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CHAMPIONS TOUR LOOKS TO GAIN CORPORATE HELP TO FORGE AHEAD
Published August 25, 1995
The Champions Tennis Tour, the 35-and-over men's circuit founded in '93 by former ProServ President & Co-Founder Ray Benton and Jimmy Connors, is in the midst of their most successful season. Benton and Connors began Net Assets to manage and promote the Champions Tour, and it has overseen the growth from three events in '93 to 12 events this year, including their first international stop in Moscow last April. The Tour, which features Connors, Bjorn Borg, and Guillermo Vilas, has established itself in small venues by stressing a fan-friendly environment, with relaxed access to players for fans and sponsors alike. The recent Citibank Champions event in Westchester, NY, drew a record attendance of 34,000 people over the five-day event. THE GOLF COMPARISON: Benton told THE SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY that he and Connors formed the Tour "because we had seen what the Senior PGA had done and we thought we could capture some of the success the Senior PGA had caught." Although it is the model, senior golf also poses the greatest threat to the Champions Tour. Benton says golf is "so hot right now, and such a high proportion of corporate executives play golf, that it has been a challenge to get their attention for tennis." Although they currently have presenting sponsor U.S. News & World Report, along with Citibank, Coopers & Lybrand, and John Nuveen & Co. among others, Benton said his main challenge has been generating corporate interest. Roger Williams, a contributing editor to TENNIS magazine, praises the Tour, but says sponsorship dollars are "very very tough for tennis these days." Williams: "The bloom is off the rose in that regard. I know that they had great difficulty getting an umbrella sponsor." Benton said companies are less generous with their marketing dollars than in the past, but stressed the Tour is "doing fine. But we can always do better. ... Tennis has bottomed out. It is on its way back." WORD FROM THEIR SPONSORS: Karen Scott Happer, Tournament Director for the Citibank Champions event, has worked in tennis for over twenty years including the Australian Open, and said she has never been affiliated on a project with "such excellent value for the money." Happer: "If you are a sponsor I can genuinely say to you that a half dozen players are going to be coming to your cocktail party tonight. I can honestly say ... you are going to have a clinic for over an hour with a Champions Tour professional working with your 20 kids." TV TIME: Liberty's Prime Sports covers each event through their multi-year TV deal. Benton said their "main breakthrough" was ABC's telecast of "The Challenge" held in May in Pebble Beach. Benton, on the ABC telecast: "We did a 1.8 on a Sunday afternoon against the NBA playoffs. We hope to move it to June next year and get away from the NBA, and I think we will do well." THE FUTURE: Looking ahead to the year 2000, Benton sees 20 events, with 26-man draws and a minimum of $250,000 in prize money, along with 10-15 smaller satellite events, three or four events on national TV, and a major event at the end of the year. Benton said they will keep the venues small, and doesn't foresee sites with capacity greater than 5,000. Roger Williams likes the Tour and commends the quality of play: "The guys are trying hard, and most are in shape. Benton and Connors made sure of that." But to succeed, TENNIS Magazine's Williams believes it will "require very astute marketing ... If Ray Benton can't do it, it can't be done. It has to have big names, the McEnroe's, Lendl's and others to join. ... Nostalgia is a very big part of the attraction here. The big question is what will happen when Connors isn't there" (THE DAILY).