Gridlock!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008 /by

by Pete Bodo

Howdy, everyone. I've got a busy day here at the mothership, with a monthly planning meeting and then a video shoot (in a proper studio, no less!) with my compadre Jon Levey later in the afternoon. I won't be around much today. But remember, we'll have our book group meeting tomorrow (subject: A Champion's Mind, and Pete Sampras and his career in general)  in two sessions, including the evening. The evening session will be late-ish (around 9 PM), because my little family is hooking up with the Friedmans (Andrew, Caitlin and their twins, Declan and Taylor) for an early pizza dinner - the mozzarella will be flying! I see it as a spousally-approved opportunity to drink beer.

Yesterday, I wrote a post for ESPN on the ATP CEO job that is up for grabs, now that Etienne de Villiers has decided to call it quits (under pressure from various factions in the game). Essentially, I think this is a non-story because I just don't get the sense that people seek real change (other than in increased prize money) in the way the ATP and pro tennis operate. And even if they do, change is almost impossible to implement.

Mac Tennis is in a state of gridlock, with an over-loaded calendar (and remember, all of those tournaments have legal rights and financial investments that can be made to appear very hefty in a court of law) and a de-centralized structure (that's a fancy way to say the the oddly scattered Grand Slam events are the focal points of the game). Maybe that's not even such a bad thing, because this much is for sure: every aspiring Wimbledon champ or ATP journeyman has a seemingly endless menu of options, in terms of playing opportunity.

This should not be overlooked, but it usually is because the bully pulpit belongs to the top stars, and they undoubtedly resent the work load they are expected to carry. I can't blame them, either - the bottom line is that they tote the game forward.

In the end, the ATP CEO is hemmed in on all sides - by tournaments, players, agents - and each constituency has both turf to protect and self-interest to promote. Think about it - what kind of power does the CEO really have? Two recent controversies should put the CEO's position into perspective - the rebellion against the ill-fated "round-robin" experiment, and the Hamburg demotion.

The round-robin fiasco showed how quick the players are to criticize their leadership, and also how reluctant they are to tamper with the basic format to which they are accustomed. Even though the short trial run pr round-robin was a poorly thought-out fiasco, it did demonstrate that an ATP CEO can conceive and implement policy. He just can't make it work, through sheer force of personality or the collective will of the constituents. De Villiers, for any or all of his flaws, neither took his office as a sinecure, nor did he suffer from analysis paralysis - always a threat when people start raising "what ifs?"

Hamburg was a more telling case. Look at the protracted time line on the saga; and consider the relatively minor degree of real change that the calendar realignment implied; factor in the astronomical costs of implementing that change and the fierce and often bitter debate accompanying it. Now you can see what a nominal CEO is up against.  A comparable leader in a different enterprise probably could re-structure an entire company, or change its direction, in less time, at a lower cost.

So it's pretty clear that the head of the ATP has severe limitations on what he can undertake, never mind accomplish - which isn't exactly a tantalizing prospect for a visionary, or entrepreneurial spirit. And let's always keep in mind that the ATP has the least amount of control and authority over the four most important events - the Grand Slams. That's why abandoning its role as a player union in favor of becoming the tour organizer and administrator was such a critical decision by the ATP. Sure, the ATP theoretically and arguably represents the most important constituents in the game -the players. But since the players and ATP are formally partners with the tournaments, it's hard to envision them going to war against each other. The word we're looking for is "internicine" conflict.

The ATP CEO is, first of all, an administrator/negotiator; does that sound like the kind of job the next Bill Gates wants to take? Secondly, he's a figurehead. There's a faction in the game - I call them the "realists" - who acknowledge that and it shapes their preferences. To a realist, the most you can expect from the ATP is a leader like the WTA's Larry Scott, whose main strengths are a deep, insider's knowledge of the workings of the tour, and an ability to re-arrange the chess pieces on the board through hard, skillful, dedicated, disciplined negotiation.

Then there are the "idealists" - you can tell them by their oft-expressed desire to bring in a CEO fromn "outside the game" - someone with a vision for the game and a willingness to roll the die and shake things up. De Villiers was essentially an idealists' choice. And that faction must be in retreat. So it seems that the challenge lies in finding an insider as deft as Scott to take over the job. I don't know enough about Brad Drewett's history in the  back rooms of the game to have strong feelings either way but, like Scott, he's a former player who's labored in the administrative and promotional trenches for a long time - my guess is that he's the top contender.

I can think of one guy among the contenders (some Big Dogs, including John P. McEnroe and the Miami Masters founder, Butch Buccholz, are out of the hunt) who has credentials that would certainly satisfy the realists, and who's enough of an entrepeneur to satisfy at least some idealists - the Hopman Cup founder and former Australian Open tournament director, Paul McNamee. But I have no idea if he's interested, or under consideration.

My gut feeling is that when the ATP does announce its decision, it will be a conservative one. I doubt that anyone is going to herald the dawning of a "new era," especially when you factor in the global economic climate. More likely, the choice will elict a collective shrug. The larger problem, which existed even before our current financial crisis developed, is that at the most fundamental level (player compensation, across the board) the game has not advanced - at all. The prize-money figures are a good baseline for determining growth, and by that standard tennis hasn't grown all that much - or if it has, the rewards haven't trickled down to those who most deserve it, the players.

Of course, you choose whatever quantifiable standards you wish in forming your judgments. The sheer volume of tournaments is certainly a sign of health, even if player-compensation is stagnant. In other words, there are plenty of cars "in the box", but none of them can rev their engines at high RPM because we're in gridlock.

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