Meet Arlen Kantarian,
the most influential man in pro tennis.
Amidst an organization that once celebrated a TV commercial in which a few kittens were transfixed by a tennis ball, you would expect Arlen Kantarian to be honored as a semi-savior. Well not exactly.
After all, many dismiss Kantarian as merely a suit, a back-office, board-approved marketing guy with a nice salary and hefty bonus, thank you very much.
But since Kantarian, 52, left Radio City Music Hall to become the USTA’s marketing maven the sport just hasn’t been its old rudderless, “think small”, sort of self-destructive self. In varying degrees, Kantarian has transformed the U.S. Open, American tennis and the international game: primetime tennis at Flushing Meadow, jumbo screens, A-list celebs on center stage, jazz combos on the plaza, nifty TV packages and deep pocket investments in the U.S. Open infrastructure and in tennis tournaments and facilities from LA to Houston to New Haven. Simply put, the Armenian-American has brought sizzle and savvy to a once sleepy game. Of course, Kantarian’s piece de resistance is the U.S. Open Series. No don’t call it a slight of hand triumph, rather it’s a deliciously simple marketing concept. Take a handful of ten existing, but totally disjointed summer tournaments across North America and link them together into a neat, accessible regular season playoff progression. Mix in a bunch of blue courts, a sweet ESPN package, generous (“the rich get richer”) player bonuses and market the package as if it’s the next coming and voila, you’ve got the Kantarian shuffle — a marketing inspiration topped off with a flawless Federer-like execution that would do Pete Rozelle, Mark McCormack, Phil Knight or Roone Arledge proud. No wonder there are some who concede when it comes to marketing our sports these days, “it takes an Arlen.”
INSIDE TENNIS: The U.S. Open has a kind of progression. There’s the opening-day buzz, there’s the Labor Day weekend high — a sweet, pure brand of tennis. Then there are those second-week night matches, and then, of course, the final weekend. If you had a ticket for just one session.
ARLEN KANTARIAN: I’d lean toward that weekend final because of the high drama, the intensity. You can hear a pin drop and then thunderous applause.
IT: For the second-week night matches, you’ve got the yuppies from the stock market. There are rowdy crowds that have a few beers going.
AK: Night tennis gives you that gladiator impact and that sheen you get on TV from the lights. It’s the crowd. It’s a New York thing, like the old night crowds at Yankee Stadium. There’s a Broadway element, a celebrity factor, a Wall Street factor. The high drama of seeing two gladiators under the lights is something New Yorkers really take to.
IT: Of the figures who have appeared at the Open, who’s your favorite?
AK: We’ve tried to “up” the entertainment level. Tennis is always the main theater, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create what we call sideshows to capture a broader audience. We’ve had everybody from Diana Ross to Whitney Houston to Simon and Garfunkel to Harry Connick Jr. We’ve surrounded the grounds with more energy.
IT:: In terms of marketing, what have you learned from other sports?
AK: First of all, great stars make you look like you’re doing great marketing. And that’s cyclical. The NBA went through a tremendous run with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. We’ve had some of that. The way the characters present themselves in any sport is what’s going to rule short-term popularity. Our goal is to create long-term popularity and get through those years where we might not have as many stars. We’ve also learned that success is marked by consistent TV packages, where the viewer knows to tune in at a certain time every weekend. There’s a regular season and then a Super Bowl or a World Series. We’ve done that with the U.S. Open Series: a regular summer season that culminates with our Super Bowl — the U.S. Open.
The other important thing is packaging or bundling assets: taking the TV, sponsorship and merchandizing rights and packaging them as one. That’s something when I was a kid riding Pete Roselle’s coattails at age 28. He went out and convinced the ownership that all these teams should be packaged as one for TV, and that’s what led to sponsorships and Monday Night Football.
IT: Tennis is an international sport with deep roots in a lot of different markets. But there was a terrible experience when ISL tried without much success to sell worldwide tennis to international sponsors. Was that a cautionary tale?
