He's a Tennis Nut Jim McIngvale takes a page out of Bill Veeck's book to promote the year-end Masters Cup

October 12, 2003

The first indication that next month's Masters Cup--the ATP's
year-end lollapalooza in Houston--might not be your typical
tennis event came during last January's Super Bowl broadcast.
Interspersed with the Coors Lite twins and Yao Ming's shilling
for Apple computers were three ads devoted to the tournament. The
low-tech spots featured Andre Agassi and his colleagues whacking
tennis balls as a man with a thick Texas twang shouted out the
tournament's dates. Says Jim McIngvale, the event's promoter and
the voice on the ad, "People asked, 'You're buying time during
the Super Bowl to sell a tennis tournament in November? Are you
nuts?'"

It wasn't necessarily a rhetorical question. McIngvale is
tennis's answer to Bill Veeck, a natural-born promoter who
doesn't so much push the envelope as displace it with jet
propulsion. His mantra: "Late to bed. Early to rise. Work like
hell and advertise." And he practices what he preaches. He's
spent an estimated $8 million promoting the Masters Cup, far more
than the ATP Tour's entire marketing budget. "Tennis is a great
game, the players are great people, and they're real athletes,"
he says. "We just need to sell it better."

McIngvale was instantly seduced by tennis when he sponsored the
1995 WTA Houston event. By year's end he had purchased Houston's
Westside Tennis Club. Known as the favorite off-season practice
facility of NBA players, Westside also bears the distinction of
being the only U.S. club to have tennis courts like those at each
of the four Grand Slam events. At a cost of millions, McIngvale
and his wife, Linda, who runs the club, imported the red clay
used at Roland Garros, the rubbery Rebound Ace used in Australia
and the DecoTurf II used at the U.S. Open. They hired the
groundskeeper at London's Queen's Club to install grass courts.
"We were looking for a way to be different," Jim says. "This is
what we came up with."

A reserve linebacker on Texas's national championship football
teams in 1969 and '70, McIngvale, 52, cuts a larger-than-life
figure. After a series of failed ventures he made his money in
furniture, using his now familiar over-the-top techniques. His
store, Gallery Furniture, is a Texas-sized monstrosity with such
amenities as a tennis court and a restaurant. (The bowling alley
and putting greens were recently removed.) He's festooned the
grounds with Elvis's 1956 Lincoln, one of Jeff Gordon's race cars
and a necklace that belonged to Princess Di. It all works:
McIngvale expects the store to bring in $180 million in sales
this year.

Not all of McIngvale's ideas pan out. He promoted a race in
Houston with the stipulation that all the jockeys be women; the
event was canceled because it was deemed sexist. McIngvale hired
a country-rock band to perform at the clay-court ATP event he
runs in April; some players complained that the music broke their
concentration. Still, his risk-taking is a breath of fresh air in
tennis, a sport noted for its starchy, uptight image. "Mack has
endless energy," says Andy Roddick, who will headline the Masters
Cup field. "During a tournament he's running around, coming up
with all sorts of wild ideas."

He has more plans for the Masters Cup. He's thinking about taping
a reality show in the locker room, and he might invite American
pros who didn't qualify for the tournament--which is limited to
the top seven players in the Champions Race rankings, plus the
highest-ranked Grand Slam winner who's outside that--to sit in
the stands and watch matches with the fans.

There may also be a band at courtside to perform during
changeovers. Rest assured that, like its freewheeling promoter,
the event will march to a different drummer.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES (2) OFF HIS ROCKER? Roddick loves the madcap energy that furniture tycoon McIngvale brings to tournament tennis.

Stunt Programming
Jim McIngvale's aren't the only offbeat ideas cooked up to
enliven sports and draw fans. Minor leagues are full of them.

YOU MIGHT BE A REDNECK NIGHT Fans of the independent Fort Worth
Cats engaged in hog-calling and pig's-feet-eating contests to
mock their opponents, the Jackson (Miss.) Senators.

ARTHUR ANDERSEN APPRECIATION NIGHT The Triple A Portland Beavers
granted anyone named Arthur or Andersen free admission; fans got
to shred documents and play "massive debt hide-and-go-seek" with
gift certificates.

MANUTE BOL NIGHT Sadly, the feet of the 7'7" former NBA center
swelled up when he put on his skates, and 5,859 Indianapolis Ice
fans were deprived of seeing the world's tallest hockey player.

TOOTHLESS NIGHT More than 300 dentally challenged hockey fans
took up the Kansas City Blades' offer of free or discounted
admission.

VASECTOMY NIGHT The minor league Charleston RiverDogs' proposed
promotion was, mercifully, nipped in the bud after a civic
outcry.

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