Posts Tagged ‘World TeamTennis’
World Team Tennis launched in 1974, intent on bringing top flight tennis out of the polite confines of the country clubs and into America’s raucous hockey and basketball palaces. Founders Dennis Murphy, Jordan Kaiser and Larry King (husband of league front woman Billie Jean King) sought to sell the product through a combination of star power, promotional gimmickry and nods to established team sports tropes.
Matches took place on candy-colored courts. Organizers encouraged fans to cheer loudly during rallies and to heckle opponents. World Team Tennis introduced a co-ed team sports league to the national sporting scene, drafting off the sensational publicity from the previous year’s “Battle of the Sexes” tennis exhibition between Bobby Riggs and WTT’s marquee star, Billie Jean King.
Teams were composed of three men and three women, playing two sets each of men’s and women’s singles and two sets of mixed doubles. (This format was quickly abandoned after early matches dragged on for up to four hours, replaced by a five-set format, featuring one set each of men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, and mixed doubles). The league featured a simplified “no-ad” scoring system meant to appeal to a broader swath of American sports fans, with 4 points winning a game, rather than the traditional Love-15-30-40 scoring familiar to tennis enthusiasts.
Some of the innovations didn’t sit well with Dennis Ralston, the U.S. Davis Cup captain and traditionalist player/coach of the Hawaii Leis, one of sixteen World Team Tennis franchises that debuted in May of 1974.
“Tennis is not like baseball,” Ralston complained to The Associated Press after one month of play in June 1974. “In Philadelphia and Baltimore, people would yell ‘Miss it!’ when you were serving and the announcers encourage them…pretty soon people will start throwing bottles.”
The Leis were owned by Don Kelleher, a lumber salesman from San Rafael, California. Home matches took place at the 7,500-seat Honolulu International Center as well as the gym at Honolulu’s McKinley High School. The 1974 edition of the Leis finished last in World Team Tennis’ Pacific Division with a 14-30 record. In the 16-team league, only the 13-31 Toronto/Buffalo Royals fared worse. It would be the only time in the three-year history of the lowly Leis that another team finished with a grimmer record.
In April 1975, one month before the start of WTT’s second season, the Leis signed the 32-year old Australian star Margaret Court. Court won all four Grand Slam singles tournaments in 1970, becoming the first of only three women ever to do so. One month later, the Leis got an unexpected opportunity to pair another marquee name with Court when the Houston E-Z Riders franchise abruptly folded on the eve of the season, leaving the league’s biggest male star without an employer. At age 30, Australian John Newcombe owned 23 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles competition. In 1973, Newcombe had been the first male star to sign a contract with World Team Tennis, defying his Association of Tennis Professionals union which initially opposed its members joining the un-sanctioned league.
But Newcombe struggled through an injury-plagued campaign with the Leis in 1975. In a WTT match against the Pittsburgh Triangles in June, Newcombe tore cartilage in his knee, which caused him to miss Wimbledon. The 1975 Leis finished 14-30 for the second straight year, tied for the worst record in World Team Tennis. Neither Court nor Newcombe would return in 1976.
In December 1975, the Leis inked the combustible 29-year old Romanian Ilie Nastase to a one-year contract for the 1976 season worth a reported $125,000. Nastase’s arrival was a coup for Leis owner Don Kelleher and all of World Team Tennis. The top male players had been somewhat slow to join the league and Nastase was a legitimate superstar and publicity magnet- winner of the 1972 U.S. Open and 1973 French Open and the ATP’s #1 ranked male player for 1973. With Nastase under contract, the Leis cut John Newcombe loose, selling his negotiating rights to the Los Angeles Strings. Meanwhile, Margaret Court retired to have her third child.
Despite Nastase’s presence, the Leis still averaged fewer than 3,000 fans per match during the first half of the 1976 WTT campaign. In early July, Kelleher announced that the team would move six late season matches to Portland, Oregon’s Memorial Coliseum and the Seattle Center Coliseum to test those markets for a potential relocation of the franchise in 1977. The Leis continued to regress on the court, finishing dead last in World Team Tennis’ 10-team format with a 12-32 record. Kelleher made the move to the Pacific Northwest official in a September 1976 press conference, announcing that his club would be known as the Sea-Port Cascades in 1977 while splitting matches between Portland and Seattle.
The 1977 Sea-Port Cascades were a rather unglamorous group. Nastase did not make the move to the Pacific Northwest, signing instead with the Los Angeles Strings. By World Team Tennis’ fourth season in 1977, the league had attracted many of the sport’s top stars, including Bjorn Borg (Cleveland-Pittsburgh), Rod Laver (San Diego), Nastase (Los Angeles), Chris Evert (Phoenix), Martina Navratilova (Boston) and Billie Jean King in New York, alongside the 1977 Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade. The Cascades biggest “name” was the Dutch doubles specialist Betty Stove, who lost to Wade in the 1977 Wimbledon singles final. Tom Gorman of the United States signed on as the Cascades player/coach.
