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Tennis wakes up, bounces back
Published August 31, 1998
Sports Illustrated ran a scathing cover story in early 1995 on the fall of professional tennis, slamming the sport publicly like few publications ever had. The sport clearly was at a crossroads: Broadcast ratings were declining, sales of tennis equipment were swooning and players were seen as overpaid pampered brats. Some follow-up reports even had the sport on its deathbed.
Fast forward to the present. A lot has changed. The women's tour, once an afterthought, is producing young stars. Indeed, many would argue the once unimaginable: The women are more popular than the men.
Both tours finally appear to understand marketing, having reached for outside assistance to sell their sport. Tournaments from Toronto to New York to Wimbledon are attracting record crowds. Sponsorships are stronger than ever, and many of the players are trying to become more accessible to the media and public.
Nonetheless, tennis still has a long row to hoe. Broadcast ratings remain near-record lows and the interest among U.S. recreational players is weak. An alphabet soup of tennis associations makes a coordinated marketing strategy difficult. The idea of a tennis czar who, like the NBA's David Stern, could bring together disparate factions and market one product globally is improbable.
As a result, fans are confused by too many overlapping tournaments and a ranking system that an MIT professor might not understand. In sum, tennis may no longer be sick or dying, but it still remains far from the healthy state it enjoyed during its glory days in the 1970s.
"Tennis has gotten on a fitness program and a new diet. It hadn't been feeling too well," said Gordon Beck, director of sports for USA Network, which has been broadcasting the U.S. Open since 1984. "The cholesterol is a little out of whack ...but generally speaking, tennis is on the road to pulling [itself] back together."
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs battle-of-the-sexes match, which seems appropriate because the women's game is winning the popularity battle with the men. Just 31Ú2 years ago, when Sports Illustrated published its critique, watching women's matches was akin to watching doubles: It was a side show.
Now, everywhere you look, from the cover of fashion magazines to late-night talk shows to the sides of buildings, women tennis players are center stage.
The women's final outdrew the men's in the finals of seven of the last eight major tournaments. The only exception was Pete Sampras' record-tying fifth Wimbledon title this summer.
The women's tour seems to have everything now: minority representation in the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena; the seductress in Anna Kournikova; the Swiss Miss in No. 1-ranked Martina Hingis; and the comeback stories of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. This is a long way from the days when women's tennis could be summed up in two names: Navratilova and Evert.
"Women's attendance figures are up more than 30 percent this year, and right now it is the men's game that is struggling a bit," said Jay Snyder, director of the U.S. Open, the only tournament to award men and women equal prize money.
Much of this newfound popularity can be attributed to the Corel WTA's decision a few years ago to market individuals over the sport. Now, under the leadership of Bart McGuire, the Women's Tennis Association is as much about marketing as it is about tennis.
The merging of sport and entertainment can be seen in Hollywood film producer Regency Enterprises Inc.'s recent international TV pact with the WTA. Regency reportedly paid $120 million to market the women's game for nine years.
Regency Chief Executive Arnon Milchan brings celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio courtside for matches, creating the impression of a glamour event the way the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks do with their celebrity fans.
Meanwhile, on the men's side, the matches have been compared favorably to watching laundry spin. Powerful athletes using state-of-the-art rackets are turning points into one- and two-shot rallies.
It doesn't help that the best player, Sampras, seems about as interested in his matches as a kid in Latin class. The dog days of the mid-1990s, when a bored Jim Courier could be found reading a book during a changeover, do not seem that far away.
The ATP Tour is trying to change that impression. This year, the Association of Tennis Professionals hired two sports marketing firms, ISL Worldwide and Octagon, to sell its international TV rights. The tour now also requires its players to perform some type of community service defined as anything from charity work to media interviews during a tournament.
Many journalists, however, would dispute that tennis players are any more accessible than they have been in the past. Locker rooms remain closed and media requests are frequently rebuffed.
In an effort to trim some of the more than 80 tournaments that make up the men's tour, the ATP also recently changed its ranking system to include only top tournaments.
In another gesture to the fans, as of the year 2000, rankings will be based on a calendar year. Player rankings are now based on tournaments that include play from the previous year. On Jan. 1, each player starts with a clean slate, so the rankings will be something of a horse race.
The ATP argues that in many places, such as the United Kingdom and Chile, tennis is thriving. The problem in the United States is not one of personalities, but that Sampras has not had a good rivalry to spark popular interest, said Mark Miles, president of the ATP.
To many tennis experts, however, that argument is hollow.
"The men's PR machine isn't explaining a lot to people," said Earl "Butch" Buchholz, director of the Lipton Championships, which are commonly described as the fifth Grand Slam. "Everyone says Pete Sampras is boring, but the guy has a Hollywood girlfriend and flies around in his jet and is becoming the greatest tennis player who ever played the game."
