August 4, 2016
From the start, Mylan World TeamTennis has been an innovative sports league promoting inclusivity and equality between men and women. To make it happen and thrive over the course of the league’s 41 seasons, WTT has been driven by more than a few savvy business people, including one who has been involved from day one.
Billie Jean King has invested in tennis since the beginning – from tournament ownership to industry media to emerging technology. But her heart, passion and energy lie the greatest with the league she co-founded, Mylan WTT, and its mission.
“It’s about the fans who come out to watch but more importantly it’s also about making a difference every day in the community,” said King. “We have entrepreneurs that are owners in Mylan World TeamTennis that I think have that spirit.”
Enter Mark Ein, the founder of Venturehouse Group, who has tirelessly cultivated a winning brand with the Washington Kastles in their first eight seasons. His commitment to excellence has led to five consecutive championships (and six overall), but for Ein, the franchise’s value extends far beyond the wins and losses.
“I think World TeamTennis ownership is the single most undervalued sports ownership opportunity in the United States,” said Ein.
“What means the most to me is when I get stopped in my community which happens all the time, sometimes virtually every day where someone tells me they love the team, their kids love the team, some of their best memories over the summer are coming to a Kastles match, a player telling me their highlight of the year is playing for the Kastles. That’s rewarding in a way that money can’t buy … but it means that what we’re doing has real value and I think that’s ultimately how we build and grow franchise value.”
The Springfield Lasers’ business model is a unique public-private partnership with local businessmen Harry and John Cooper who bought and donated the franchise to the City of Springfield in 1996. Operated publicly by the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, the Lasers are the longest-standing franchise with 20 seasons in the books. While a King Trophy is the ultimate on-court goal, Owner Representative Bob Belote is quick to point out the alternative measure of success.
“We’re bringing in John Isner again and the kids can see a top 15 pro right there in their backyard and then pick up a racquet, go out and play, enroll in our programs and really emulate the very best in World TeamTennis,” explained Belote. “At the end of the day, we really do want a product out there that represents our community well, the Cooper family well, and ultimately the sport of tennis well too.”
Hop out on a flight out west and you’ll find San Diego Aviators owner Fred Luddy nodding in agreement with Belote. Luddy, who founded ServiceNow, declares WTT fans “get to see phenomenal athletes performing at their best in a very, very intimate venue. So bringing tennis to lots of people who couldn’t otherwise get to tennis was very important to me.”
Luddy’s attraction to WTT dates back to his days as a 12-year-old, when he was first exposed to the fan-friendly setting. Like in any business venture, Luddy’s goal is to ‘leave it all out on the field’ and he finds that in common with the current set of owners. “We all share this passion for making this thing the best product it can be.”
The relationships fostered through being involved with Mylan WTT are a takeaway that excites FastForward Innovations CEO Lorne Abony, owner of the Orange County Breakers. Abony, an entrepreneur who also co-founded two education technology companies Vemo Education and Schoold, said, “I have forged real, real friendships and real relationships both business-related to WTT and external relationships … it’s one of the great things about owning a WTT franchise and, frankly, it’s probably one of the best kept secrets in sport generally.”
A dynamic personality in any room, Abony’s vivacity hits its highest point when it comes to winning on a tennis court. Last year, his team in Austin had the best regular season record, but were outdueled by the Kastles in the Mylan WTT Finals. The franchise relocated to Orange County for 2016.
“Our DNA is wired such that we all care deeply about winning and being competitive,” said Abony. “I think that all of us also appreciate that there’s a balance in life and winning is one component of the overall social good.”
This season, Mylan WTT is back in the Big Apple with the New York Empire. Michael Coakley, a member of the franchise’s ownership group which includes several successful New York area business leaders, understands the expectations of the New York sports fan. “The marketplace demands that we have a winning team and everyone in this city expects to win.”
Still for Coakley, a senior vice president for a global consulting firm, year one’s overall focus remains at the grassroots level. “What’s exciting about the Empire is that we are focused on creating a great team brand and bringing professional team tennis back to the New York market,” said Coakley. “We’re really interested in creating a franchise the whole community will get behind.”
For Mylan WTT CEO/Commissioner Ilana Kloss, tennis has also been her life’s work as both a top-class athlete and businesswoman. Kloss has led WTT to some of its biggest sponsorship deals over the years, including Wilson, Domino’s Pizza, Tyco, Advanta, and, most recently, global pharmaceuticals leader Mylan. The former world No. 1 in doubles has also been at the helm during many of the league’s innovations. “WTT has always been known as the think tank and innovator of our sport,” Kloss said.
“A lot of tournaments have adapted what we were doing … whether it’s colored-branded courts, hitting balls into the stands and being able to keep them, names on the backs of jerseys for team competition. All of those started in WTT, so we’re really proud that we’ve been able to push the sport into trying new things.”
Pictured – l. to r.: Orange County Breakers owner Lorne Abony, New York Empire ownership representative Michael Coakley, Mylan WTT CEO/Commissioner Ilana Kloss, San Diego Aviators owner Fred Luddy, Philadelphia Freedoms owner Billie Jean King, Springfield Lasers owner representative Bob Belote, and Washington Kastles owner Mark Ein. Photo: CameraworkUSA)