd amount at the regular tournaments. At the Slams and at a couple of the big tournaments that have big sponsorship and big attendance, then maybe they can make a lot of money. How can a tournament in Atlanta where they could never afford a Roger Federer or a Rafael Nadal do it? The reality is you’re never going to have that [top player] because that guy is going to go someplace where someone pays him a ton of appearance money. Then how does the tournament do it? It’s a conundrum, so the promoter has to be really creative and has to rely on more than the names of the tennis players to sell the tickets.”
An Entertainment Experience
The days of tennis matches selling tennis tournaments are over. In order to attract sponsors, fans and corporate clients to fill its hospitality tents, today’s tournament must be an entertainment experience, which is part competition, part carnival, part concert, part cuisine and part corporate party.
The tournament in New Haven, Conn., hosts the city’s wine and food festival; Newport has the annual Hall of Fame induction. In Delray Beach, Fla., the ATP Champions Tour senior final between John McEnroe and Patrick Rafter drew more fans than most of its ATP matches played the same week. Los Angeles hosted concerts by Keith Urban and Brett Michaels and featured an exhibition between Andre Agassi and John McEnroe.
Tennis has one of the most riveting rivalries in history in Federer vs. Nadal, the ongoing championship chapters of the Williams sisters’ storied careers and the returns of former World No. 1 players Clijsters and Justine Henin. So how come tournament tennis can still be a tough sell?
Ratings appear to show that despite Federer and Nadal, American viewers want to see American players. Serena Williams, who has had rivalries with a slew of opponents including sister Venus, remains the biggest ratings winner in recent years for ESPN.
Some life-long players assert that revelry is just as important as rivalry for tournament tennis to succeed today.
“I’m convinced tennis doesn’t need rivalries like Evert and Navratilova. I am not sold on the idea that rivalries are necessary to tennis’ growth,” says ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale, a founder and first president of the ATP. “Look, it’s all about perception. It’s all about people wanting to buy a ticket to an event that is sold out and the perception of the tennis tournament as ‘an event’ is an important selling point.
“Tennis dominates the scene in Charleston for the Family Circle Cup or during the Sony Ericsson Open on Key Biscayne,” he continues. “Tennis is all over south Florida during that time: It’s on TV, in the newspapers, it’s part of the social culture of the community and that is what creates the buzz even more than rivalry does. Yes, it helps when Federer and Nadal are in the final, but it doesn’t sell another ticket.”
Tournament promotion and creative marketing campaigns can sell tickets and some insiders say that’s where pro tennis has dropped the ball.
“The biggest problem we have in tennis today is how we promote it,” says ProServ founder and former U.S. Davis Cup captain Donald Dell. “It is the lack of comparative promotion. We are doing better than golf in the last three to five years on a worldwide level, but promotion can be a problem. The ATP is trying to promote the ATP and the WTA is trying to promote its tournaments, but when you look at it they really are competitors for sponsors. They will tell you they are all part of it, which is true to a certain extent, but it’s a balancing act for the tournaments too. When the ATP lost Mercedes Benz as a sponsor we (the tournaments) lost money as a result, so there is a competitive dynamic at work too.”
Combining Men and Women?
Can a sport some see as divided come together and strengthen itself through either more combined men’s and women’s events or ultimately one combined professional tour?
Former WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott not only advocated that the two tours join forces, he also suggested it might be inevitable. Scott left tennis to become PAC-10 commissioner, but the concept of combining the two pro tours remains intriguing.
“Aside from the practical issues — and there are many — I think absolutely the ATP and WTA should join together,” says World Team-Tennis CEO/Commis- sioner Ilana Kloss. “I think if we were one organization we would have so much more strength negotiating with sponsors, with Grand Slam tournaments and in terms of marketing. Having one voice would be hugely important and would give players and the sport a lot more impact and broaden tennis’ appeal. Having said that, I know it’s very difficult.”
Rapp, who works with both tours in his role running the men’s event in San Jose and Memphis’ mixed tournament, also supports the idea though he doesn’t exactly see it going down smoothly. “It makes perfect sense to combine the tours,” Rapp says. “But now that I work on both sides, boy they are very, very different. As much as it would be simple to say ‘Yes, combine the two,’ it would almost be like blending two divorced families: You’ve got all kinds of issues on your hands.”
Then there is the question of coverage. If the most exciting encounter in sport takes place on a tennis court (see Nadal vs. Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final or Roddick vs. Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final) how much is its impact diminished by decreasing media coverage?
“The media is important because they tell our stories,” Hall of Famer and WTT founder Billie Jean King says. “When we started the WTA Tour, we would often spend our mornings doing newspaper and radio and TV interviews to promote the Tour before playing matches in the afternoon or at night. We were proactive. We worked with (former World Tennis Magazine publisher) Gladys Heldman to spread the word and sell the game through the media. The media was critical to helping the women’s tour grow and the media remains important to the growth of the game today.”
Some of the nation’s esteemed sportswriters — Allison Danzig, George Plimpton, Hall of Famers Gene Scott and Bud Collins, and one of its gifted recent writers, the late David Foster Wallace — wrote eloquent and enlightening pieces about tennis, which was once a mainstay of major newspaper coverage.
