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SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/This Weeks Issue
Tennis’ other Mac: Can he sell the sport?
Published November 10, 2003
Jim McIngvale remembers running into his friend former President George Bush at a charity benefit in Houston in May 2002. Recalls McIngvale, "I told him that we were thinking about trying to bring the Tennis Masters Cup to Houston, and he said, 'What's that?' He's a huge tennis fan, and he didn't know what the Tennis Masters Cup was. I knew then that we would have a branding problem. But I'm kind of a damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead guy."
So McIngvale pressed forward, striking a deal a couple of months later for the rights to host the 2003 and 2004 editions of the Tennis Masters Cup, the season-ending event featuring the top eight players in men's tennis. This year's edition is going on this week at McIngvale's Westside Tennis Club.
Houston’s Jim McIngvale shows off his Gallery Furniture Stadium Court, built with $10M of his own "sofa money."
McIngvale, well-known to anyone who has ever watched TV in Houston as "Mattress Mac" from ads for his Gallery Furniture store, says he agreed to pay $7 million a year to secure the tournament, co-owned by the ATP, the ITF and the Grand Slams. As the tournament's promoter, he spent a whopping $10 million to market it.
"When you jump in the water, you got to get to the other side," he said.
He already has reached the other shore, at least in ticket sales. By early last week, the tournament was sold out.
The event, comprising 13 sessions, is taking place in a brand-new 7,500-seat stadium at Westside, the Gallery Furniture Stadium Court, that was built for another $10 million out of McIngvale's pocket — "sofa money," he said.
McIngvale's promotional push featured a barrage of advertising: three national spots on the 2003 Super Bowl broadcast, national ads on the telecasts of this year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open tennis championships, national ads on ESPN's "SportsCenter," plenty of local radio and TV spots in Houston, more than 20 outdoor billboards in the Houston market and local direct-mail initiatives.
McIngvale, 52, also promoted the Tennis Masters Cup during the 50 or so motivational speeches that he's given to local schools and to Houston-area business and civic organizations in the past six to eight months.
"It's been a constant branding exercise for the last year," he said.
'Untold is unsold'
McIngvale is a nonstop selling machine whose Houston furniture store, which he owns with wife Linda, will total about $170 million in sales this year. He's built his business through thousands of hours of TV ads and active sponsorship of local sports franchises and events. His approach to tennis promotion differs little from his other campaigns.
Speaking to a reporter via cell phone one day last week, he talked fervently about his marketing philosophy, the words firing faster than an Andy Roddick serve: "My deal is to stand on the top of the roof and shout about it. And tell the story. I think untold is unsold.
"We've been telling the Tennis Masters Cup story every single day. This is the world championship, this is the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the World Series of tennis. This is the season-ending championship. These are the eight best tennis players in the world. ... You've got to tell the story over and over and over again."
McIngvale's introduction to the tennis world came in the spring of 1995, when he agreed to sponsor a WTA tournament in Houston. IMG was selling the sponsorship. "I gave them [an offer], and they took it. So whoops, I was in the tennis business," he recalls.
A few months later, he and his wife bought the Westside Tennis Club. They've poured $50 million into it since then, he said.
For tennis, the McIngvales' arrival was an energy boost, a Texas cyclone of motion and promotion in a professional sport that has struggled to find the unity required to push itself forward in recent years.
"Linda and Mac bring a fresh, new perspective to tennis," said Chris Clouser, president of the ATP and CEO of ATP Properties. "Hopefully, they can be two of the people who can bring many of the diverse and, at times, feuding groups within tennis together."
For the Westside Tennis Club, the 2003 Tennis Masters Cup will be a money-losing proposition. According to McIngvale, the club will generate about $12 million to $13 million in revenue on this week's tournament.
But he looks at the event as a longer-term investment. "We're building a brand," he said. "We've got it for two years, and if we do a good job, hopefully we'll have it for future years."
Reaching out to sponsors
The area in which McIngvale will look for improvement next year is sponsorship sales. "We haven't done a good enough job on that," he said. The club generated about $1.5 million in sponsorship sales for the 2003 edition, he said.
Former President Bush, a tennis fan, is a friend of McIngvale and wife Linda.
That total does not include Tennis Masters Cup sponsorship revenue that the ATP brought to the event through deals with Mercedes-Benz, Head/Penn, Lacoste and Waterford Crystal. Among the companies that Westside cut deals with are AeroMexico, Starbucks, FedEx, Pepsi and AIG (including its Houston-based subsidiary, American General Life).
"If we do a good job of branding this event, then I think sponsors will be more interested next year," McIngvale said. "Obviously, the economy ain't what everybody wants it to be. But we just have to do a better job of letting people know what a tremendous worldwide event this is." The tournament is being broadcast in more than 135 countries; in the United States, it's airing on ESPN and ESPN2.
"Mac is very focused on his customers," said Robert Marling, CEO of Houston's Woodforest National Bank, a major sponsor of the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships, which moved to Westside starting in 2001. For the Tennis Masters Cup, those customers include the ticket buyers, the sponsors and the players.
Several key sponsors have been invited to attend a gathering at former President Bush's home in Houston on Thursday.
Charlie Eitel, chairman and CEO of the Simmons Co., another major sponsor of the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships, says he got a chance to meet the former president two years ago at the tournament because of McIngvale. Mac called the one-time leader of the free world and asked him whether he would mind coming to the club to meet a key sponsor. Said Eitel, "That's just typical of how Jim is. He's not afraid to try anything within reason."
For the Tennis Masters Cup, McIngvale and his wife sent mailers to all ticket buyers, listing cell phone numbers for him and for Linda, who runs the tennis club. He invited patrons to call if they had any problems at the event.
Meanwhile, McIngvale remains what he calls a "willing worker." He says, "Believe me, when these tennis matches are over, I'll be under the stands with my [employees] cleaning the trash."