By JOHN MARTIN
SAN DIEGO – In late December, Russell Geyser, a wealthy Southern California real estate developer turned Hollywood movie producer, bought the Sportimes, a World Team Tennis franchise based in New York.
The deal took place after an unusual telephone call from a close friend.
“My best buddy,” Geyser said, “bought the Orange County Breakers, moved them to Austin, signed Andy Roddick, and then called me and said: “’You’ve got to buy a team and we can play each other!’”
Accepting the challenge, Geyser acquired the New York franchise, moved it to San Diego, renamed it the Aviators, and decided not to renew the contract of its longtime star player, John McEnroe.
“He wasn’t really the most competitive-level current player we could go draft for that position,” said Geyser, a Queens-born tennis fan who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in San Diego.
To replace McEnroe, Geyser hired twins Bob and Mike Bryan, the sport’s most successful doubles team, winners of 15 major international championships among their 98 doubles titles.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that can compete with the Bryans,” Geyser said, calling them “super-stars of the league.”
Moving back and forth each night from his box seat to his team bench, Geyser became the team’s seventh man. He was an enthusiastic teammate who sat beside coaches David Macpherson and Ashley Fisher, clapping and cheering for his players Somdev Devvarman, Raven Klaasen, Daniela Hantuchova, and Kveta Pescke.
In July, the Bryans made their debut as Aviators, winning the evening’s final set, 5-0, and clinching San Diego’s 21-19 victory over the Springfield Lasers.
One spectator, Laurence Fedak, a retired aerospace executive, said: “The tennis was so good – especially with the Bryans winning points at the net at close range – it brought tears to my eyes.”
A few nights later, the Aviators defeated the Austin Aces, the team owned by Geyser’s friend, Lorne Abony, a Toronto businessman. The victory put the San Diego team in WTT’s western conference playoffs.
But then the Aviators crashed, losing 22-17 in the conference final to the same Springfield team they had defeated days earlier.
“They just collapsed,” said Fedak.
In the off-season, Geyser faced a stark financial reality. His last-minute purchase of the team complicated his efforts to make money, he said, citing a near absence of national and local advertising.
”Most of the sponsor dollars, the big sponsor dollars were spent,” he said. “’ ‘You’re too late,’” he quoted ad executives as saying. “’We’d love to talk to you about next year!’”
Geyser said key local advertising revenue would have come from beer, soft drinks, and gambling casinos, but advertising contracts for all three were already held by a casino which owns the arena where the Aviators played.
The team lacked a major sponsor until Fred Luddy of Rancho Santa Fe, owner of Service Now, a major business software firm, stepped forward. Jack McGrory, former San Diego City Manager, is a minority investor.
Geyser’s difficulties would likely not surprise dozens of previous WTT franchise owners. According to WTT records, in 39 seasons of play, at least 35 teams have operated in at least 14 states.
Founded in 1974 by Billie Jean King and her then husband, Larry King, the league once fielded as many as 16 teams each season. The WTT currently comprises seven franchises, in Boston (Lobsters), Philadelphia (Freedoms), Washington, D.C.(Kastles), Springfield, MO (Lasers), Dallas (Texas Wild), Austin, TX (Aces), and San Diego (Aviators).
WTT Commissioner Ilana Kloss said the league’s yearly revenues were “north of $10 million to $12 million,” and that total player compensation exceeded $2 million.
For most owners, Kloss said, the teams achieve their greatest value when they are sold. Asked the price range for an average team, she said it was in the range of $700,000 to $1,000,000.
“If you are talking about teams like the Washington Kastles or the Philadelphia Freedom and have built your brand and have been in the market a long time,” she said, “I think the value would be significantly higher.”
“There’s a big difference between somebody coming in and buying a new team, or taking a team and moving it to a new market,” Kloss said, “versus buying an existing team that has a lot of value.” She said successful teams “might go for three to four million dollars.”
The league recently signed a four-year partnership contract with ESPN to stream one match each night on the Internet and to cover the championship finals live on ESPN 2. This “allows us to attract more sponsors and more importantly, ” Kloss said, “it’s really elevated our presence.”
Total league attendance averaged between 95,000 and 100,000 fans each season in recent years, according to Rosie Crews, a senior vice president of WTT.