As printing and mailing costs have increased and advertising revenue has decreased, media has taken a hit. Established magazines, like Tennis Week, folded while some of the nation’s top newspapers with traditions of covering the game have cut staff and reduced travel budgets, deeming tennis simply too costly, particularly when readers and advertisers aren’t exactly clamoring for more tennis coverage.
Less Coverage in the Media
Former New York Times sports editor Neil Amdur served as editor for two of the nation’s most influential — and now defunct — tennis magazines: World Tennis and Tennis Week, and has covered the game for more than four decades. Amdur wonders how can fans care about a sport if they can’t always read about it in mainstream media?
“Tennis is trapped in no-man’s land somewhere between the baseline and the net and what is happening are other sports are taking over and taking the space tennis often got,” Amdur says. “We’re at a point right now where the average fan cannot always get a tennis result in the newspaper. Despite the emergence of Tennis Channel and the excitement generated by the US Open, there is less media coverage of the sport now than anytime I can recall, even with refreshingly diverse personalities like Federer, Nadal, the Williams sisters, Sharapova and Roddick.
“Other than Venus, Serena and Roddick, right now there is an absence of a lot of attractive American players — basically the sport doesn’t have anybody selling it,” Amdur says. “In Europe, Novak Djokovic is popular. But Djokovic is a foreign language film with subtitles in this country. If you take away the Williams sisters you have maybe two Americans the casual fan knows, so how can you make a case for people in this country getting excited about it? You don’t have the loyal newspaper tennis writer who is really following the tour and telling the stories fans can follow and those writers are doing that for other sports and that really can make a difference.”
Media coverage is more than a vanity plate for the sport. It also puts the tennis brands — from racquets, to apparel to accessories such as watches — in the mainstream media, which in turn generates exposure for those brands and potentially attracts consumers to buy, for instance, the racquet they saw a pro use to win a major tournament.
Still, there are some positive signs. During Tennis Channel’s recent coverage of Roland Garros it televised more commercials from endemic sponsors, including Babolat, LaCoste, Wilson, Dunlop and K-Swiss, which recently signed a one-year pact as the official shoe of Tennis Channel.
Putting the Team in Tennis
But are the big pro events really helping to popularize tennis in the U.S.? “I think everyone emphasizes the majors so much,” says King. “In the old days when we played, we emphasized the tour a lot more. That’s when we had over 40 tournaments and TeamTennis in this country, when we were doing our best. It really gets back to making sure we have tennis in the community, TeamTennis, Fed Cups, Davis Cups in our communities because it’s the only way we’re going to get our kids inspired.”
One way to help promote tennis in the U.S., many believe, is through team play. The U.S. is a team sport nation — virtually every other sport that youngsters play involves being on a team, playing as a team. Kids, and even adults, like playing with friends.
“I do not think our sport can be big in this country if it isn’t a team sport when (youngsters) sign up to play,” says King. “That’s been my mantra forever since I started because I grew up in team sports. When children sign up to play, it’s got to be team.”
The USTA and other groups recognize this and have been promoting programs to get both youngsters and adults playing on teams, such as the USTA’s Jr. Team Tennis program, advocating for “no-cut” middle- and high-school tennis teams, the popular Tennis on Campus program and leagues for adults. And the TeamTennis format, used for WTT matches, is also being used more and more, says King.
Creating More Partnerships
What is the immediate future for American tournament tennis and how can it make a bigger footprint in a crowded sports landscape?
The short answer is tennis, largely viewed as a singles sport, must continue to collectively create more partnerships if the game is to gain traction in the U.S.
The USTA, which has successfully launched and sustained its US Open Series, could consider the prospect of expanding that model and extending the Series to package San Jose, Memphis and Delray Beach together as a modified spring US Open Series to lead into Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston. The issue, of course, is those events do not directly lead into the US Open, the USTA’s cash cow, as the summer events do. While there is not the same financial or television payoff in the spring, those events are important because they keep tennis in the public eye at what is traditionally a dark time for the game.
While there are inherent issues between a full-fledged ATP/WTA partnership — structurally, the organizations are different, their rules differ and if there was a complete merger it would undoubtedly increase operating costs for tournaments — the fact is the most successful tournaments in the world are combined men’s and women’s events that offer fans and sponsors the best value. Tennis would be best served by creating more combined events.
Continued cooperation between community tennis and the pro tournaments is critical to the growth of both. Most tournaments already offer discounts to USTA members, and conducting more pro-ams, adding more QuickStart courts to pro tournament sites as well as exploring the idea of holding sectional tournaments concurrently at pro events could help.
Tennis must be willing to take creative and experimental measures to enhance the tournament experience. Aside from adopting the tie-breaker, the yellow ball, colored clothes and Hawk-Eye, tennis has largely been resistant to change. If NFL players can wear microphones on the field, NBA stars can conduct interviews at halftime and NASCAR drivers race cars with cameras, why can’t tennis explore technological advances? ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert suggests adopting a shot clock on court to speed up the game, and since the ball is in play for such a small percentage of time during a match, Gilbert’s suggestion makes sense.
There are many issues and challenges in the world of pro tennis, some easy to address, others requiring more careful analysis and a “team” approach that may require tennis’ governing bodies to come together to bridge certain divides. But one thing is certain, if the governing bodies in this sport can work together to grow not just the professional side of the game, but also spill that growth over into the community, and vice versa, then the potential for prosperity is huge — for everyone in this industry.
See all articles by Richard Pagliaro