AK: It’s a lesson. That tennis is global is both our advantage and biggest disadvantage. We’ve got to capture the advantages of both. ISL looked to package the sport on a worldwide basis. But there are very few TV companies, very few sponsors, who want to buy the world. They want to buy the U.S., or Australia or Europe. So that was an attempt to package nine tournaments in six different countries over 11 months. That’s difficult for any TV entity or sponsor to wrap their minds around. What tennis really is is four Super Bowls — the four Grand Slams. We believe in these things regionally. So the U.S. Open has the U.S. Open Series. Australia has the road to the Australian Open. That tennis is global with stars coming from every country and consistent worldwide rules is a huge advantage globally, but the sport needs to be packaged on a regional level.
|“Night tennis gives you that gladiator impact and that sheen you get on TV from the lights…The high drama of seeing two gladiators under the lights is something New Yorkers really take to.”
||“The USTA is doing all it can to keep that event in Indian Wells…Big events like the U.S. Open and Indian Wells have a profound impact on people staying interested. They’re rallying points.”
||“…running successful businesses is about
staying ahead of the curve, about making quick decisions. Historically, this has been a sport where you’re not typically able to do those two things…”
IT: Agassi is now in his twilight, and the U.S. women are beginning to age a bit. Is there a problem? Does tennis need to reinvent itself again?
AK: I don’t sense a problem. Wimbledon TV ratings were up in the U.S. But we do need stars, whether they’re from Russia, the U.S. or Europe. Right now we have a mix of young stars, plus some veteran 30-somethings who lend themselves to compelling stories. Sharapova, Federer - players who transcend their own popularity in any one country, a la Graf, Becker and Borg. Do we want to see a better mix of better stars every year? Absolutely. But you can’t manufacture a Sampras, Connors or Roddick. So we need to be better at promoting all of our stars. Fifteen years ago, after Connors, McEnroe, Evert and Navratilova, everybody said, “What now?” Along came Pete, Andre, Courier and Chang.
IT: Some argue that tennis needs all the dramatic elements it can get. And we know in baseball that part of the fun is yelling at the ump, telling him he’s totally blind. Does instant replay have the danger of taking away that interaction, that human element that’s part of the drama?
AK: Technology has the danger of dehumanizing that. So we’re trying to create a way to improve the officiating to let technology be an asset. We’ve come up with a system to do that. You’re right: if we did put electronic devices on every line, we’d no longer need linesmen. McEnroe may have never been as well known. We want to savor that aspect of the game.
IT: What about coaching? Often in sports it’s such an intriguing element. There are always story lines about Bill Parcells, Bobby Knight, and Coach K; in some cases, they’re bigger than the players. They sure as heck make their sports far more interesting.
AK: It’s on our top 10 list of things to consider. We have looked into it. There’s a great marquee value to coaches on the sidelines. But there are some players who don’t prefer it. We’ve also looked at the possibility of having one timeout per match, which would allow a communication at a highly dramatic or strategic point.
IT: How difficult is it to introduce these kinds of changes?
AK: We introduced video screens in the stadium, which the players at first were concerned about. Now nobody can seem to live without them. Tradition in this sport is tremendous, but we can’t let tradition handicap us. Going from a white to a yellow ball caused tremendous unrest 35 years ago. We went to the tiebreak and had a couple of players who didn’t want to come out of the locker room.
IT: Does tennis have to draw on its dramatic points to make it more intriguing?
AK: Yes. I’m not sure you need to change the game itself. Its simplicity is almost its strength. We’re just finding new ways for people to watch and appreciate tennis. Whether that’s through HDTV, through their cell phone, with live entertainment, through electronic line calling. Those things don’t change the game itself; they just change the way people can enjoy the game.
IT: Franklin Johnson has said that the USTA has to invest in the game, not just the stock market. The USTA has invested in Carson, Houston, New Haven. And Indian Wells is by far the biggest event west of the Alleghenies. It’s a Mecca, but, it’s also in deep trouble. The Chinese have been working hard to buy it.
AK: The USTA is doing all it can to keep that event in Indian Wells. Franklin Johnson sees that. He’s incredibly supportive. We had several meetings with the tournament. Big events like the U.S. Open and Indian Wells have a profound impact on people staying interested. They’re rallying points.
