Tennis will be featured again at Madison Garden Square Garden on Feb 28th with the BNP Paribas Showdown, showcasing the epic rivalries between Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, and Ivan Lendl. The night, which is part of Tennis Night In America, is the kick off event for a month long celebration of tennis. Throughout March, the USTA will be holding various Youth Registration Events, which is their largest youth recruitment effort. I had the opportunity to talk with Jerry Solomon, CEO of StarGames LLC who is the organizer of The Showdown, about Tennis Night in America and the role of exhibition matches to increase the popularity of the sport.
Q. How did Tennis Night In America, a collaboration between your company StarGames and the USTA come about?
A. We [StarGames, LLC] coined the term Tennis Night In America for the 2008 event. [The Battle of the Ages, which featured Roger Federer vs Pete Sampras.] We had this vision of parties across the country and people celebrating tennis on that one night each year. Following that we had some conversations with the USTA who had been involved in a small way in the event in 2008. We sat down with the head of community tennis and explained to him what our vision was, and he came back to us with a series of ideas about how to implement Tennis Night In America. The collaboration really started with the 2009 showdown where they [the USTA] really took the ball and ran with it, to develop programs for clubs across the country and in 2009 we had over 700 clubs participate. It's been a phenomenal partnership.
Q. Right now Pete Sampras is the Spokesperson for Tennis Night In America, is there an increase in the number of facilities that will be participating this year because of his involvement?
A. I would like to think it is in part due to his involvement, and part due to the fact that this is the 3rd year of the program, and in part due to the fact hat the USTA has taken a huge step and moved tennis month from May to March so it is not a stand alone event, but it's the kick-off to a whole 30 days of celebration of tennis within the USTA Programs. There are a lot of things that make this the biggest year yet of Tennis Night In America.
Q. What do you think prevents tennis from being more "mainstream" here in the United States?
A. I think that it is something that the sport has dealt with for years, the bouncing back and forth from being mainstream to being more niche associated. I don't know whether there is a specific answer, but individual sports such as tennis, golf, and figure skating are driven in terms of viewership and fan participation by the personalities that are involved in the sport at the highest level. So when you have people like Conners and McEnroe at the top of the game, they tend to transcend the sport and it grows the fan base. Their charismatic association with the fan drives more casual fans to the sport. The key in any sport is to get to the casual sports fan, which is really hard to do in tennis because their are so many events all around the world and you've got stars from all over the world. It is hard for international stars to make that same kind of breakthrough in America, and that is one of the things that tennis deals with. But, the beauty of tennis world-wide is whoever the dominant players are, are stars somewhere, and they may not be as big of stars in the United States, but that is only one part of the world.
Q. StarGames LLC organizes a lot of exhibition matches, how do exhibition matches increase the popularity of the sport?
A. I think these special events have an important role in bringing the sport to places where there is a desire to see the great athletes. There is also a desire on the part of the athletes to play events outside of their regular tours and competitive events. They [the players] need time at various points throughout the course of the year where it is very helpful for them to play an event where the pressure is different, the expectation is different. They are not playing for prize money, or points, or anything other than the entertainment value, and it also serves as practice for them to get ready for big events. So from any standpoint, these special events have an important role within tennis.
Q. Do you think that because of the shorter season more players will want to play exhibition matches?
I'm not sure how that is going to effect things. As a result of the shorter season, there is less time within the schedule to play special events, so the very notion that sometimes it is a benefit to a player to play a special event as a tune up to another event, the shorter season reduces the opportunity for those type of events. What it does, is pushes them all to a period at the end of the year, and that is when the players are supposed to be resting. I don't think that it works for them all to take place in November and December and there isn't enough room on the calendar for them to take place during the rest of the year.
Q. Will Sampras continue to be the spokesperson in 2012?
It will change. We have not identified the person for 2012 yet.
Q. Do you have any other exhibition matches planned after this year's showdown?
A. Nothing on the short term, but we are looking at some things in the fall and also looking a little farther in advance at a schedule for the spring of 2012.
Q. Is there anything else that you want my readers to know about StarGames or the BNP Paribas Showdown?
A. Tennis Night In America and the BNP Paribas Showdown will be shown live on ESPN2 at 9:00 pm EST on February 28th. We hope that in the spirit of this national celebration of tennis, if you can't make it to Madison Square Garden, that you will watch it on television. We are going to be introducing some new things within the event that I think tennis fans might find interesting and we really do hope that this notion of celebrating the sport on that one particular night can go to the next level this year.
For more information on Tennis Night in America click here.
For more information on the BNP Paribas Showdown click here.
For mor information about StarGames, LLC click here.