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It is hardly surprising that the ATP World Tour is focusing internally while searching for its next leader, given the experiences of the previous two outsiders hired to run the organization.
During the ATP’s current incarnation as leader of both players and tournaments, it has had three top executives: Mark Miles, who ran the organization for 16 years until 2005; Etienne de Villiers for three years; and then Adam Helfant, who is stepping down in December when his three-year stint ends.
De Villiers and Helfant had one thing in common: Both were outsiders to the sport and both ended their time amid controversy.
De Villiers, a South African Walt Disney executive, ushered in bold change that led to an antitrust lawsuit against the ATP brought by one of its tournaments, and a furious player push to unseat him.
Sources said Helfant, a former Nike executive, was paid millions in sponsor bonuses, and then wanted a major increase in his base pay in his next contract. The tour board resisted and also wanted to find someone who would promote the sport more than the behind-the-scenes Helfant, a frequent no-show at events.
Miles, by contrast, was a tournament director when chosen to run the tour.
Now the ATP is looking at two other insiders, Brad Drewett and Mark Young.
Young is Drewett’s counterpart as the ATP’s CEO of the Americas. A lawyer
The ATP board meets this week in New York, where the process should become clearer, with one of the two executives perhaps becoming a front-runner, or the search thrown open to others. If the latter is the case, the ATP might then go into 2012 with an interim leader.
Almost entirely out of the question is the man the ATP board passed over three years ago, then WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott, who proposed a merger of the two tours. Rebuffed, Scott soon left tennis to become Pac-10 commissioner, where he landed the biggest TV deal in college sports.
What’s the best-kept secret in men’s tennis? On the business side at least, hands down, it’s ATP Media.
While selling media rights collectively is a no-brainer in U.S. sports, whether it’s the NFL or PGA Tour, few if any sports have the challenge of the ATP, which pools rights for its top 21 events, which stretch across the globe from Shanghai to Miami. And if that isn’t enough, the ATP also produces the events’ high-cost feeds, essentially acting as host broadcaster to the world.
This year, ATP Media will produce more than 3,000 hours of live HD programming.
ATP Media is structured as a for-profit company headquartered in London, with the top nine tournaments as shareholders and the ATP Tour leader as chairman. This year the company, which produces and distributes the programming, is expected to reap $60 million in revenue from rights fees and online purchases of streamed matches, a figure that has grown 500 percent in the last five years.
Since its inception in 2001, ATP Media has invested $100 million in production and staff. This year the events will invest $17 million alone and produce more than 3,000 hours of live HD, making the entity the largest HD producer of a single sport.
“This has allowed us to have a digital strategy; we can now talk about 3-D,” said Steve Plasto, who joined ATP Media in 2004 and is now CEO. “The tournaments are controlling the investment and delivering what the broadcasters need.”
The concept of ATP Media grew out of the ashes of the failed sports marketing alliance with ISL Worldwide, which overpaid for sports rights, including the ATP’s, and went under a decade ago.
The ATP continued the strategy of pooling media employed by ISL. While it took years to recover from the ISL debacle, the approach is now bearing fruit. Rights fees are up 200 percent in the last five years, Plasto said, and the amount of money flowing back to the events in that time period has surged 400 percent.
The tour could have simply taken a straight fee from a third party, such as IMG or another agency, and allowed them
But Plasto said ATP Media allows the sport to control the quality of the broadcasts, and to be nimble in reshuffling contracts in countries where the sport might be peaking, or dipping. Right now for example, the sport is hot in eastern Europe, which is generating 10 times the revenue it was just a few years ago, Plasto said.
The top nine events, known as the ATP 1000s, hand over international and domestic TV rights to ATP Media. In the U.S., that is the Miami, Indian Wells, Calif., and Cincinnati events. The next layer of 11 events, which are known as the ATP 500s, control their own domestic rights. Their international sales, however, are controlled by ATP Media, which also sells the season-ending championships.
Elusive WTA joint sales goal
The holy grail for ATP Media is an alliance with the WTA Tour, which earlier this summer rebuffed ATP efforts to merge the two tours’ media rights.
