All right, failure fans, go ahead and chuckle about the blackout and chortle over those Ronald McDonald drinking glasses. Here's some disquieting news. We don't know how to break it to you—it is sort of like learning that some pip-squeak butt of barracks jokes is up for the Medal of Honor—but, well, World Team Tennis has actually survived. It might not be a rip-roaring success quite yet but it lives, breathes and is getting the ball over the net.
WTT they call it for short. Some also call it silly, with its Loves, Apples, Racquets, Strings and other inanimate nicknames. Traditionalists blanch at its patchwork courts of red, blue, green and chocolate brown and its one-two-three-four "no-ad" scoring. Then there is its habit of putting people like Frank Fuhrer, Jordan Kaiser and Larry King in the league president's chair. What is the WTT doing with a fuhrer, kaiser and king anyway?
WTT is in its fourth season and it has 10 teams. Eight of the original 16 franchises have survived; one team was added in 1975 and another this year. Overall attendance is up 13.5% so far this season, and based on past experience the rest of the season should be even better. The Golden Gaters (Oakland) and Seattle-Portland are running 40% ahead of last year, New York and San Diego more than 20% and Boston. Cleveland and Los Angeles about 15%. Even allowing for some padding and papering here and a slice of bologna there, more seats are being filled in every WTT arena and revenues are up sharply. A couple of owners insist they are actually within shouting distance of a profit. Most important, the WTT has talent. Jimmy Connors. Guillermo Vilas and some other top players are outside the fold, but it does have Wimbledon champ Bjorn Borg (Cleveland), Ilie Nastase (Los Angeles) and Vitas Gerulaitis (Indiana). And it boasts virtually all the better women, including Chris Evert (Phoenix) and New York Apples teammates Billie Jean King and Virginia Wade.
Some franchises are almost lavishly run. Los Angeles Strings General Manager Bart Christensen, for instance, has a staff of 12 full-time front-office workers. Others seem to be seat-of-the-pants operations, notably the Cleveland Nets, owned by bearded radio mogul Joe Zingale, a one-time disc jockey known in his platter-spinning days as "Ol' Mr. Rhythm." A cousin of erstwhile Cleveland sports czar Nick Mileti, he also owns pieces of the baseball Indians and basketball Cavaliers.
July 25, 1977
Zingale pretty much goes his own way. He would dearly love to sign transsexual Renee Richards, but the WTT brass won't allow her to play until she passes a sex test. Zingale's is the only franchise without a Xerox Telecopier to use for intraleague communication and the only one without a publicity director. However, his is also the only franchise that has Borg. whose salary is not very seat-of-the-pants at all. Only Chris Evert commands more money than Borg, but the Swede will pass her next season if he chooses to return. As the Cleveland posters say, A NETS STAR IS BJORN.
"It took me four years to sign Bjorn Borg, and I mean that was working, baby, that was working," says Zingale. "I traveled all over the world. I traveled to Sweden, I traveled to London, I traveled all over the United States. Met with him each time and I'll tell ya somethin', I paid my dues during all that period. But Bjorn came to know me. Came to know me as someone he could trust. It got so that I knew Bjorn as well as his agents did."
Once Zingale finally signed Borg and his girl friend, Mariana Simionescu of Romania, he pampered them.
"Just before he left for Wimbledon I got him off to the side and I said, 'Bjorn. I know you don't need any more incentives to win Wimbledon, but I'm going to give you one anyway.' See, I had leased a Corvette for him for four months. He loves that car. You know, he just turned 21 years old. I said, 'Bjorn, if you win Wimbledon, I will buy you that car.'
"He said, 'Oh, Joe, you don't have to do that. You pay me enough money.'
"I said, 'I know I don't have to do it, but I want to do it. It's very important for you to win this second time. The first time, people will say it's a fluke. The second time is when they'll know there's no question about it.'
"He looked me straight in the eye and he said, 'Joe, I win Wimbledon for you.' For me he was going to win Wimbledon. I think that's fantastic."
