The Tennis Masters Cup, the ATP Tour's year-end championships, is bearing down on us, with a new home in London's brand-new O2 Arena. The Shanghai experiment (the YEC was played there for the past four years) now looks like a woefully unsuccessful misadventure -- a notion underscored by the fact that the ATP pulled the plug on the event one year before the original contract expired.
The mainland Chinese made a good effort to get up to speed with state-of-the-art, Western-style sports promotion, but certain difficulties proved insurmountable. The most significant of these was this painful reality: The Chinese equivalent of your typical tennis fan simply didn't have the disposable income to buy a ticket, because the prices were comparable (in real dollars) to our own. In China, the event was something like a futuristic novelty.
It will be different in London's 02 Arena (officially, the 02), which has been busy hosting, among other things, concerts by rock acts like Green Day, and the world gymnastics championships. As early as mid-August, only 20,000 tickets to the TMC (out of 250,000) remained unsold. Say what you will about Western ways, there's a certain value to having a hype machine -- and an enormous, regional fan base whose constituents are intimately familiar with the sport -- and can afford tickets to go watch it.
The media presence in Shanghai was also sparse; organizations that routinely send reporters abroad simply found Shanghai offered too little bang for the buck at a time of year when budgets were already busted. So much for spreading the tennis gospel via the media. And does anyone know whether the Nikolay Davydenko versus Gilles Simon match will be broadcast at 2 or 4 a.m.?
The ATP positioned the move to Shanghai as a forward-looking gamble based on China's burgeoning economy and the nation's rapidly growing interest in tennis. There was a distinctly progressive air about moving a tournament second in status only to Grand Slam events to an emerging, unprepared market. It fit nicely with tennis' global aspirations.
Beyond those noble reasons lay a less glowing one: the drive to maximize the monetary return to the ATP in terms of fees and royalties. It's the same consideration that has landed the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships in Doha, or Dough-ha. Basically, the ATP went for the best deal, not necessarily the best venue for increasing the visibility, credibility and appeal of the game. It isn't as though tennis hasn't been through this before, either. Remember when the ATP World Tour Doubles Championships were played in the Australian "residential resort" of Sanctuary Cove?
Although it's great to take tennis to emerging or ex-urban markets, the most important events should be held in mature markets and big cities. Ignoring this truism (it's impossible to imagine that the ATP honchos don't agree with it) has cost the ATP in the long term, regardless of any short-term gain. The TMC in Shanghai was out of sight, out of mind. Hardcore tennis fans navigated the formidable time zone issues and managed to watch many of the matches, but that's like bringing coals to Newcastle.
An event that aspires to be the world championships of anything must be held in an appropriately high-octane city, unless there's a great reason for taking a different tack. The entire YEC concept gained traction because of the wildly successful Grand Prix Masters tournaments held in Madison Square Garden in mid-January for a dozen years, ending in 1987. Although the tour finals were also a success in later years in the German cities of Frankfurt and Hannover, New York remains the high-water mark for the event.
No matter how much the ATP earned in China, it squandered a tremendous amount of credibility capital by going to Shanghai. The good news is that it may not be all that difficult to earn it back in the O2 Arena.
So here's a much-deserved "thanks" to Etienne de Villiers, who saw that the YEC deserves an appropriate stage and took the leading role in bringing it back from the tennis sticks.