by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — There’s nothing wrong with men’s tennis that a hamburger, some running shoes and a Coke wouldn’t fix.

Allow me to explain.

Every year I come to Wimbledon, it’s the same tongue-clucking story.

“The men’s game is fizzling,” critics moan. “There is no interest. No one is watching. Kids back home think a racket is what you make at a Hanson concert.”

To which I say these five words: Hey, dummy, remember the NBA?

Twenty years ago, the NBA was plagued by similar problems. TV ratings were down. Fans found it boring. The mass audience couldn’t relate.

Sounds a lot like tennis today, no?

What saved basketball was, quite simply, marketing. David Stern took over as commissioner and decided his sport’s biggest asset was its personalities. After all, unlike football, you can see basketball players’ faces. So he began to market those faces — think Magic, Bird, Michael — and shoe companies, soft drinks and fast food did the rest.

Next thing you knew, the NBA was the most successful league in the world. And whether or not you watched a lot of games, you still knew who Michael, Magic, Patrick, Charles, Hakeem, Shaq and the Mailman were. You saw them everywhere.

Now I ask you, if Patrick Ewing can be turned into a personality (have you ever talked to Patrick? He’s not exactly Robin Williams), if Shaquille O’Neal
— Mr. Mumbles — can be turned into a personality, if Toni Kukoc — who is still learning English, for Croat’s sake! — can be turned into a personality, then why on earth can’t you do the same with Pete Sampras, Todd Martin, Patrick Rafter or Tim Henman?

The answer is, you can.

The question is, who’s going to?

Be like Mike? Why not Pete?

I raised the marketing issue Tuesday with Sampras, after he finished thumping unseeded Sebastien Grosjean to reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

“You’re right,” he said. “Look at golf, look at how they market that game. And of course, the NBA does great. So the tennis tour can definitely do a better job marketing itself in the States.

“It’s like when Andre Agassi was playing well a few years ago. I thought Nike did a good job of marketing the two of us.”

Exactly. Remember those commercials, in which Sampras and Agassi are banging balls across New York City streets? People loved those spots. And their rivalry became, for a brief moment, the hottest thing in tennis.

Which shows you the power of TV ads. And brings us to the running shoes, Coke and hamburger part of my theory. The reason NBA players became as big as they did was largely that their endorsing companies had a vested interest. The more you loved Jordan, the more you would buy his shoes.

So firms like Nike created personas for their spokesmen. Hey, folks, I hate to break it to you, but Michael Jordan in real life is not the most compelling personality on the planet. Who cares? Nike — and Gatorade, and McDonald’s, and a zillion other products — put him in front of us so often, in heroic poses and complimentary camera angles, that folks now watch his games just to get a glimpse of his larger-than-life self.

Basketball made Jordan a winner, but endorsements made him a personality — which, consequently, drew more fans into basketball. If similar deals could be struck for tennis players — and you saw them on TV as often as you saw NBA players — I guarantee you, a lot more people would be watching tennis.

That might be coldly capitalist, but it’s true.

A little teamwork needed

“You know,” Sampras said, sipping from — of all things — a Coke cup, “back when men’s tennis was at its peak, you had four or five players (John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis, Ivan Lendl) and they were always playing each other in the Grand Slams and they all hated each other.

“So it was great theater, you know? Maybe we need a little more hatred.”

And a few regular rivals. Unfortunately for Sampras, he keeps beating different guys to win his titles. It would be better if he played Agassi or Rafter in five straight Grand Slam finals. But marketing can overcome that, too. After all, until Utah this season, Jordan’s Bulls never beat the same team twice for an NBA title.

Besides, tennis has something unique going for it: It’s the only sport in which men and women play at the same tournaments and are equally famous. Why not exploit that? A writer from Sports Illustrated was imagining Tuesday a commercial in which Sampras is poking fun with Anna Kournikova. Wouldn’t you stop to watch that? Or a spot where Venus Williams — who claims she likes to play against men — challenges Agassi. Wouldn’t you check that out — and remember it?

“Gee,” you can almost hear the tennis brass say, “that’s right. We have all these sexy, scantily clad, good-looking people at our disposal.”

As my school-age nephews would say: “Duh.”

So what’s the problem? Leadership, that’s what. Tennis is not one league like the NBA, it’s fragmented into the men’s tour, the women’s tour, the Grand Slams, the promoters, the individual agents, the players. There is no commissioner like Stern to take control. There is no one to say, “Hey, if we all do this together, we all get rich and famous.”

So you have an every-man-for-himself attitude. Which is a shame. Because if Sampras, Agassi, Henman, Rafter, Martina Hingis, Steffi Graf, Kournikova and Williams ever got on the same marketing page, they could sell rotten milk.

Instead, critics keep blaming the sport, saying it’s dull, as if watching a golf ball were somehow inherently interesting. And tennis, especially men’s tennis, goes on baffled at its sagging popularity, while the answers might be just a hamburger away.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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