Borg did win Wimbledon and last week, the man he won it for, Zingale, presented him the keys to the spiffy white sports car before a Cleveland home crowd that was announced as 8,312, largest ever to see the team play at home. But a man at the press table surveyed the stands and said, "If you believe that, you believe in the Easter Bunny."
Taunts like that roll off the back of 36-year-old Earl (Butch) Buchholz, the new WTT commissioner, who runs the league out of an office in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton. Buchholz was coach of the Chicago Aces in the WTT's first season, and the owner still owes him $15,000. Hired this season as one of the youngest league bosses ever in a major sport, Buchholz has already been more kindly treated as commissioner.
"It was funny," says Buchholz. "I felt the job was worth $75,000 and I said I'd do it for that, but I wasn't doing it for the money. I had made up my mind I wanted to be commissioner.
"They said $50,000 and I said, 'Okay, if that's what you want to do.' I didn't argue about it at all. Then they came back and said, 'Butch, we thought you'd argue. The salary's $60,000.' So they gave me a $10,000 raise in about five minutes."
If things are looking a bit rosier financially, one reason is the WTT's adoption of a legal device popular in the export-import business: the irrevocable letter of credit. The practice was started after Season One and is a principal reason why seven teams did not return for Season Two. Twice a year each franchise must ante up a $50,000 irrevocable letter of credit—money the commissioner can seize should a team refuse to pay a fine, say, or if a hapless owner drowns in a sea of red ink and Gatorade.
"It used to be a poker game," says one team official. "Nobody wanted to be the first to put in his letter. We have had meetings where it took a day and a half just to get everybody seated. Last January in Palm Springs, when the $50,000 letters were due, we were seated and moving on to other things in an hour and a half."
All of this is not to say, however, that WTT is rapidly overtaking the NFL in popularity. The Indiana Loves are weak and may have to be moved. Cleveland's idea of playing half its home matches in Pittsburgh was a disaster and Sea-Port is not drawing well in Seattle. Phoenix draws well with Evert but needs an infusion of capital; apparently the cash doesn't flow as well as Chris. Boston and New York might have to move outdoors next season because of arena problems.
And an experiment in international sport has, you should excuse the expression, bombed. An all-Soviet team—Olga Morozova, Alex Metreveli et al.—took the spot vacated when the Pittsburgh Triangles folded, but have drawn and played poorly while following a schedule that is undoubtedly the worst Russian ordeal since Stalingrad. The Soviets have no home arena, and here is how one recent 10-day period went: Sunday, Spokane; Monday, Kansas City; Wednesday, Seattle; Thursday, Anaheim; Friday, Portland; Saturday, Phoenix; Sunday, Los Angeles; Monday, Little Rock; Tuesday, Oakland.
"We have no time for rest or practice, the two things we need most," says Metreveli. "We had no experience in team tennis and we are not getting enough time to practice."
But for now, anyway, the WTT may be all the Russians have. They are unhappy with international tennis authorities who have ruled that amateurs' national associations are no more eligible for prize money than the amateurs themselves. It used to be that Metreveli's swag went to his association, but there will be no further tournament payouts unless he is allowed to declare himself a pro.
In an expansive mood, WTT suggests that the U.S.S.R. and some other socialist-bloc nations may play a six-week team-tennis season of their own after Wimbledon '78, then possibly participate in some sort of tennis "world series" in the U.S. WTT would not get any cash from the Communist countries but WTT Properties, the league's licensing arm, would have the right to represent U.S. clothing and sporting-goods manufacturers that want to sell their goods behind the Iron Curtain.
Buchholz has left European negotiations to Larry King, who is not only the current league president (and Billie Jean's husband) but who also runs WTT Properties, general manages the New York Apples and owns part of the Golden Gaters—the sort of sprawling conflict of interest that is typical of the sport. Buchholz has kept busy enough with other matters, like the question of what to do with Czech defector Martina Navratilova, who was under contract to Zingale at Cleveland but refused to play another season there. Buchholz was afraid she would skip WTT altogether and play the European tournaments, so he maneuvered her to Boston, which needed help.
