SBJ/August 31 - September 6, 1998/No Topic Name
Tennis ready to serve up some changes
Published August 31, 1998
If in a decade same-sex tennis tournaments are extinct, it will be in no small part due to Earl "Butch" Buchholz. Before Buchholz, only the four major Grand Slam tournaments let men and women play at the same time. Now two others do, and the largest is Buchholz's Lipton Championships, which has been dubbed the fifth Grand Slam.
Things were not always so easy. When he started the tournament in 1985, some in the city of Key Biscayne, Fla., didn't want the event. As the tournament has grown into one of tennis' premier events, the critics have grown quiet.
Part of the tournament's success is clearly tied to its format. Tennis fans want to see both men and women play, Buchholz argues. It is one of the few sports where men and women can play side by side, and tennis should take advantage of that, he maintains. The associations that represent women's and men's tennis are now discussing merging several major tournaments, but Buchholz is already a step ahead of them.
He also has just created the Copa Ericsson series in Latin America, which will be an ATP Tour-sanctioned Challenger series — a type of minor league for tennis. Buchholz describes that region as a major growth spot for the game.
Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Daniel Kaplan talked with Buchholz about his vision for tennis.
SBJ: Tennis was seen as on its deathbed just a few years ago. How is the patient today?
Buchholz: Well, I'm not so sure that it was the right perception. I think it was more of a wake-up call in terms of how the sport is perceived. I think the Sports Illustrated article, some of it talked about television ratings going down and the interest not there, players were a problem, etc., etc. I still think you have to look at it and compare it to what you think tennis could be versus what it is today. I think if you go and talk to most of the tournament directors and you go check with Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and the French and the Australian, those crowds are not down. Those crowds are getting uplifted. We have the biggest crowds we've ever had. I think Cincinnati's had a very good tournament. Canada's had the biggest crowds it's had. So I think what we're doing is we're really kind of going through a transition where the sport was perceived as really a participant sport, and I think you're seeing the sport becoming a spectator sport. Now that doesn't translate to better television ratings, but I think you have to look at what's going on in the television industry and you see most sports are going down. So tennis is just going down with it. So I don't think you can just target television and say tennis' interest is going down. I don't think people are watching television as much as they used to, plus you've got so much on the air.
SBJ: Well, I guess the combination of the television ratings and the rapid decline in the number of recreational players in the U.S. has led some to believe that tennis is in decline.
Buchholz: That's why I think you've gotta sort of look at it and say, "Are the crowds getting worse? Are people not buying tickets? Are people not showing up to tournaments?" And it's a little bit of a contradiction because I think everybody always thought that everybody that comes to tennis is a tennis player, and I think that that might be changing. I think that through the media and particularly on a worldwide basis, because tennis travels worldwide, that [Anna] Kournikova is big in Europe, big in the States, big in Asia; obviously Pete Sampras, [Andre] Agassi. So all of a sudden these kids are stars, and when you put the men and women together, you see a lot of stars. So I just think that the people are going to come out and they want to see celebrities, and tennis players are certainly celebrities.
SBJ: You just touched on one of the critical issues in tennis, men and women playing together at the same tournament simultaneously. There are only six tournaments, I believe, the four Grand Slams, yours and Indian Wells [Calif.] where this occurs. Why are other tournaments not integrating this sport if it's been so successful at your tournament and the Grand Slams?
Buchholz: Well, I think there's an attempt to do that. First of all, you've got to look at the calendar and you say, "Well, what do you do if you're going to put more Liptons together?" That means it takes up more weeks on the calendar. What do you do with the events that are there now? And so that's a complication. Then you've got the business piece of it. What part do the women play? How would you sort of split up the pie? That's everything from prize money to television. So those are still business points that need to be resolved. I believe that if you talk to [ATP President] Mark Miles and you talk to [WTA CEO] Bart McGuire, clearly and intellectually they say this is the right thing to do, this is the direction that we're going. Instead of maybe doing a full sweep, so to speak, which we were talking about doing in 2000, we might have to do this on a slower pace. I, for one, think that's probably the best way to do it because that's not as traumatic to the calendar. So you could look to possibly see Hamburg or Rome in the next year, two years, to be combined events. I would think that they would maybe want to find one in Asia, find one in Latin America. Again, I think we as a sport need to look at ourselves in terms of the whole world and not just one part of the world. And I think that combined events in each part of the world will help the growth of the game.
