Mike Davies: Making Tennis Big Business
by Cindy Shmerler
Mike Davies is tired of people mispronouncing his name. It irks him — good-naturedly anyway — that even his best buddies like Butch Buchholz and Stan Smith refuse to call him “Davis,” the native Welsh pronunciation, preferring instead “Davees,” as most have referred to him for most of his 50 years in tennis. Only now, as a recent inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, has Davies made it clear that he wants his name spoken correctly.
But perhaps it is fitting that Davies’ work in the game has trumped his name recognition. The 76-year-old Davies is a behind-the-scenes one-of-a-kind who, through his tennis creativity, business acumen and sheer chutzpah, has literally transformed the way the professional game is played today.
The year was 1970 and “open” tennis — a.k.a. paid touring pros — was still in its infancy. Davies, once the top-ranked player in Great Britain, had been banned by the International Tennis Federation from playing Davis Cup and the major championships for turning pro in 1960 at age 24. His playing days over, Davies was teaching at the Jack Kramer Club in Los Angeles when Lamar Hunt and Al Hill Jr. tapped him and his marketing skills to help lead World Championship Tennis, the independent, renegade league that promised players big money and even bigger worldwide exposure.
“Lamar taught me many things,” says Davies, who was the last Brit to reach a Wimbledon final, in doubles in 1960, until Andy Murray lost to Roger Federer in the singles final this past July. “One was that there are two words to ‘show business,’ and most forget the second word.”
So Davies set out to make the game big business. By using the burgeoning popularity of the sport and the even greater lure of names such as two-time Grand Slam champion Rod Laver and his fellow Australian Ken Rosewall, Davies secured the first lucrative television deals with NBC. (The caveat was that Davies had to raise the first $1 million in advertising himself, which, of course, he did.)
He then came up with the idea of using yellow tennis balls, rather than the traditional white ones, and colored clothing, all with the intent of enhancing viewer pleasure. But there were other problems as well.
“In those days players did not sit down, did not have chairs on the court,” says Davies, with a bit of a smirk, acknowledging that today’s pros don’t know how good they have it. “They walked basically to the umpire’s chair, took a drink of water, wiped down and went to their place to play. All that took about 20 seconds. [But] the television people said to me, ‘What are you doing? We have to put commercials in.’ I said, ‘We’re going to have to put chairs on the court and hold the players.’
“Rosewall and Laver, the first time we did this, they looked at me like I was crazy,” adds Davies of the now-90-second changeover time. “I had to explain to them the business side of tennis, that, ‘Guys, this is so you can get commercials. The more people watch, the more the television will be able to charge for commercials and the more prize money you’re going to get.’”
“We called him ‘the Sarge’ because he was always barking orders,” says fellow former touring pro and Hall of Famer Buchholz. “Mike was the guy who convinced Lamar that he shouldn’t put up all the money for WCT by himself, that he was going about it wrong and should find sponsors, somebody else to put up the money. Through his passion, Mike took tennis out of the small office and the trunk of somebody’s car and made it big business. He was the bridge that made all that happen.”
When asked what he would do to change the sport today, Davies laughs at the difficulty of the question, ponders a moment and then throws out yet another business pitch.
“I really think the Grand Slams are going to have to look at five-set matches,” he says. “I’m not saying they should change to three sets, but I think they need to shorten the men’s matches. Television drives the business train of all sports. When you have five-set Davis Cup matches, for example, the network has to devote, like, nine hours on the first day of singles play. That’s a tremendous amount of inventory and dedication. Maybe you play four sets with a tiebreaker for the fifth, something like that.”
The idea of a super-tiebreaker in lieu of the fifth set at Roland Garros may seem radical but, then again, so have most of Davies’ other ideas.
“So many of the things that we’re doing today are because Mike started them,” says Buchholz. “He may have been a rebel but, in the end, he’s been a rebel for the establishment.”
“Pioneers in Tennis,” an occasional column in RSI, draws attention to trailblazers in the sport. Have someone to suggest? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.