In 2014, the Aviators were buffeted by wide swings in attendance. One night in the first week of its 21-day season, Geyser sat on the team bench in view of only a few hundred spectators in the 3,314-seat arena.
The number of fans rose significantly when Roddick and the Bryan brothers appeared. Geyser estimated average attendance at 1,500 to 2,000 spectators, adding “I think.” Despite requests, the Aviators did not release figures.
“We haven’t done a good enough job in outreach,” said Geyser, “both at the kids’ level and the club level. And probably at the general level.”
“This is a building experience. This is a first year,” said Geyser. “In the movie business we don’t expect to make money on opening day.
“Tennis is the same way,” he said. ”You’ve got to be in this for more than the long haul. If I’d just bought it for this season, it would be a hard row to hoe.”
Asked in mid-August if he might sell his franchise, Geyser emphatically denied any notion of divesting.
“He got in late,” said King, who co-owns the league with Kloss. “But the point is, I appreciate him getting in late. He’s got great other owners with him. They wanna do it. And we’ll work it out.”
King said she and Kloss are reviewing the league’s roster of team owners in an effort to strengthen the WTT’s financial standing.
“We have to have strong owners, there’s no question,” said Kloss. “After 40 years, we know what doesn’t work and we’re still figuring out what does,” she said.
“We’d like to have more teams and have more stability,” said King. “But people’s circumstances change.” She said economic downturns over the years had often bedeviled owners with modest resources.
“Some of the people who owned teams, it was very difficult on them financially.”
“The economics model is extremely difficult,” said Patrick McEnroe, a former WTT owner who managed player development for the United States Tennis Association for six years. He bought a franchise in 2000, naming it the New York Hamptons.
Despite his best efforts, McEnroe said, the franchise began losing money. Player payrolls were a factor.
“You need a name player to get anybody in the stands,” he said. “But you have to pay the player so much for that night, that unless you sell out a couple of thousand seats, you can’t make the money.”
McEnroe, who was in San Diego early in August to speak at the national junior girls championships at the Barnes Tennis Center, said he was not surprised by the Aviators’s decision to cancel his brother’s contract.
“That’s because they didn’t want to pay him,” said McEnroe, “because John would get paid what his market value was.” He did not specify an amount.
Claude Okin, the New York businessman who sold the Sportimes to Geyser, said the Aviators need an off-court strategy to survive.
“Some people figure out how to make it a VIP experience,” Okin said, “some people figure out how to make it a low-cost ‘minor league of tennis’ experience.’”
Okin praised the approach of Mark Ein, an investor and entrepreneur whose team, the Washington Kastles, won the league’s 2014 championship, earning the King Trophy for the fifth time in six years.
“It is something remarkable there,” said Okin, describing a fan base that included President Obama’s wife, Michelle, local celebrities, and children from impoverished neighborhoods.
“He turned it into a sort of political happening, a social happening, and at the same time turned it into a sort of egalitarian experience,” Okin said, calling the combination “pretty cool.”
In 1985, one owner who failed to find a profitable strategy moved on abruptly, said Larry Willens, who coached the San Diego Buds. The team was days away from winning the WTT championship.
“The owner,” said Willens, “just was not happy with what was going on, so he said ‘I’m not gonna do it anymore,’
“He wouldn’t even allow us to play the championship match in San Diego. We played it in San Antonio,” Willens said. “He had already decided he was done.”
The owner, Harry Ornest, who owned Canadian Football League and National Hockey League franchises, died in 1988, according to a Los Angeles Times obituary.
Dick Leach, who coached the Newport Beach Breakers to the 2004 WTT championship, said his team often filled a 2,000-seat grandstand at a local country club. Attendance dropped, he said, when it was moved to a large arena in a remote area.
“I was disappointed that it wasn’t successful here in Orange County,” said Leach, who lives in Laguna Beach and coached USC men’s tennis for 22 years.
“I just think that if you can get local people – ten local businesses, big in the community, all pushing it – you might be able to make it work better.”
“We would love to have involved more people,” Geyser said, “it’s just that the timing didn’t allow us to talk to a thousand people. Somebody had to step up and do it, and so we stepped up and did it.”
Asked in July what advice he would give potential investors interested in owning a team, Geyser grinned: “Call me!”