“During our discussions it became very clear our cycles are out of sync,” said Stacey Allaster, the WTA’s chief executive officer. “Their rights are not available until 2014 and ours are in 2013. The first time we could combine them is in 2017. Our members have asked me to tender our rights in 2013 to 2016, with no future provisions, so we
can achieve a strategic goal of combining rights with the men.”
Allaster did not rule out the possibility that, should the WTA’s current tender effort not succeed, the deadline could be accelerated.
ATP Media produces the sport's feeds, which allows the unit to control the quality of broadcasts.
“It is an inconsistent journey watching the Sony Ericsson,” Allaster said of Miami’s Sony Ericsson Open.
That makes it difficult for the sport to promote its top events effectively when viewers are racing around channels and the quality of the broadcasts differ.
ESPN’s Bernstein believes the WTA would benefit from an alliance with the ATP because now each of the women’s events essentially has its own host broadcaster, meaning the consistency and quality of the feed is different.
And ESPN’s streaming service, ESPN3, benefits from the high quality of the ATP feed, he explained, whereas, again, the quality for WTA matches depends on the host broadcaster.
With ATP Media now the biggest revenue source within men’s tennis, could it be used to cure the imbalance that exists between the top two levels of tournaments, and the third, called the ATP 250s? Many of these 41 events are plagued by
Some of these events recently asked Plasto, he said, about becoming part of ATP Media.
“There are no plans for the centralisation of 250s, but I have had a number of approaches from individual 250 tournaments to pool media rights,” he wrote in an email. “It is something that does interest me and could make sense for the tour.”
And could the success of ATP Media finance a 3-D push? Maybe.
Tennis on TV has long been challenging, with viewers often having a tough time following the ball and appreciating the athleticism and skill of the players. 3-D could help solve the problem, but for now, Plasto is unsure.
“Dust is still settling on 3-D,” he said. He agreed with many of the concerns raised against 3-D in this country: the need to wear glasses while watching the TV; the sometimes discomforting effect of those glasses; and whether HD needed more time to penetrate the market before 3-D is ready.
But he didn’t dismiss it outright.
“Any technology that can help show the skills of the likes of [Roger] Federer or [Rafael] Nadal has got to be good for tennis,” he said. “The on-site viewing experience is fantastic. Trying to capture that is the challenge.
“3-D turns a television experience into a stadium experience. That is where it can improve tennis.”
In July, Peachy Kellmeyer was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, honoring her more than three decades working as an administrator in women’s tennis. Kellmeyer performed nearly every job one could hold in women’s tennis, getting involved as the fledgling WTA launched to great skepticism in the early 1970s. SportsBusiness Journal’s Daniel Kaplan catches up with the tennis hall of famer.
KELLMEYER: In 1973, I began as [WTA] Tour director and did everything imaginable, from scheduling matches and providing competition rules and guidelines to running out to the local sporting goods store when we ran out of tennis balls, filling in as a ball person late at night when the kids had to get home to bed for school the next day. I called lines when we ran out of linespersons, baby-sat for players’ kids, and at the same time worked with the local tournament director and the Virginia Slims executives in promoting the sport [Virginia Slims sponsored the tour]. Throughout my career, “operations” was always in the title, and I am proud of the fact that I participated for 35 years on the WTA board of directors since day one.
Peachy Kellmeyer (right) poses with (from left) former player Rosie Casals, WTA Tour CEO Stacey Allaster and WTA Tour player Marion Bartoli during the BNP Paribas Open in March.
KELLMEYER: While refereeing at the 1972 Virginia Slims Championships in Boca Raton, I was hired by Gladys Heldman and the 16 players [who formed the tour] to be the tour director for the upcoming 1973 Virginia Slims season.
■What is the most important development to occur in the sport?
KELLMEYER: “Battle of the Sexes” — King defeats Riggs [in 1973]. This got tennis on the front pages, got the guy in the local pub who was a sports fan now becoming a tennis fan, and got women all over the world to feel a new door had been opened. It was a cultural change, and I believe it to be the most important development to occur in women’s sports.
■What would you like to see changed with the game today?
