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February 22, 2013

Is the USTA Failing American Tennis?

The so-called "US Open Series" of tennis tournaments that culminates in the U.S. Open, a Grand Slam event, includes more men's tournaments in Canada than in all of the Western two-thirds of the United States that has a population of roughly 170 million. 

There reportedly used to be 22 professional tournaments in the Western United States, now there is one (1) event, at Indian Wells, a small resort city near Las Vegas. And that event was nearly killed by IMG, a former minority owner, which tried to sell the event and move it to Shanghai. 

San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, Chicago and San Jose -- combined -- have fewer ATP Tour tournaments than the likes of Umag, Estoril, Zagreb, Delray Beach, Bucharest, Auckland and Rotterdam. 

In the past year, the 125-year-old San Jose tournament was sold, again with IMG as an intermediary, and moved to Brazil, while the Los Angeles ATP event was sold for a piddling $1.5 million and moved to Bogota. 

Look at this map of world-tour-level men's events to see the clear imbalance. Red circles are so-called "US Open Series" tournaments, while the blue circles are other ATP events in the U.S. You can see why I think the USTA should be re-named "The East Coast Tennis Club."  

Map of ATP World Tour and Major men's events in US
That giant void is the lack of USTA leadership.

Lest you think I'm picking on small, European touranments too much, consider this imbalance. There are DelRayCrandon two (2) ATP World Tour events in Miami, only 58.9 miles apart and 4 weeks apart on the calendar.  Surprisingly (not) the smaller, first event has poor attendance with only a few hundred people huddled in parkas in the stands for the 2013 final. Smart planning? Best for U.S. tennis? 

All of this happened on the USTA's watch, despite its charter of "promoting tennis in the United States". As a teaser, to keep you reading, the USTA could have saved the L.A. tournament with an investment no greater than the fully-weighted compensation of only one of its part-time executives who, it seems, manages teenage players' diets. Badly.

Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian tennis player, of all people, explains the impact best:

"Tennis is turning into a European sport. It's hard to develop talent when you don't have local tournaments." 

Many fans don't realize, and there is no reason to care in general, that tennis is a leaderless sport. Unlike, say the NFL or Major League Baseball, there is no czar atop a governing structure that runs and promotes the sport.  

Yet another rained out US Open, from NBC http://photoblog.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/08/27/13508720-soggy-wet-start-to-the-us-open-tennis-tournament?lite
The majors, better known as the Grand Slam events, are each, independent entities that jointly own trademarks. The ITF sets some rules, but can't really impose them on anyone. The ATP and WTA tour events are also separate entities, although many are owned by interlocking groups of investors, particularly the parasitic sports marketing group IMG, which creates innumerable conflicts of interest that damage the sport for both spectators and players (witness Fernando Verdasco refusing to defend his title at an event owned by IMG because the corporation was allegedly favoring other players it managed, or that IMG didn't invite Roger Federer to an event for the first time in years, after he fired IMG as his representative.)


A recent showdown between the BNP Indian Wells tournament, now owned by high-tech executive Larry Ellison, and the ATP highlights the conflicts. Indian Wells wanted to increase the prize money it gives players, both ATP and WTA, by a combined $2.3 Million more than that required by ATP rules. Before finally backing down, the ATP board voted to prohibit the tournament from paying players more money.

How is that possible? Although the ATP, which stands for Association of Tennis Players, was founded by American star Jack Kramer, it is basically a loose consortium of large, tournament organizers and players. The organizers -- IMG, a European group and an Asian group -- voted to block the prize money because it would have either made Indian Wells more competitive with their events, or forced them to respond by raising what they pay out. IMG is an American company, basically just a hedge fund, but its primary tournament business seems to be buying into American events and flipping them to foreign sites, like bad real-estate speculators. 

The damage this does, even after Indian Wells won the standoff, is substantial. 

Andy Roddick explains it well:

"Someone like Larry Ellison wants to invest in his event and make it the biggest possible and he gets stopped by the ATP. If you're a start up, what would make you want to navigate through that and to go through that firing line?" Roddick said. "How can you step into tennis with any confidence? It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of." 

Roddick is wrong on one account: From the perspective of the foreign tournament organizers, the growth of tennis in the United States is bad for their investments, so hurting others' tennis is smart business.