SBJ: It seems like the whole issue of women and men has become more prominent today because a lot's been made of the popularity of the women's tour and some have argued that it's even overtaken the men's tour in popularity. Do you believe that and what are the women doing right that the men aren't right now?
Buchholz: I think the women made a commitment a couple years ago. Anne Worcester [former CEO of the WTA Tour] really concentrated on marketing the players, and she hired people that had skills and ability to go out there and really take the women's tennis players off of the sports page, so to speak, and put them on GQ and the different magazines that you've seen. When she got the job, I think she really focused on marketing women's tennis. At the time, women's tennis was a little soft. And, I think, the players bought into it and they recognized they had to do more than just hit tennis balls, and I think that this is paying off for the women. They've been fortunate that they've had some players come along that are certainly attractive to the media — the two Williams sisters, Kournikova, you've got [Monica] Seles coming back, you've had [Steffi] Graf, who has been injured and I don't think she's ready to pass the baton yet, and then you've got [Martina] Hingis, who had a remarkable year last year. And Arantxa Sanchez, who's sort of gotten out of her slump, so to speak, wins the French. [Jana] Novotna, with her very popular win. So I think there's a lot of copy out there, and I think the kids are cooperating with it. I think the women have done a better job marketing their product.
SBJ: There are some concerns that one reason the men's game is criticized as dull, the hard serves and the precious few rallies, is the racket technology. Do you think racket technology has hurt the men's game?
Buchholz: Well, again, I think this is a misperception. With the exception of Wimbledon, most of the court surfaces today lend themselves to rallies. We had [Marcelo] Rios, who won Lipton, and the two finalists were not serve-and-volley people. I think just at Wimbledon and grass, you're going to see a lot more, you know, 30 aces a match. But back when I was playing, Barry McKay was serving 30 aces. And Roscoe Tanner, John Newcombe, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe. This is not new.
SBJ: Is the ATP waking up to the marketing message?
Buchholz: I think so. I think so. I know they're doing a lot of focus groups and they're doing some market research and they're getting into it. They're trying to find out why the perception of men's tennis is, say, lagging.
SBJ: Even with the progress out there for tennis over the last few years, there seems to be some disorder in the sense of tournaments scheduled in the same week, all the different associations. Does tennis need a David Stern type to come in as tennis czar, for example, and sort of shake up things and centralize all the efforts.
Buchholz: Yeah. I think that we're going into a new era of the sports entertainment business. It isn't just America anymore, it just isn't Europe. It's worldwide. You've got three huge, four huge media giants who are going to be looking for product to put on the television, and it's worldwide. So we need to start putting our house in order and recognizing that we're in a very competitive business. We succeed almost by accident. I think if we had somebody who was thinking like David Stern, who's thinking five years ahead and saying, "Where's my sport going to be? I'm going to be in Europe." I mean, it isn't an accident they play regular-season games in Tokyo. And the NFL is playing in Europe. It's because there's a market there, and they want to grow the market from a television point of view, and that's going to help the licensing and merchandising, etc. Mark Miles is thinking about where we're going to be five years from now. Bart McGuire is thinking about where he's going to be five years from now. I don't know about the Grand Slams. The ITF — we've got people thinking about all these things, but they aren't thinking about it in the same room together. And that is a big Achilles' heel in tennis. More dialogue, more feeling that we are partners as opposed to competitors will, I think, help our sport. But I gotta be honest with you. The reality that Wimbledon is going to turn over some management of their tournament, or the U.S. Open is or the French ... is unlikely. They're not going to have somebody come in and tell them to change their dates or sell their television. I think Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are the two big Super Bowls of our sport, and they're going to do it their own way.