KELLMEYER: I would like to see more former champions of tournaments recognized and/or participating during the worldwide events. They do quite a bit of this in golf, and I think it is important for everyone to know and understand the history in order to determine how best to plan for the future.
■Who was or is your favorite player?
KELLMEYER: No question, Billie Jean King. Without her vision and leadership, tennis, equality and women would not be where they are today.
In 2008, when Tennis Channel won the right to show some U.S. Open matches live, network President and CEO Ken Solomon was euphoric.
At the time the channel, which launched in 2003, was in only 25 million homes. Its executives believed that live U.S. Open rights that run through 2014 — plus rights to the sport’s other majors — would be the linchpin to growth. Solomon compared the feeling of securing U.S. Open rights as similar to winning the Super Bowl.
FRED MULLANE / CAMERAWORK USA
The network filed a carriage complaint at
the FCC against Comcast.
Cablevision, Comcast and Time Warner Cable carry the channel on their sports tiers, a higher-priced premium tier that generally struggles to attract subscribers.
Tennis Channel’s frustrations with trying to move off the big cable operators’ sports tiers have become so intense that the network has looked for regulatory solutions as a way to help it gain wider distribution.
At the beginning of 2010, Tennis Channel filed a carriage complaint at the Federal Communications Commission against the country’s biggest cable operator, Comcast. Tennis Channel’s complaint alleges that Comcast is favoring its own sports channels, like Golf Channel and Versus, over unaffiliated ones. Tennis Channel wants Comcast to move it off the company’s sports and entertainment tier and onto its digital basic tier, where similar sports channels like Golf and Versus reside.
Tennis Channel executives cite the federal Communications Act, which says that cable operators, like Comcast, can’t manipulate the marketplace to favor their own networks over their competitors.
Tennis Channel’s regulatory strategy looks like it’s working so far. Last month, the commission’s enforcement bureau recommended that the FCC force Comcast to give Tennis Channel wider carriage.
The full commission usually follows these types of recommendations, said longtime cable industry analyst Steve Effros.
The problem for Tennis Channel is that even if the commission takes the recommendation, it’s unlikely that Comcast would move the channel to a better programming tier immediately. Effros said that cable operators have been looking into whether it should allow the courts to act on program carriage disputes like this.
“As an interim play, it’s probably helpful for Tennis Channel to get over that first hurdle,” Effros said. “But there’s a bigger question: Is any of this legal? I don’t think it is.”
Effros suggested that cable operators have a good First Amendment argument against these types of complaints. Effros, who worked at the FCC as an attorney adviser for five years in the early 1970s, believes that cable operators legally should be able to make editorial decisions about what channels they want to carry.
“The real question is whether the cable industry is going to challenge this,” Effros said. “If there are programmers that intend to rely on this as part of their long-term plan, they are making a mistake.”
While the case works its way through the system, Tennis Channel is gearing up for this year’s U.S. Open. To supplement its television coverage during the event, Tennis Channel is rolling out a lot of video via broadband on www.tennischannel.com, including live match streaming.
At 36 years and counting, World TeamTennis continues to chug along, despite only a three-week season and the loss of its main benefactor, credit card company Advanta, two years ago to bankruptcy.
The loss of its top sponsor necessitated in part an equity infusion from the U.S. Tennis Association. But prospects have improved, and the brainchild of Billie Jean King pushes toward break even.
FRED & SUSAN MULLANE / CAMERAWORK USA
World TeamTennis says its business prospects have improved.
For the first time, WTT ran a preview show on Comcast regional sports channels, and overseas markets are buying the content. Domestically, most matches air tape-delayed on cable, largely regional sports networks, while WTT.com streams some matches live.
With American players few and far between at the upper echelons of the sport, WTT is now also selling itself as a place to see Americans play. “It is a big opportunity for young American talent,” Kloss said.
WTT does promote stars, though those players often come in for a single match and not the full three weeks. Instead, WTT is mostly populated with second-tier players, but also a very un-tennis-like festive atmosphere that can attract casual and younger fans.
Perhaps the highlight of the season for WTT was first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters attending a Washington Kastles match. The Kastles also achieved a first for WTT: the first undefeated season.