The Tour Born In A Parking Lot (Part II)
Few tennis media conferences have resonated like ‘The Parking Lot Press Conference’, held 25 years ago on 26 August 1988, a seminal moment in ATP history.
The plan, titled ‘Tennis at the Crossroads’, originally a 15-page document written by Hamilton Jordan and Bob Green, detailed the problems and conflicts confronting men's professional tennis as well as the tremendous opportunities available for promoting and marketing the game. Says Green, “’Tennis at the Crossroads’ outlined where the ATP was, where the players stood compared to other sports, and where we intended to go if things didn't change.”
As a natural leader, Jordan spoke with great confidence and fluency, telling those assembled that, “Professional tennis players are in the weakest relative position of any professional athlete in the world when it comes to having a voice in our sport… The most important issue is having a voice in the sport which is consistent with the contribution that we make to the game. We don't pretend to have all the answers. But I don't know of a single major sport, a major sport in the world, where the players have less to say than they do in professional tennis.”
Mats Wilander, eight days after his 24th birthday, also came to the podium and spoke about the predicament. “There is something wrong when I have only played three or four matches against the Top 10 in the world this year. You never play the top guys.”
“Hamilton starred and with a southern-style confidence and wit, relished doing this on the doorstep of the Slams,” says then-ATP Board member Tim Mayotte, who stood directly behind Jordan during the press conference. “Having Mats and, I think, Yannick [Noah] there helped by adding gravity. I remember the response being strong in the press, as certainly the location made the news impossible to miss. The ITF and Slams seemed taken off guard as if they never believed it would happen.”
In the space of 30 minutes, men’s professional tennis had changed forever. It was the defining moment in the evolution of the ATP, formed in 1972 under the leadership of Jack Kramer.
Support was quick in coming as more than 85 of the Top 100 players signed a letter of support for a new system, in part modelled on golf’s PGA Tour. Green admits, “On the players’ side, Mats was our spiritual leader. Being No. 1 in the world carried weight.” Later in the fall of 1988, 24 players, including eight of the Top 10, signed contracts to play the ATP Tour in 1990.
“At the end of 1988 we put out a bidding system for tournament spots on the calendar, based around American, European, clay and hard-court swings,” says Brad Harris. “At the time, the ATP was a $3 million-a-year organisation that we almost made bankrupt that year. Applications were due at the beginning of 1989.”
Tournament directors representing many of the world's leading events voiced their support for the players and joined them in what was to become a partnership unique in professional sports, with an equal voice in how the circuit is run. “When we returned from our Christmas break in January 1989, FedEx had been very kind to us,” says Harris. “A number of tournaments had laid down deposits for their sanctions.” So, on Thursday, 19 January 1989, the ATP Tour calendar for the 1990 season was distributed to the players, tournaments, media and fans.
Charlie Pasarell, who at the time was on the MTC representing tournaments in the Americas, said that the tournaments had ‘no choice’ but to partner with the players on the new ATP Tour. “At the time of the press conference the Grand Slams had no plan to deliver player fields to our tournaments. The ATP put a very detailed plan on the table, which had some problems for us, but even the tournaments who knew they wouldn’t make the cut on the new tour said that it was the right choice to make a deal with the players.
“We told the players we would go with them, BUT that there were a lot of things that needed to be negotiated. The players only wanted to sanction events for three-year periods and you couldn’t commit to building new stadiums or long-term television contracts with that uncertainty. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s about as good a system as I have seen and its working.”
For Wilander, who went on to win the 1988 US Open, his third major championship that season, the press conference remains a vivid memory. The Swede, one of 25 World No. 1s in the 40-year history of the Emirates ATP Rankings, says, “It was risky. We had a plan and we were willing to take a chance. Tim Mayotte and I were the only two Top 10 players at the press conference. A lot of players supported it but not outwardly initially; the top players weren’t ready to take a chance, they wanted to see what would happen. The impact of the press conference was to show everyone that we were really serious and that we were going to do it. We couldn’t go backwards from that point and to see the success of the ATP Tour today is amazing.”
Before the new ATP Tour was 12 months old, Jordan had left tennis. But he departed after making two major changes.
In order to get the top players to contest more tournaments, the ATP changed the ranking system to a ‘Best of 14’. It meant that only a player’s best 14 tournament results counted towards his ATP Ranking. Under the old system, a player’s ranking was based on his average results. If he played 20 tournaments, the points you received were divided by 20 [Read: The Rankings That Changed Tennis]. The other change was to legalise the payment of guarantees at 58 of the 78 stops on the ATP Tour.
“Jordan was a pleasant personality, easy enough to deal with, but he never quite got over having to field complaints from a bunch of twenty-something tennis pros after dealing with world leaders from the White House,” says Richard Evans. “Once the political battle had been waged at the ATP. Hamilton stepped aside," admits Harris. "He was not an administrator and he was scarred up, so he felt it was better to hand the reigns over to someone else.” That man was Mark Miles, the Indianapolis tournament director, who started in August 1990 and served as ATP Chief Executive Officer for the next 15 years.
The ATP developed its grand vision and every tournament programme or publication made reference to ‘The Parking Lot Press Conference’ as long as five years after Jordan presented the ‘Tennis at the Crossroads’ plan in New York City. It was one of the most significant moments in ATP history.
Miles went on to build the ATP into a world-class, professional organisation, stabilised a sport and expanded its global presence through successful events in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Prize money rose from $47million to $85million, and long-term commercial sponsorships were put into place, with Mercedes-Benz being established as the ATP’s Premium Partner in 1996. He also helped to forge closer ties with the game’s other governing bodies.
Jordan died on 20 May 2008, aged 63. “Hamilton’s real genius was taking complicated documents and distilling them in ways people could understand and then in to a clear plan,” says Harris, who continued to work with Jordan after they both left the ATP. “You knew he liked you when you were the source of his vicious barbs. He stood up to everyone and did what he believed was right.”
Says Harold Solomon, “Hamilton was smart, concise and showed the ability to get people to work together for a common vision. Before Hamilton became CEO we had often talked about the possibility of forming our own tour, but we never seemed to be able to step back far enough out of the current politics to realistically get that done. If not for Hamilton's vision and his ability to communicate that into a possibility the Tour would not be where it is today.”