Sportsnetworker often features stories and posts from the multi-million dollar global sporting industry. The last few entries have looked at massive sporting brands such as the NFL, NBA and Manchester United. There are, however, many successful sporting properties that have carved a niche for themselves– even without big budgets. These properties function not necessarily off the radar but certainly not grabbing the major headlines. One example is World Team Tennis (WTT).
WTT was founded in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King and incorporates both a coed professional tennis league and a recreational league, which is now one of the most popular recreational formats in the US. The pro-league comprises 10 teams across the US, with catchy names such as the Boston Lobsters and the Newport Beach Breakers, and is staged in a compact two week season every July. There is an Eastern and Western Conference Final and then ultimately a WTT Final where the WTT Champion is crowned. Matches, typically staged at night under lights, consist of five events – men’s singles and doubles, women’s singles and doubles and mixed doubles. Each team has at least one marquee player and the league has featured some of the biggest names in tennis over the years such as Evert, Connors, Navratilova, McEnroe and more recently Sampras, Hingis and Clijsters. Matches are televised, there is prize money, albeit on a small scale, and even a DJ playing music between points on court.
This week, I have the privilege of a question and answer session with John Dato – General Manager of the New York Sportimes franchise which plays at the new sporting complex on Randall’s Island in New York.
Q: So John, how is World Team Tennis different from the tennis we see at the four majors?
A: I think the main difference is that people relate to team sports and with our team format in WTT it gives fans something to follow during our season -rooting for their team instead of just a favorite player in a major. Also, with our standings and playoffs we can better relate to the other sports.
Q: WTT has a reputation for being innovative. What has WTT brought to modern tennis?
A: Excitement! With Billie Jean King’s passion to grow the game for all involved, she has lead the way for WTT innovations, with elements such as overtime , co-Ed Teams, getting fans involved during the matches and even putting mandatory autograph sessions for all payees after the matches for fans. WTT has helped to bring tennis into the modern fan experience.
Q: I hear you’ve got some big matches lined up this year in New York. Tell me more.
A: We with be featuring a season of #1’s. For starters, we have one of tennis’ all time rivalries being renewed – John McEnroe versus Jimmy Connors – something that we could only pull off in NYC. We also have the 2 time US Open champion returning to play for us – Kim Clijsters. Former world #1 Martina Hingis is also joining the Sportimes for the full season. Add in visits from Hingis’ former 1 doubles partner Anna Kournikova and appearances from former number 1 Lindsay Davenport , representing the St Louis Aces team, our Sportimes Stadium will have some memorable tennis in 2011.
Q: What are your expectations for New York Sportimes this season – on and off court?
A: On the court – that’s easy – a return to the league finals but with a different outcome this year (us winning the King Trophy!) Off the court, continuing to bring a super experience to tennis fans in the NY market, with exciting tennis and a family atmosphere and having them feel as if they were a part of something special in the Big Apple.
Q: It can’t be easy breaking through the clutter of a highly competitive New York sporting market. What tactics do you use?
A: Great questions. It is certainly not easy. I do use some of the traditional tactics, such as a 30 second TV spot on regional sports networks to drive awareness, along with DM pieces such as schedule cards, postcard mailings etc. to a very targeted group (USTA members, tennis player database etc.). We have also struck a deal with Tennis.com to utilize some of their elements to promote our marquee Mac versus Connors match. But we also need to do some untraditional things to try and get noticed. One key this year will be to engage our fans and other tennis fans in the social media space. We are running a ‘friend get a friend’ contest to drive direct ticket sales while using some of our intangible assets as prizes ( you have a chance to return the opening serve from Kim Clijsters or sit on the bench during a match – innovations we can implement over some of the other leagues).
Q: Tell me, what is it like to work alongside a genuine tennis legend such as John McEnroe?
A: Fantastic. Every day is a new experience. John’s office is directly next to mine so I have the opportunity to really interact with him on a daily basis. And yes – he is in the office every day! Over the past year I have seen his passion for tennis and success through his commitment to his John McEnroe Tennis Academy at Sportimes Randall’s Island. He is on the court working with the students on both their game and mental aspects. His goal is to bring the buzz back to tennis, in the US, and specifically NYC. As an added bonus we get to see him on the court staying sharp for our season and the other tournaments he is playing in. He invites some of his “tennis friends” to come play with him – one day it was Andy Roddick and the next day it was Jim Courier – pretty impressive. But he also gets out there to play against some of our best students to give them some idea of what it takes to be Number 1.
Q: And finally, as this site is read by many aspiring sports professionals, can you tell us how you got into sports business? Do you have any advice on how to break in and succeed in the industry?
A: Having always been a sports fan, I jumped at the opportunity to go to school (St John’s University) for sports marketing, but also backed it up with marketing and business elements. Sports are great but they are a bottom line business. So, if you can affect the revenue line in any way, do it. Always try to learn something new, on a weekly basis, both inside your business and outside. The more you are versed in what is happening around you, the more valuable you will be to the boss. A parting note -it is sport after all – have a good time, keep it in perspective, and you can make a living going to work and enjoying it every day.