SBJ/March 20 - 26, 2006/One On One

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  • ‘I’m still pushing for changing our product’

    There isn’t much Butch Buchholz hasn’t done or seen in the world of tennis. A former player, he’s also been a fundraiser, administrator, marketer, salesman and cheerleader for the sport. A founding member of the first men’s players association, he helped institute the first pension plan for players. Buchholz was commissioner of World TeamTennis (1977-78) and executive director of the ATP (1981-82). In 2001, he started First Serve, an inner-city program that teaches tennis, life and classroom skills to youngsters. A year ago, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

    Buchholz also is the founder (in 1985) and chairman of the Nasdaq-100 Open, which begins its 22nd season of play Wednesday in Key Biscayne, Fla. He spoke recently to SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh.

    Favorite piece of music: I’m a ’60s person, so I would say the music of the Beatles as well as Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand.
    Favorite vacation spot: Aspen
    Favorite author: Robert Ruark
    Favorite movie: “Dances With Wolves”
    Last book read: “Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond”
    Best player: Rod Laver
    Pet peeve: Negativity
    Greatest extravagance: Too much golf
    Management philosophy: If you have good people, let them do their jobs.
    Best advice you received: Don’t quit.

    Rod Laver was among the players, along with
    Buchholz, who fought for open tennis.
    You were inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005 as a contributor to the sport. What has been your most significant contribution to tennis?

    Buchholz: Two things. In my playing days in the 1960s, there was a group (Tony Trabert, Pancho Gonzalez, Pancho Segura, Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver) that fought for open tennis — when amateurs and pros can play together. Once we turned pro, we weren’t allowed to go back and play the major events again. Jack Kramer, the father of open tennis, convinced Wimbledon in 1967 to let eight of us play in a tournament. The chairman at the time, Herman David, said, “If you fill the stadium in your eight-man tournament, I’ll let you play next year.” I was very proud to be a part of that initiative and of bringing open tennis. … The other thing, my brother and I built a facility and a tournament that is now the fifth-largest prize-winning tournament in the world.

    You have been called a tennis pioneer. Is there any uncharted or undeveloped territory in the sport?

    Buchholz: I’m still pushing for changing our product, and our product, in my opinion, is the best men and best women in the world competing together more than four times. I believe that’s our best way of competing in the sports entertainment business. I think the sport, particularly the ITF, should look at the Davis Cup format. Maybe it’s time to adjust and change: men and women together. It would be terrific.

    Tennis has been criticized as being slow to change. What would you change about the sport?

    Buchholz: If I could play tennis god for 24 hours, I would have four or five events like the Nasdaq-100. I would consider having a no-ad scoring system. I would make our telecasts more fan-friendly in terms of being able to have coaches at the end of a set talk to a player. In other words, get the fans involved in what’s going on in the players’ minds. I would also like to see us have more courts wired for TV, so that when there’s a match on the stadium court that isn’t all that interesting, you could move over to another court.

    Buchholz thinks player accessibility is one
    key to making tennis more popular.
    There have been some attempts to become more fan friendly: blue courts for television and allowing the fans to keep the tennis balls that fly into the stands, for example.

    Buchholz: Yes, and this whole new thing with the line-calling system, “Hawkeye,” that we’re trying. That’s going to be revolutionary from a player’s point of view. No player wants to go out and lose a match because of a bad call. It might be expensive for tournament directors, but I think it’s something the sport is ready for.

    Would you be in favor of instant replay?

    Buchholz: Very much so.

    What in the sport would you not miss if it were eliminated?

    Buchholz: Five-set tennis.

    McEnroe, Connors, Borg, Lendl vs. today’s stars. What is the difference?

    Buchholz: I think these kids today are better athletes. I shouldn’t say that. Borg is the best clay-court player that’s ever played. Sampras had the best serve the game has ever seen. Agassi has the best return serve. I think the other thing that’s very significant is that it’s much harder to win a tennis tournament today than it was just five years ago. There are so many good players. We used to have to look to see who we were going to play in the round of 32, 16, quarterfinals. These guys now have to worry about who they’re going to play in the first round. So, the quality is just so much better.

    What’s the biggest challenge facing tennis?

    Buchholz: Getting everybody in the sport to work together. The sport has been so fractured. But I believe the two executives — the chairman of the ATP, Etienne de Villiers, and the head of the WTA, Larry Scott — are doing a really good job of trying to bring people together. The Slams need to be more involved in the overall governance of the sport.

    Can the schedule be improved? It’s confusing to some fans.

    Buchholz: That’s our biggest problem. People don’t know what’s important and what isn’t. There’s a lot of discussion about 2007 and 2008, and I believe it’s time to make some major calendar changes. With that will come some pain. Tennis tournaments aren’t going to disappear. Tennis has got a great asset. It’s a global sport, and we need to put all our assets in a basket and manage them collectively.

    According to Scarborough Research, the proportion of U.S. residents who say they are fans of professional tennis has decreased since 2002 (from 14.0 percent to 10.3 percent). How does tennis attract more fans and convert casual fans into something more passionate?

    Buchholz: I think it’s a combination of things. We need a little more help from the players. They need to be more accessible. Again, if I were the tennis god for 24 hours, I would open up the locker room. Every sport has an open locker room. We don’t. Consequently, the media looks at tennis and says, you know, “These guys are inaccessible, blah blah blah, the heck with it.” I think the players can be helpful there.

    You need to change what people perceive is important. They know the four Grand Slams are important. I think they know Nasdaq is important, but they’re not really 100 percent sure. They know it’s a big event. I think you need one of those strategically placed around the world. You’ve got two in the States. You need one in Europe. I think you need one in China and maybe one in Latin America.

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