SBJ: What about all the associations? Should the WTA and the ATP merge?
Buchholz: I don't know if they're going to merge. I've always felt that the players should be together and it should be under one roof. It's the AFL and NFL, National League and American League. It's tennis players, and the product is tennis. I don't think it's in the cards, but there is more dialogue and Bart McGuire and Mark Miles realize that for the betterment of the sport, we need to look at more combined events. How we're going to get there might take us a few more years, but I think we will get there.
SBJ: You mentioned the WTA has got the marketing message and that Anne Worcester started it by marketing individual players. Now the WTA has hired a Hollywood filmmaker to market the game. Is there a danger that the looks of the players, the marketability of the players, becomes more important than the actual tennis skills of the player?
Buchholz: No. If these kids couldn't play tennis that's a different thing. Kournikova played one of the best sets of tennis I've seen, male or female, the first set when she played Venus Williams at Lipton. She can play tennis. She's not just a young, attractive girl out there hitting tennis balls. She can play. And the same with the Williams sisters and Martina. These kids are good tennis players. If they weren't good, I think it would be a media hype and then disappear quickly. These kids have a great future and they're competitive. They're scratching for number one. That makes for good copy and good interest.
SBJ: Do you ever see tennis getting back to the popularity levels it had in the 1970s?
Buchholz: In terms of what?
SBJ: In terms of TV ratings, recreational equipment ...
Buchholz: Somebody really ought to do an analysis on all the sports — a look at football, basketball, baseball and hockey — and see what kind of ratings they were getting in the middle '70s and what kind of ratings they're getting now. I think they're probably all down. I think it's part of the television business. We've got the clicker now and there are so many different options in what you can watch. Are the crowds bigger? I think if you went to Wimbledon, the French, our crowds are much bigger than they were 10 years ago. I think Cincinnati's done better. ... I don't think the crowd piece is down. I think the perception is what's wrong with tennis, and some of that is just the stuff we talked about at the beginning. The computer is confusing. Ninety-nine percent of the people who walk into Lipton don't understand what the computer [rankings] are all about.
SBJ: And that is changing now, is that right?
Buchholz: Yeah, they're in the process of changing that. That might be something that will be a race and people can follow it. People don't understand how Sampras is one and then out and we need to explain that. It's hard to understand. We just can't assume that the tennis fan is going to follow it. I mean, I'm in the sport and I can't follow it. The calendar is difficult. Davis Cup used to be huge. Now it's confusing. You don't know when it's on, where it's on, what countries are playing. There's just a sense of "is tennis manageable?"
SBJ: Is tennis manageable?
Buchholz: I think it's very difficult right now. I still think that the men are ingrained in their thoughts and the women in theirs. And the ITF, which does Davis Cup and Federation Cup. Then you've got the four Grand Slam groups, they don't always agree amongst themselves. There's a lot of alphabets, and it's confusing to the public. Clearly, if they worked closer together, you'd have a better managed sport. How do you get them there? Most of the time when you have revolutions, people are hurting, and people aren't hurting enough to change anything.
SBJ: In five to 10 years, where do you see the sport?
Buchholz: I would hope that our four Grand Slams are still doing great. That we have six, seven or eight combined events, a stronger Davis Cup or Federation Cup, because I believe those are longtime assets of our sport. Maybe not have as many tournaments. A computer system, a ranking system, that people understand. And a television package that is understood on a worldwide basis that if I'm a tennis fan and I live in Brisbane, Australia, or I live in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Moscow or Rochester, N.Y., someplace in Latin America, that I can turn on the television and know that I'm going to see one of the top tennis tournaments in the world. That would mean that we've done a good job in marketing our sport.