SBJ/June 3-9, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Tennis league has 5 teams, $60M

The nascent International Premier Tennis League has $60 million committed for five franchises, said Morgan Menahem, the league’s chief executive, and plans to add three more teams for its 2014 inaugural season.

Mahesh Bhupathi used the Indian Premier League as a model for the new tennis league.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The brainchild of current doubles player and businessman Mahesh Bhupathi, the IPTL is targeting a two- to three-week season in November 2014 in Asia and the Middle East, with eight franchises boasting player budgets of up to $10 million apiece.

“We envision [by 2015] getting to 10 teams; two conferences and a finals weekend,” said Menahem, who is also the agent for top-10-ranked player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Menahem will run IPTL out of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, suggesting that as one of the franchise locations.

Menahem declined to disclose the committed franchise owners’ identities but said they are being asked to pay $12 million for a 10-year term in addition to the money they’d commit to the player budgets.

It’s no secret that demand is high for top-level tennis in the Middle East and Asia, and top dollars could follow. Rafael Nadal received more than $1 million for a one-night exhibition at New York’s Madison Square Garden in March; organizers in the Middle East and Asia would likely be able to meet, or exceed, such sums.

Additionally, top players have already voiced their support for the league, including Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

The competition format is patterned after World TeamTennis in the United States (with singles and doubles matches) and will include a match with legends participants as well. But Bhupathi patterned the concept of wealthy franchise owners paying huge salaries after cricket’s Indian Premier League, which formed in 2008 and has found instant success.

The first IPTL draft is set to be held at the Australian Open in January and will feature a twist on traditional drafts: Players’ services will be auctioned, not selected. In other words, franchises will bid for players. Whether an auction draft process is used again after this year is yet to be determined, but in year one, deciding where players go would have been too challenging, Menahem said.

The league plans sponsorship sales, including a title sponsor, and has hired agency MP & Silva to handle TV talks.

It’s unclear whether big money will raise the level of play in what largely has been considered the “silly season” in tennis. After a grueling 10- to 11-month calendar featuring the ATP and WTA tour schedules, the four Grand Slams and Davis Cup play, the exhibitions that litter the November and December schedule are commonly less-than-serious affairs.

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