If IMG is often the villain, the USTA is the patsy, or perhaps a better description is disinterested bystander. As best I can tell, the USTA doesn't care as long as its money-maker, the U.S. Open, prospers. And is it a big money-generator. 

Per published reports, the taxpayer-subsidized U.S. Open tournament is the USTA's biggest source of funds. The event grosses over $200 Million and has a mark-up over gross expenses of more than 100%. No, that wasn't one of my typos. The USTA makes over a $100 Million on every year's U.S. Open, and it gets taxpayer subsidies to do so. Despite that, the USTA has been extremely slow to invest in the tournament. It lags the other three majors -- the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the French Open -- in putting roofs over stadiums, implementing electronic shot review, paying officials, building court covers to protect unroofed courts from rain, and in some areas, prize money. 

Nonetheless, it makes a lot of money and has the power to play a major role in developing U.S. tennis. The USTA doesn't need to spend money to buy or develop tournaments, it needs to provide leadership. Be a catalyst. Put together a tournament plan, and play yenta with groups of well-heeled investors. 

But the USTA, as far as the public record shows, does nothing. 

For a comparison, look at what the NBA did when it had a troubled franchise in New Orleans. David Stern, the NBA commissioner, stepped in, had the NBA buy out the franchise, ran it while looking for new owners, then sold the team, which is now apparently profitable. 

Similarly, albiet by a much more tortuous path, Major League Baseball eventually saved the troubled Montreal Franchise by buying it and moving the business to Washington, D.C. 

What does the USTA do? We hear about Patrick McEnroe, the USTA's seven-figure head of player development, giving schizophrenic direction to its top, junior women's prospect, reportedly leading her to quitting the program. 

Image from SI.com
Also, McEnroe and Wayne Bryan, coach of the Bryan Brothers doubles team, got into a heated spat that started with McEnroe's dictum that young players must be taught with large, soft balls instead of regular tennis balls, but devolved into criticism of McEnroe's leadership as a part-time executive drawing a seven-figure salary.

The back-and-forth is extremely lenghty, and includes criticism of the USTA's active interference with parent-coaches, inflexibility and general management but here is a representive excerpt:

Coach Bryan: "I will not set forth all the things I have seen re the way money is spent in the PD world, but if you want to push me on it, I will be happy to reveal that kinda thing and also what American pro players now and through the years think about the USTA PD {player development}."

McEnroe: "I make a very nice living -- and I don't apologize for that either."

Coach Bryan: "I'll just pull my punches here and make only a few comments on that -- I do not think that anyone that works for the non-profit USTA should make four times what the President of the United States makes. I say publish all the salaries of the USTA PD National Coaches and Administrative staff at once. And then compare it to the private sector." 

McEnroe didn't respond to that challenge. Nor, as best I can tell, has he made the slightest effort to stop the erosion of professional tennis tournaments in the United States. 

Meanwhile, the entire Western United States, with a population of roughly 170 Million, a tremendous sponsorship base, a large audience of tennis players as well as fans, a support structure including the top tennis schools in the country in Stanford, USC and Berkeley, and hundreds of thousands of dues-paying USTA members -- has one, lonely ATP tournament out in a tiny, desert retirement community. 

The best thing that could happen to American tennis would be creation of an alternative to the moribund USTA, or failing that, new leadership taking over and revitalizing that group.

Since that seems remote, can we find someone with the tennis connections to act as a leader, and do the cold-calling to put together an investment group to create a major, ATP tennis tournament in the San Francisco-Bay area? 

Look at this table and tell me whether you think the USTA should be re-named "The East Coast Tennis Club".

Compare Men’s Pro Tennis Representation

Eastern United States
Population: app. 160 million, 10 events, all sizes

U.S. Open – Grand Slam event
Cincinnati – Masters 1000
Miami – Masters 1000
Washington – ATP 500
Delray Beach – ATP 250
Atlanta – ATP 250
Winston-Salem – ATP 250
Houston – ATP 250
Memphis – ATP 500
Newport – ATP 250

Population: 34 million, one medium event

Toronto – Masters 1000

Western United States
(West of four-corners)
Population: 170 million, one medium event

Indian Wells – Masters 1000

Population: 65 million, 6 events

Roland Garros – Grand Slam event
Bercy (Paris) – Masters 1000
Montpelier – ATP 250
Marseille – ATP 250
Nice – ATP 250
Metz – ATP 250





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