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Monday, December 17, 2007 /by

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Mornin folks. A few housekeeping notes: Welcome back, Steggy. Hope you come to the party tonight. I enjoyed your comments yesterday, although my analysis of TW's history differs slightly from yours. No matter, you've been missed - as the comments showed. Missed by me, too!

TennisWorld's virtual holiday party will take place tonight, starting at 9 PM EST. I don't know how it will all work out, given the number of people who might drop by (not to mention the state they will be in, especiallyl after they begin consuming the Gringo Especiales that Tim is mixing up for the party). I'm a little concerned about the volume of traffic and the flow of your conversation, so I am going to try to have three or four rooms (otherwise known as "posts" or "threads") open.

You know how at parties some people automatically gravitate toward either the living room, the kitchen, the den, or even the hallway (is there a "type" who always winds up in the kitchen?)? Well, you'll be able to do that tonight. And I encourage you to mix and mingle, jumping from post to post.

I also want to extend a very special invitation to all you lurkers out there. This will be a great time for you to start chatting with our regular posters. I am also hoping that some of our regular posters who have been otherwise occupied recently will drop by. I will have the posts up by around 8 PM.

Now, for a little watercooler action.

I just finished writing an ESPN post on the Dumbest Idea by a Major Sports Organization for 2007 (it should be live soon) which is the ATP's decision to do away with the Masters Series in favor of having tournaments identified as 1000s, 500s, or 250s (based on the number of rankings points and amount of prize money they offer, which are the main determinants of the importance of any given event).

One of the issues I discussed there was the waste and confusion that accompanies making such an enormous change. As I wrote there, the ATP and its partners (including sponsors) expended incredible human energy and capital in making the Masters Series into a meaningful and understandable concept. They did a pretty good job of doing that, I feel. Now all that goes right into the toilet as the ATP goes about the process of restructuring the tour and re-inventing the mousetrap. What's weird about this is that the Masters Series events are almost unchanged (there will be 8, rather than the present 9) - why blow them up, while trying to boost the newly created class of "500" events?

It seems to me that you can learn a lot about the integrity (I don't mean that in the moral sense), discipline and organization of an entity like the ATP, WTA, USGA, MLB, NBA or PGA by the degree to which it sticks to a long-term game plan and succeeds in - and you knew this word was coming! - branding. I think there's a relationship between the efficiency and soundness of an organization and the consistency with which its mission is carried out.

Let's create an analogy here with the NFL, whose Super Bowl is probably the  ultimate branding success story. If the ATP were running football, the Super Bowl would have come into being in 1967 (as it did). But in 1973, the ATP would have changed its structure to incorporate four conferences (instead of two) and it would have renamed its final, championship game the Super Football Cup. Under pressure from sponsors in 1985, the ATP/NFL would have, say, added an International conference and changed the name of its premier event to the International Champion's Cup, until an umbrella sponsor came in and insisted, three years later, that the championship game be called The Super Champion's Cup.

You get my point: a healthy, strong organization has the discipline and foresight to embrace a long-term vision and stick with it as it evolves. A strong, healthy organization stays on message and builds its brand not over three-year periods, but decades. In the best case scenario, this is not terribly difficult to do. And constant tinkering is a bad sign. So is changing the names of highlight events, frequent restructuring, and changes in the way officials keep track of competition. Those are all signs of indecision, weakness, poor planning, a lack of vision, failure at orderly succession or some or all of the above.

Consider the year-end championships: They began as the Grand Prix Finals (often with the name of a sponsor affixed to the front), became the Masters, morphed into the ATP Finals, and even that was changed to the ATP World Championships before it became the Masters Cup. Granted, the
ATP inherited this product when the organization was formed (shortly after the Volvo and Nabisco Masters eras) but this kind of mid-stream horse-switching and almost whimsical changes of mind tell you much about the ATP and its "vision."

Pro tennis is not an easy sport to run, and I'm willing to cut that ATP slack on that.  But these endless re-inventions and changes-of-mind are signs of inconsistency and the lack of a unified, long-term, disciplined vision.

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