IT: In Northern California, the San Francisco Tennis Club is also a mecca. It draws in lots of people for different events. But it’s in trouble. There’s a lot of pressure for it to be sold.
AK: Local clubs, public parks — that’s where the rubber meets the road. They’re hugely important. We’re investing a significant amount of money into public parks to bring more people to public parks and to clubs. Obviously, we have to depend on our club promoters and club owners to help us out. A lot of this has to be done at the local level. You can only do so much at the national level.
IT: The USTA is one of the great federations in all of sports with many a success story. But do you ever scratch your head and say why does a 21st century sport have a governance based in part in the 19th century?
AK: Tradition is a great thing. But we can’t allow tradition to handicap us. We have to find a middle ground. We have to keep all those elements that we benefit from, and we need to stay focused on the fact that this is the 21st century. In this day and age, running successful businesses is about staying ahead of the curve, about making quick decisions. Historically, this has been a sport where you’re not typically able to do those two things, partly due to how the sport is governed. We’ve got to do the best job possible within the environment we’re in. ... Once you get all those constituencies on the same page — the power of partnership is a concept I believe in. Now the winds are at our backs; we’re going downhill. Once you get that force on one page, it becomes an advantage.
IT: When it comes to negotiations, who are the toughest agents, federations or groups to deal with?
AK: The most successful negotiations are when both parties feel they won or didn’t lose too much. The TV group as a whole has been the toughest group to break through to this sport. TV ratings in all sports are down 25 percent. You hear about the decrease in rights fees everywhere, including the NBA, who went to ESPN. Everybody except the NFL, of course. The NHL just went from $60 million to zero. So it’s a very difficult environment to negotiate in, and what I feel is happening is that television ratings are no longer the sole parameter for the popularity of the sport. Compared to 10 years ago, we’re very diffused as to how people follow a sport. It might be through TV; it might be through a cell phone, the Internet, Inside Tennis instead of TV. Three years from now it might be on your toaster oven. We need some form of a ratings system that takes it all into account, whether you’re reading Inside Tennis or watching Wimbledon on NBC.
How do we capture that rating?
IT: The thing that draws people to any sport is the human emotion. Yet there are so many code restrictions that seem to put a damper on emotions, personality, reactions.
AK: Bigger stars, more personality, more characters, more charisma. That’s something you can’t manufacture. It’s cyclical. But we’ve got some kids in the pipeline whom we’re pretty excited about.
IT: Does the USTA have the guts to do put replays of close calls up on the Jumbotron screens?
AK: Yes. They’ll come in when we introduce electronic line calling.
IT: And how can the vast Ashe Stadium be made more intimate? Johnny Mac has suggested that the fans who are stuck up in Row X come on down to the empty corporate seats.
AK: We’ve added seats that come closer to the court. In night matches in particular, we’ve quietly invited people down to courtside. Years ago we’d wait and, over the PA, invite everybody down. You can go to the Open for $22 at the promenade level, and we haven’t changed that price or the food prices for five years. We’re advertising on 24 different radio stations, African-American stations, Hispanic stations. Over 28 percent of the fans who came last year were there for the first time, which is great. About a quarter of those people were younger than 30.
IT: But what about Ashe Stadium?
AK: It was built with 23,000 seats. We’re considering things at the top of the stadium. If we did it all over again, would we have built an 18,000-seat stadium? Probably not. There’s more to come on that. We’re creating through architects as we speak.
IT: Give me a little hint on that.
AK: I can’t now, but by the U.S. Open, I’ll show you some architectural drawings.
IT: If you could change one or two things in tennis ...
AK:: More-unified governments, meaning worldwide ITF, ATP, WTA and the federations working far more closely together.
IT: Can there be too much hype in tennis?
IT: What do you love most about the game?
AK: The battle of the stars.
IT: What’s it like going through life with the same initials as Anna Kournikova?
AK: [Laughs] Does she have an “H” as her middle name? (Actually, no.)