SBJ/November 12 - 18, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Outfitters prepared to battle over patch

The ATP wants to require its players, beginning in January, to wear the group's logo on their tennis shirts during competition, an idea that is sparking strong opposition from apparel and management companies.

The ATP's seven-person board plans to vote on the proposal this week in Sydney, Australia, during the season-ending championship, the Masters Cup. The Players Council, which represents players' interests to the ATP, approved the measure Oct. 28 during the Paris Masters Series tournament. It requires board approval to become an official tour rule.

The logo proposal is part of a broader effort by the ATP to promote the circuit and its players in the aftermath of the demise of marketing partner ISL and its $1.2 billion commitment to the men's tennis circuit.

While ATP chief operating officer Larry Scott wouldn't comment, a memo he sent to one of the apparel companies, obtained by SportsBusiness Journal, said "increased exposure of the ATP brand will help raise the profile of the ATP and its players in a way that should benefit all of their respective commercial and promotional activities."

Unlike team sports in which leagues or clubs outfit players and reap the licensing income, tennis players are independent contractors and are not required to wear a specific uniform. As a result, the Sanex WTA Tour and ATP have struggled to make their names a distinct, and valuable, brand, along the lines of the NFL or NBA. But their efforts, like the ATP logo push now, sometimes conflict with their players' private commercial ties.

The WTA's logo, or patch, program has been equally controversial, leading to high-profile standoffs between the group and top players. Nike, for example, not wanting its shirts to be cluttered with other logos, forbids its endorsers from wearing other brands on their shirts.

Rival apparel firms like Reebok and Adidas have started to write language with similar bans into endorsement contracts. Three years ago, Venus Williams squared off with the WTA at the U.S. Open over the issue, but backed down. Her new Reebok contract prohibits her from wearing the patch.

"It's a problem," said Martin Mulligan, a player scout for Fila, which counts ATP star Mark Philippoussis among its endorsers. Sources said that all of the major apparel companies active in tennis have sent letters to the ATP protesting the patch, which would be two square inches on the upper right chest of players' shirts.

"The top players and their agents stand 100 percent behind the manufacturers in their opposition to this proposal," said Tom Ross, head of men's tennis at Octagon, which represents Gustavo Kuerten and Lleyton Hewitt, the top two ranked players in the world.

According to the memo sent by the ATP's Scott, players who now have a contractual conflict with putting the logo on their shirt would be grandfathered and exempt, though there is no mention of exemption for any future conflicts. Also, the ATP would not grant an exclusive license for tennis clothing featuring the patch or ever put a sponsor name on the logo, unlike the WTA, Scott wrote in the memo, which is dated Nov. 2.

Mac Winker, who owns the ATP stop in Memphis, still said he did not think the patch rule would pass the board this week.

"If I am a high-end player and someone wants to put a patch on my sleeve, and it meant $10 million to my contract, I would find fault with it," Winker said. "I just think it is a tough sell."

Winker said he is more concerned with an ATP push to require tournaments to put the ATP logo on the court, possibly bumping event sponsors' logos. That issue was debated in late August at the U.S. Open, and Scott refers to an increased presence for the ATP logo in his letter. But Winker said the issue is not on the agenda for Sydney this week.

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