South Africa: Game Plan to Get Tennis Bouncing Back
Business Day (Johannesburg)
3 October 2007
Posted to the web 3 October 2007
ETIENNE de Villiers is not much of a tennis player. His CV cites one university-level victory, but concedes he is "not exactly International Tennis Hall of Fame material". Nonetheless, if the 58-year-old's plans work out, he will be remembered by fans for taking the game to a level of popularity it has not enjoyed for a long time.
De Villiers has been executive chairman and president of the ATP, the international body controlling events for professional male tennis players, since January last year. Formed as the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1990 by players who took control of the game away from the former governing body, the ATP, as it is now known, manages the calendar of 63 events that attract the world's top players throughout the year.
But in the contest for audience and public interest, tennis has lost its bounce. Prize money has remained static while that of golf -- a rival for TV coverage -- has risen. It is time for the ATP to repackage the game so that it can better compete for attention and interest in an age where entertainment needs dominate everything, says De Villiers.
It is no coincidence that the Pretoria University graduate was an executive with the Walt Disney Company for four years from 1986. He talks a language that may sound foreign to many in the tennis world.
"You have to decide which market you're in. If it's a tennis market you do certain things. If you're in the entertainment business you have to compete for discretionary time and income. We clearly are in the latter. Tennis over the past 15 years has not really done anything to change how it is presented or marketed to the general public."
To that end, De Villiers has announced a restructuring of the global calendar of men's tennis that will take effect as of 2009. The current "tour" system is out. In come the 1000-, 500- and 250-series events. The aim is to make the year-long tennis calendar easier to follow and reduce confusion about the ranking of tournaments and players.
"We've never had a story that told fans about the global tour," he says. "Very few people who follow tennis actually understand that it runs for 44 weeks, is played in more than 40 countries and there's a coherent story that starts in Auckland and will end in Shanghai and at the end of that there's a top player in the world."
In De Villiers' new world, points -- 1000, 500 or 250 depending on the event category -- will count towards participation in the final ATP event of the year, now called the Tennis Masters Cup. Six of the nine top 1000 events will also be combined with tournaments held by the WTA Tour, so that the top women will be competing at the same time and place as the top men.
Co-operation is vital in a world of disparate tennis governing bodies, where professional men have one organisation, women have another and the Grand Slam and Davis Cup events belong to yet another body, the International Tennis Federation. Being divided will not work, De Villiers says.
"We should all work just for one person and he's a 45-year-old living in Bedfordshire called John Smith. He is our tennis fan and he is the only person we should be working for. Ultimately, that informs the decisions of all of us who work in entertainment."
De Villiers didn't start in entertainment. After graduating as a civil engineer from Tuks in 1970, he went to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship and, after a stint back in SA, worked for two years as an engineer in the UK. In 1979 he went to consulting firm McKinsey, where he worked with management gurus Tom Peters and Bob Waterman .
In 1981 he returned to Johannesburg, running the building contracting and shop-fitting businesses of Ronnie Lubner's Solaglas. He helped with that company's international expansion and in 1984 was recruited by Sol Kerzner to head film and entertainment company Satbel, which became Interleisure.
Managing this group of 14 companies, including Ster Kinekor, gave De Villiers exposure to the work of companies such as Disney, Twentieth Century Fox and Disney. After former Disney bosses Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg "nagged" him to join them, he did, and set up an office for them in London, managing Disney's businesses in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Since leaving Disney in 2000, De Villiers has been involved in entrepreneurial startups and was a founder of private equity firm Englefield Capital. He is also non-executive chairman of BBC Worldwide, the broadcaster's commercial arm, which this week took a controlling stake in travel publisher Lonely Planet.
Boosting tennis's popularity means "having a better story", De Villiers says.
"You do need a bunch of characters that people care about. We've now placed far more emphasis on marketing and promoting our top 25 players as opposed to our top five players."
The ATP's marketing budget will rise from $800000 last year to $9m by 2009. Most people are aware of the top few names in men's tennis, such as Roger Federer, Leyton Hewitt and Rafael Nadal but under the new plan, each of the top 25 players will be assigned an account manager to develop a strategy for marketing and promoting them.
"It's what most smart entertainment companies are doing to market their product."
The ATP is also focusing on building a presence in China, which De Villiers describes as "probably the most exciting market in the world today".
Shanghai first hosted the Tennis Masters Cup in 2002 and will be one of the venues of the 1000- series tournaments from 2009.
Another market is Latin America. The ATP's website is also published in Spanish, as the region is one worth nurturing.
"A lot of our sponsors, such as Sony Ericsson, value that demographic. We see that as a very viable regional market."
De Villiers has a clear business vision for professional men's tennis. He wants to boost the TV revenue which, compared with soccer, is tiny. He wants to increase sponsorship and prize money.
"You double the size of the business every four years if you grow by 15% per annum. I'd hope that in six years' time we will have doubled prize money to $160m."
Of course, with tennis being very much a discretionary purchase, these plans will only work if consumer confidence remains strong. "A lot depends on the world being stable for the next six to seven years. If we have more buildings falling down in an unplanned manner and go through a major slump, then all bets are off, because so much of the sport is about sponsorship."
De Villiers says he is prepared to admit to mistakes as he goes along. A round-robin format the ATP introduced was scrapped after three months over rules problems and protesting players, led by Federer.
"I have no issue at all with experimenting with something and then abandoning if it doesn't work."
The ATP also changed its mind and agreed to the April Monte Carlo tennis tournament remaining a top-tier event after the tournament challenged plans to lower its status. Monte Carlo will be one of the 1000-series events but participation by top players will not be mandatory.
"They felt Monte Carlo as a city was very aspirational and that they would be able to maintain the status of a 1000 event and the financial commitment without having a player commitment. Our research indicated they were probably right."
The father of two, who says he has 10600 songs on his iPod, credits his ability to turn around the game to his status as an outsider. Not being a good tennis player is a plus, it seems.
"Don't be an insider. Tennis suffers from too many people in tennis running tennis. They all talk as experts. We're not selling to insiders, we're selling to people who occasionally watch a day of the Grand Slam."