But even Buchholz might admit there are some aspects of Sampras that are tough to sell. Eleven days ago at Buchholz's Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven, Conn., Sampras apparently "tanked" a match, giving a half-hearted effort in a loss to the 100th-ranked player in the world. He left the court showered with boos from the crowd, but also likely with a huge appearance fee.
While unprofessional behavior like that certainly is not what Buchholz wishes to promote and it is not uncommon in tennis there are compelling story lines out there. For every Kournikova, there is a counterpart on the men's side, Buchholz said. Carlos Moya, the French Open champion this year, and Patrick Rafter, the 1997 U.S. Open champion, are considered heartthrobs in Europe.
"There is no reason why fans shouldn't be getting behind-the-scenes stories," added Patrick McEnroe, a former player and now an ESPN and CBS Sports commentator, and author of the new book "Tennis for Dummies." "I know Karl Malone is into trucks and is the Mailman. How would I have known that if the NBA didn't promote it?"
At one point this year, each of the top 10 men were from different countries, McEnroe said. "That is how diverse the players are, and we should be trying to get that out there," he concluded.
Indeed, one of tennis' strengths is its geographic and cultural diversity. It is the only sport with a united global circuit, but no one seems to know because the sport's management is often not getting these stories out there.
Take the USA Network. In 1985, the second year it broadcast the U.S. Open, its average rating was 1.5. By comparison, the network's Thursday-Friday broadcast of the Masters golf tournament that year fetched a 1.1 rating.
How things have changed. The U.S. Open average last year had fallen to a paltry 1.0, while the Masters' early rounds on USA enjoyed an average of 3.0.
Similarly, ratings for NBC's broadcast of the Wimbledon men's final have dipped from 7.9 in 1981 to 3.3 this year. The women's final rating has dropped from 5.0 in 1982 to 2.7 this year.
One reason it may be tough to publicize compelling tennis stories is that the sport is often at war with itself.
Tennis would do the New Deal proud. There is the WTA; the ATP; the USTA (United States Tennis Association), which manages the U.S. Open; the ITF (International Tennis Federation), which manages the Davis Cup; as well as the three other Grand Slams and innumerable national associations, not to mention promoters like International Management Group.
The best interests of the sport are commonly squashed in warfare between these organizations. Davis Cup takes up to five weeks of the year and draws top players from competing tournaments. The French Open and Wimbledon have been squabbling for years about the scheduling of their events. And the ITF and ATP don't even work together.
"There needs to be a cohesive structural entity that manages tennis on a global basis," argued Phil dePicciotto, president of Advantage International, which represents several players and runs a number of tournaments.
Meanwhile, the unions of the sport the ATP and WTA are only now talking about integrating a few more tournaments.
"The ATP Tour and WTA should be working very closely together. Tennis is one of the few sports in the world, like ice skating and gymnastics, that men and women can play together in one event," said Charlie Pasarell, director of the Newsweek Champions Cup for men and the State Farm/Evert Cup for women, which are held jointly at Indian Wells, Calif., making it one of only two non-Grand Slam events that are integrated.
But even Pasarell's tournament awards the women only half the prize money of the men. That issue is certain to make talk of merging men's and women's tournaments more difficult.
"Men will never accept equal prize money across the board because it is an active belief that because they play the sport and are better at it, they should get more," said Ray Benton, founder of the Nuveen Tour, the men's senior circuit, and a co-founder of ProServ Inc.
If television ratings and popular demand continue to follow the women, however, the ATP may have some tough choices ahead.
Many on the men's side are praying for the emergence of a new American male sensation to sell. There are few young male U.S. players out there who seem ready to assume the mantle from the aging Sampras, Andre Agassi, Courier and Michael Chang.
"These guys are in their twilight." Pasarell said. "We need to make sure another Sampras comes along."
That may be tough. Tennis play has been in decline in the United States as basketball, soccer and alternative sports like in-line skating have increased in popularity. In 1987, 21 million people played tennis, but that figure dropped to 17.5 million by last year, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
The USTA is plowing $50 million into a five-year program to develop grassroots tennis. After only a year, the success of the program is hard to measure.
The USTA expects to significantly miss its goal of attracting a quarter of a million people to free tennis lessons this year. However, it expects to exceed its objective of attracting 120,000 people to instructional paid tennis lessons this year.
Despite the gloom and doom that often surround tennis, prospects are much brighter than when Sports Illustrated blasted the sport.
"That article was a wake-up call for tennis," said Snyder, the U.S. Open director. "And we got the message."