Another crisis came at the All-Star Match two weeks ago in San Diego. It was precipitated, as tennis crises often are, by Billie Jean King and Ilie Nastase, although in this case Nastase didn't swear in any of his four languages or hit a ball at any elderly linesmen. He had vowed after spending last year with the Hawaii Leis that he would never play team tennis again, but he was persuaded to change his mind, and the Los Angeles Strings signed him for the second half of '77, plus four full seasons after that. (It couldn't have cost owner Jerry Buss more than six square miles of Palm Springs, three floors of City Hall, a luxurious apartment and a Mercedes-Benz.)
The All-Star Match was WTT's first, and only, network-TV showcase of the year, and the league was lucky to have that since television has suddenly lost a bit of its enthusiasm for tennis. Buchholz decided that Nastase, who had not even played in the WTT this season, should be a "wild card" selection, an instant All-Star. Nastase's presence, it was reasoned, would not only boost second-half ticket sales around the league but would also help remind people that the WTT has some top men players to go with all its women stars.
But there were yelps of protest from King and others, so it was decided that Nastase would be introduced, show his grinning Romanian face and sit on the West team's bench—but not play. He drove happily down to San Diego in his new car. Then Frew McMillan of the Golden Gaters suffered an injury. Buchholz went to King and said he would have to insert Nastase.
"No way," she said. "I'm not walking out there. I'm not playing. That's it."
The fact that King did play before the sellout crowd (she served an ace to win the final set as East beat West 23-18) was probably the result of Buchholz' diplomatic skills. He called in all the players and persuaded them to play despite their objections. King, one of the founders of WTT, eventually gave in.
"It was a business decision, that's all it was," Buchholz said. "I still believe it was right. But it was a tough time. I was starting to get pressure from the owners—'Butch, it's not worth the fight.' Maybe five years from now when we're the biggest thing around, we shouldn't do something like that, but you know what? It was a good move."
In its continuing struggle for survival, the WTT must overcome fan ignorance about its use of cumulative game scoring. If, let's say, New York beats Indiana 6-4 in the first set and Indiana wins the second set 6-1, Indiana leads 10-7—and so on through all five one-set pairings (men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles and mixed doubles) that make up a WTT match. Either it must overcome fan ignorance, that is, or change the system.
At the same time, victories by Borg and other WTT players at Wimbledon should help dispel the oft-expressed notion that team tennis is lousy preparation for tournaments. All eight women's quarterfinalists were from WTT and, of course. Virginia Wade of the Apples won. The top eight WTT men's singles players had a 17-5 record against non-WTT opponents. And for the second straight year five Wimbledon singles and doubles champions were from WTT.
Buchholz professes to be unworried about the opposition to WTT by the rulers of tournament tennis. "In their efforts to bury us they've really helped us," he says. "The Grand Prix people say you have to play 24 tournaments in order to get points—that is the craziest thing. You're looking at 27 weeks plus Davis Cup, you're looking at a schedule of 30 to 35 weeks a year. Connors, Borg, Nastase—the big names aren't going to do that. It'll burn 'em out. I think the players will play WCT, which is part of the Grand Prix, World Team Tennis and the major championships, Wimbledon and Forest Hills.
"If we get through this season and then another, we'll be all right. I've always felt the fifth year was going to be the critical year for team tennis. The fifth year, next year, is going to be the key. I feel strongly about that."
Los Angeles owner Buss feels strongly, too. Last Friday night in the Forum, just before his Rosie Casals upset Evert to help the Strings beat the Racquets, he rattled off figures like the real-estate whiz and ex-chemistry professor he is. The Strings, he said, are steadily closing in on their goal of selling 5,000 season tickets. If that many were sold, the average attendance would be 8,700 and the nightly gross $43,000. The annual gross for 22 home dates would be $946,000. L.A.'s annual profit, he said, would be $200,000, and a sports franchise that profitable would sell for $3 to $4 million.
It sounded so logical, so inevitable. A listener sitting there with Buss might have felt the urge to sprint to the nearest telephone, call his broker and try to get a piece of the action. Everything was going to be fine. And, who knows, failure fans—maybe it will be.