Donald Dell on How Tennis Can Build a Strong American Audience

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On this week's Beyond the Baseline podcast, host Jon Wertheim talks with former player, broadcaster, agent, businessman and more, Donald Dell. Wertheim and Dell talk about the prospect of combining the men's and women's tours; the current state of tennis right now, especially amidst the coronavirus pandemic; what the USTA and the sport as a whole can do to attract young athletes to tennis; and more. 

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Jon Wertheim: I think when you're when you're on the inside—and no one is more inside than you are—you hear a lot of complaints that the fan age is going up in tennis and it's been almost 20 years since an American man has won a major. And yet I see the two highest grossing male and female athletes in the world are tennis players. And the U.S. Open can pay full prize money without selling a single ticket. And, as a women's sport tennis is head and shoulders above anything else. I think there's some positives. Big picture, where do you see the sport in 2020?

Donald Dell: Well, I don't see it going anywhere in 2020. You got to build to 2021. If this rebound of the virus comes in August or September, it could set everything back, not forward. I think when I heard the Masters in golf was going November 10-14th, I thought, God Almighty. That's awful long. It's gonna be cold. Well, in Georgia, I guess you can do it. That may have been the smartest play of all, because maybe some of this will die down by November. But I would look, Jon, towards 2021. And look—no major sport is a great international sport without a big, strong American audience. The women in America have done great. The Williams sisters have been phenomenal and have done a great job for women's tennis for 10 to 12 years. They've carried the sport. But on the men's side, we have four players in the top 100 ranked on the ATP Tour. 

I mean, that's absurd. John Isner, who's a wonderful guy, is 34 years old. He's ranked No. 24 and is the highest ranked American. And he does very well financially in the game because he's the No. 1 ranked American. But then the question is: how do you make American tennis more important to the young athletes coming out of the ghetto, coming out of the cities, coming out of the farmlands, your great natural athletes? There's a battle on when they're eight, 10, 12 years old. And you choose an individual sport like tennis where the riches are enormous. The women have all done that because they don't have any alternatives. But the men have basketball, football, hockey and baseball. 

And so tennis has got to get smart in America and really compete for the eight and 10 year olds growing up. And how do you do that? Well, one thing...this is said, from afar, I'm not in the USTA but I have been very close to them over the years and I've been a Davis Cup captain and all that and I've been on their committees. But, they have 17 sections. They make $350 million net, net, net out of the U.S. Open and they spend 85% of it on the 17 sections. Well, they've got to make sure those sections are doing something to really get young players into the game—young athletes, not just parents who play. You know, the Bryans grew up and played because their mother and father played. I grew up and played a lot because my mother played. But how do you attract the young, uneducated, great athlete to tennis? And that's the $64 question that the USTA, in my judgment, has got to deal with and answer and has not done that for 30 years. I mean, seriously, Jon, if you think about today in the world, who is promoting tennis, in my judgment, there's one group that promotes tennis, certainly in America effectively, that's called the Tennis Channel. If we didn't have the Tennis Channel, what would tennis look like on the media scale? Absurd.