The 1977 Cascades finished 18-26, good enough for fourth place and a franchise first: a playoff appearance. The division-winning Phoenix Racquets, led by Evert, made quick work of the Cascades, dispatching them in the WTT quarterfinals.
Kelleher moved the club to Seattle full-time for the 1978 season and sold minority interests in the team to four area businessmen. The Cascades added one-off appearances to the schedule in Boise, Corvallis and Portland, to go with 19 home dates at the Seattle Center Coliseum. Under Gorman’s direction as player/coach once again, the re-named Seattle Cascades posted a 20-24 record in 1978. It was the franchise’s fifth consecutive losing season dating back to the Hawaii days, but also their best performance and it earned the club its second straight playoff berth. In the quarterfinals, the Cascades upset the division winning San Diego Friars. The Boston Lobsters eliminated the Cascades in the World Team Tennis semi-finals in late August 1978.
After the season, World Team Tennis named Cascades doubles specialist Sherwood Stewart as the league’s most valuable first-year player for 1978. Meanwhile, Kelleher and his Seattle-based minority partners announced the club would not return to Seattle and explored selling the team to Houston interests due to disappointing attendance. The Cascades averaged only 1,695 fans per match in 1978, down from 3,100 per game in 1977 when the club split matches between Portland and Seattle.
The effort became moot when the Cascades and the rest of World Team Tennis folded in November 1978.
Former Hawaii Leis Margaret Court, Ilie Nastase and Dennis Ralston have all been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
A scaled back version of Team Tennis returned in 1981, with smaller venues, fewer contemporary stars and far less media attention. The league later revived the “World Team Tennis” brand name and continues to play today, typically in country club settings rather than the large hockey and basketball arenas of the 1970’s.
“Fan Participation Could Lead To Bottle Throwing”, The Associated Press, June 4th, 1974
“Last of the Awesome Aussies”, Frank DeFord, Sports Illustrated, August 26, 1974
“World Team Tennis Has Lock On Most Name Players”, The Associated Press, February 22, 1976
“Hawaii Leis look at possible move”, The Associated Press, July 3, 1976
“Cascades Get Seattle Money” The Associated Press, February 2, 1978
“Cascades serve up season” The Ellensburg (WA) Daily Record, March 21, 1978
“Cascades Sale Eyed” The Associated Press, September 21, 1978
A novelty concept known as World Team Tennis provided the first entry into team ownership for a pair of young investors who would go on to build two of the most successful dynasties ever seen in American sport. Chemist-turned-real estate magnate Dr. Jerry Buss got involved with the league at its inception in 1974, backing the Los Angeles Strings franchise.
The following year, 34-year old Robert Kraft joined with a pair of meatpackers and two other local small businessmen to revive the moribund Boston Lobsters, a bankrupt franchise marked for contraction by World Team Tennis officials. Kraft’s entry into sports ownership could not have been more understated. The only trace that persists in Google’s news archive is a tiny UPI wire story from March 28th, 1975 in the Bangor (ME) Daily News under the heading “Novices to head Hub net franchise“.
The Strings debuted in L.A. on May 15th, 1974, hosting the Florida Flamingos at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. The Los Angeles Times poked fun at the announced crowd of 4,666, quoting an unnamed spectator as saying “If there are 4,600 people here, 1,500 are dressed as seats.”
In the early years of WTT, other owners and officials overshadowed Buss. The Strings had no stars and performed poorly on the court. New York Sets Player/coach/co-founder Billie Jean King was the face of the league and her husband Larry King served as both Commissioner and co-owner of the San Francisco-based Golden Gaters franchise. Brash Pittsburgh Triangles owner Frank Fuhrer assembled the league’s powerhouse club, signed stars Evonne Goolagong and Vitus Gerulaitis, and attracted national attention for his tirades against league officials and his own players.
In August 1976, towards the end of Strings’ third season, Buss stepped into the spotlight, telling the Associated Press: “You don’t have a great team without a superstar. So…I’m dedicated to getting one because I’m tired of losing.” He then appealed (unsuccessfully) to the American star Jimmy Connors, offering via the media to make him the highest paid player in the league at $200,000 per season.
In March 1977, Buss landed his superstar, signing the mercurial Romanian Ilie Nastase. Nastase signed with the Strings for $1.5 million over six years, along with matching silver Corvettes for himself and his wife. However, the contract included a clause excusing Nastase until after Wimbledon in July 1977. By then, the season was a lost cause and the Strings finished the 1977 campaign buried in last place with an 11-33 record. With four season now in the books, the Strings had yet to post a winning record.
As the fifth season of World Team Tennis dawned in the spring of 1978, a power shift had occurred behind the scenes. While Billie Jean King remained the public face of the league, Buss had emerged as its true power broker. Frank Mariani, Buss’ long-time partner in his real estate concerns, owned the San Diego Friars franchise. Another associate, Larry Noble, ran the Indiana Loves. Buss and Mariani were also involved in the new Anaheim Oranges expansion club. In all, Buss held sway over 40% of the league’s 10 teams.
