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Tennis Tour Payouts Show Who Counts--Kings of the Courts

February 08, 1990|ART SPANDER | SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER

SAN FRANCISCO — The restructured men's tennis tour began the other evening in San Francisco with the cutting of a ribbon. More symbolic would have been the slicing of a throat.

The Volvo Tennis/San Francisco event at the Civic Auditorium this week is the North American premiere of the Assn. of Tennis Professional circuit. From now on the players are in control of their own destiny. Did I hear someone mention something about inmates running the asylum?

The Volvo has a purse of $250,000, but it also has a "compensation package" of almost $450,000. What that means is under the new tour arrangement the stars, in this case defending champ Brad Gilbert and Andre Agassi, were compensated with guarantees totaling nearly $200,000 before either walked out on court.

And therein lies the root of the problem.

In tennis the players are bigger than the sport.

Not to the aficionados, Volvo promoter Barry MacKay says. "They understand that the bottom guy in our field is 104th in the world," MacKay said, "and that is very good. But does the average guy give a damn?"

In a word, no. The average guy probably doesn't know a volley from a rally. But he knows Agassi. And John McEnroe. And Boris Becker. The average guy doesn't care about tennis; he cares about celebrities.

"It's show biz," MacKay said, "at least to a point."

What sport isn't these days? Sports Illustrated makes videotapes of Michael Jordan making stuff shots. We're provided commercials telling us Bo Jackson knows diddly--about sports and guitars if not about arbitration. Joe Montana is every bit as recognizable as Tom Cruise.

Even the National Pastime isn't past trying gimmicks to draw spectators. For good reason. As the late Bill Veeck suggested, if you had to depend only on baseball fans for your support, you'd be out of business by Mother's Day.

MacKay wonders whether the new format that permits contracts with the top players will be beneficial or detrimental. A player is eligible for a contract if he won a Grand Slam tournament, such as Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, played in the Davis Cup or is defending champion.

Concurrent with the Volvo is a tournament in Milan, Italy, where contracts were awarded to Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. The suspicion is each is receiving at least $150,000.

At the Volvo, Agassi, ranked eighth in the world, probably is getting $100,000 and Gilbert, ranked No. 4, about the same. Gilbert was eliminated from contention Tuesday in an upset.

The winner's share of the Volvo purse is $35,000--or about one-third of what Gilbert and Agassi have already received.

"The question I have is this," MacKay said. "If a Tim Mayotte or Kevin Curran show up at a tournament with a Becker or Lendl or Agassi and win the tournament and (they) don't make as much money as the contract players, are they going to be willing to accept the format?"

And a fine question it is. The original idea in pro sport was that winning counted. And in effect, it still does, because had they not won someplace along the line the Beckers and Agassis would not be eligible for guarantees. Yet, why should the tournament champion receive less money than a man whom he may have defeated along the way?

"The only justification," MacKay said, "is that the other guys, the ones, say, ranked 12 through 30, are going to say it's OK for the McEnroes and Agassis and Beckers to get a guarantee because McEnroe sells 90% of the advance tickets.

"So the guys just below the top will say, 'Let's go along with this for a while because it's good for the game.' We're in an experimental situation. It's a promoter's nightmare. And a promoter's dream."

Such schizophrenia results because the promoter must come up with the big guarantees, perhaps for a player who dogs it and gets eliminated early, and because once a player does sign a contract for the guarantee the promoter knows he will appear.

MacKay, to use the common idiom, knows tennis. At age 54, he has been promoting tournaments since the early 1970s. A University of Michigan grad, he was the No. 1-ranked player in the country in 1960 and once reached the semis at Wimbledon.

"Now the pros are becoming amateurs," MacKay said. "They're looking for a free this and free that.

" . . . I don't understand the psychology of a guy making a half-million a year and worrying about anything to do with travel. It's tax deductable, isn't it? Why should a tennis player be any different than an IBM salesman?"

The answer is obvious. Tennis players, the top ones, have leverage. They don't need the tournament. The tournament needs them.

"In Stuttgart, because he's beaten Boris Becker three times," MacKay conceded, "Brad Gilbert is a bigger guy than here, his home. People want to see him. Here I'd say the top two guys from a draw standpoint are Becker and Agassi. Boris isn't playing this week, and Alex is here.

"Andre cuts across the broadest spectrum of non-tennis people of anyone I've ever seen. I had calls asking, 'Which end of the field do I sit?' I love those calls. But it's up to me to promote the tournament and not promote Andre."

In the end it would help if everybody would think of promoting the sport. Tennis, anyone? Or just ribbon-cutting?

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