In February 1978, Buss signed the 23 year-old American superstar Chris Evert, the #1 ranked female player in the world for the years 1975, 1976 and 1977. The star power of Evert and Nastase led the Strings to success on and off the court in 1978. The team posted a winning record of 27-17 for the first time and set an all-time World Team Tennis attendance record, with announced average attendance of 7,219 at the Forum.
In the 1978 WTT playoffs, the Strings dispatched the Golden Gaters and Billie Jean King’s New York Apples . This Youtube clip shows Evert in action against JoAnne Russell of the Apples at the Forum on during the semi-final series, played on the psychedelic World Team Tennis colored court.
On September 21st, 1978, Buss’ Strings played Kraft’s Boston Lobsters at the Forum for the championship of World Team Tennis. After the men’s doubles, men’s singles and mixed doubles matches, the Strings trailed the Lobsters 18-15 with only women’s singles and women’s doubles remaining to determine the league champion. Then Evert took over.
The fourth set pitted 1978 U.S. Open champ Evert against the 1978 Wimbledon titleist Martina Navratilova of the Lobsters in women’s singles. In the 1980’s, Navratilova would come to dominate her famed rivalry with Evert. But in the 1970’s, Evert owned Navratilova, particularly on hard surfaces. This night was no different. Evert needed a tiebreaker to hold off Navratilova in singles, prevailing 7-6 (5-4). Entering women’s doubles – the final set – the Lobsters clung to a 24-22 lead. Evert and partner Ann Kiyomura dominated Navratilova and Anne Smith 6-1 to seal a 28-25 victory and the 1978 World Team Tennis title for the Strings.
On October 27th, 1978 Kraft folded the Lobsters and Sol Berg did the same with his New York Apples franchise, reducing the league to eight teams. Buss followed suit on November 7th, 1978 claiming total losses of $2.7 million over the five seasons that he owned the Strings from 1974 to 1978. Over the next three days, the Buss-affiliated clubs in Indiana, Anaheim and San Diego also shut down, as did franchises in New Orleans and Seattle-Portland. With only San Francisco and Phoenix left standing, World Team Tennis formally ceased operations in March 1979.
In May 1979, six months after folding his World Team Tennis interests, Dr. Jerry Buss purchased the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Kings of the NHL and The Forum from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million. At the time, it was the largest ownership transaction in sports history. Buss owns the Lakers to this day, presiding over two NBA dynasties – the Showtime Lakers of the 1980’s and the Phil Jackson/Kobe Bryant Lakers of the 2000’s, who together have earned ten NBA titles as of this writing. Buss was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
Robert Kraft acquired Sullivan Stadium, home of the NFL’s New England Patriots, in 1988. Four years later, he acquired the team itself for a then NFL record price of $175 million. Like Buss, Kraft presided over a dynasty, earning three Super Bowl titles in New England. In 2010, Forbes valued the Patriots at $1.4 billion, making them one of the most valuable sports properties in the world.
Both Buss and Kraft experienced years of red ink in World Team Tennis as tenants in buildings owned by others, observing their landlords generate parking and concessions revenue from WTT events, while the teams bore all of the costs and burdens of promotion. It is instructive to note that both men made acquisition of buildings a centerpiece of the record-setting deals they struck to buy into their subsequent major league investments.
In 1981, a scaled-down TeamTennis relaunched with four teams in California, including a new version of the Los Angeles Strings, once again owned by Buss. Buss handed off management of the team to his 19-year old daughter Jeanie Buss. “Basically, my dad bought me the team,” Jeanie Buss told Sports Illustrated in 1998. “It was a very empowering experience.”
Jeanie Buss led the Strings through more than a decade of stable existence in World Team Tennis version 2.0. The Strings – and the new league – never again had the national footprint, ambitions or media coverage of the 1970’s incarnation. But the Strings II did attract several big stars, either moonlighting from the pro tour or using World Team Tennis as a form of senior exhibition tour. Navratilova (1981), Connors (1991-1992) and Bjorn Borg (1993) all spent time with the Strings. A 1993 World Team Tennis match between the Phoenix Smash (featuring Connors) and the Strings (with Borg) drew 7,693 fans to the America West Arena in Phoenix and attracted national coverage from The New York Times. It was the last headline for the Strings who folded quietly after the 1993 season.
Sources & Further Reading
“Strings Opener Draws 4,666 To See Team Tennis”, Ted Green, The Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1974
“Strings Flirt With Connors”, The Associated Press, August 11th, 1976
Reuters, March 31st, 1977
“World Team Tennis May Fold”, United Press International, November 5th, 1978
Scorecard, Sports Illustrated, November 6th, 1978
“Team Tennis Days May Be Numbered“, The Associated Press, November 8th, 1978
“She’s Got Balls”, Franz Lidz, Sports Illustrated, November 2nd, 1998