World Team Tennis 1974-1978
The Legacy of a Sports League
By John Schwarz
Review by Dick Barnes
If you’re an aspiring sports entrepreneur, lawyer, agent or executive, this new account of the travails of the World Team Tennis professional league during the 1970s is full of lessons applicable to many sports organizations.
Robert Kraft and Jerry Buss made progress but also took early hits when they entered the world of sports team ownership via World Team Tennis. Kraft took his gained knowledge to the New England Patriots and advanced the franchise to the forefront of the National Football League. Buss bought the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a deal that included real estate and turned their games into must-be-at events for the Hollywood glitterati.
John Schwarz tells the story of WTT’s early years with facts, insight and perspective. He was the league’s executive director from mid-1976 until after the 1977 season, when he became vice president and executive director of Kraft’s Boston Lobsters team. He continued there until WTT suspended operations after the 1978 season. He brought to the league and to this book experience in network television, major business acquisitions and the film industry, as well as his MBA from Harvard and economics degree from Stanford.
There’s humor along the way, including Schwarz’ misfired post-match floral presentation to a woman player departing the league. Delayed at a business meeting, he raced to the arena just in time to see a stranger introduced as John Schwarz, executive director of WTT, hand over the flowers. When Schwarz didn’t show on time, the official overseeing the presentation had plucked a fan from the stands at the last minute to play the role of Schwarz, whom he figured no one in Kansas City knew by sight.
WTT was originally the idea of Billie Jean King. She was not only a top player of the era but also fought hard to elevate the women’s game toward financial par with the men. During 1974-78, nearly all of the top women played in WTT. Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg spent some time in the league, but for the most part, the men on the rosters were second-tier.
The major battle of the period pitted WTT against the tennis establishment, including tennis governing associations, the four major tournaments, and the rest of the tournament circuit. WTT guaranteed players a set income for the summer season that was often more than a player could make at the majors and on the circuit. WTT took breaks for Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and was not in season for the Australian Open. But it clashed directly with the fourth major, the French Open; the French banned Connors from playing one year because of his WTT affiliation.
Tennis in that period enjoyed huge growth internationally. Sponsors with global products wanted their players competing all over the world, not just in the United States. Tournament prize money also increased rapidly, forcing WTT to consider player salaries that were not economically feasible. WTT also suffered from inability to negotiate a national television contract. This, of course, was before the founding of ESPN in 1979 and the subsequent proliferation of national, regional, and single-sport cable channels and networks. And, there were no internet or social media at that time to use for promotion.
After the 1978 season, the league suspended operations in the face of its losing battle. No team had finished in the black during any of the five years, although Kraft and Buss had moved closer to profitability with their franchises.
After a time, WTT resurfaced in a different form. Now, more than 40 years later, WTT continues in operation as a niche league that features up-and-coming young players and past-their-prime older players. Big-name players make periodic appearances, such as the Williams sisters for the Washington team.
In his chapter on What Successful Owners Learned from WTT, Schwarz writes:
The primer that Kraft and Buss brought with them from WTT to their future sport ventures reads like an “Owner 101” textbook on how to build a successful sport franchise. There are a few simple rules that can make a big difference, but it is amazing how many sports owners either don’t get it or only see their ownership as a vehicle to promote themselves.
As has been mentioned, too many WTT owners saw owning a franchise only as an opportunity to gratify their egos and ride on the backs of fellow owners with little effort to add value themselves.
Schwarz identified six guidelines that Kraft and Buss took from WTT to their later highly successful ventures:
Recognize the importance of controlling the team venue and concessions.
Find the right management talent and minimize meddling.
Create strong civic pride around the franchise.
Be a good partner with fellow owners in the league.
Accept the importance of the media and create an environment that makes players, especially the stars, want to be with the franchise.
Bring your family into the team’s operations and identify as a local family enterprise.
Schwarz also shows the impact of WTT on numerous other figures who went on to noteworthy careers in sports. In addition to its 288-page narrative, the book includes more than 100 pages of documents concerning this era of WTT.
Before shutting down, Kraft considered whether to pursue an anti-trust action against the tennis establishment. Present and future lawyers may want to read Schwarz’ 1978 six-page memo on the subject and consider whether there could have been a viable anti-trust lawsuit.
Another fascinating document is the 23-page Harvard Business School case study of WTT, used in MBA classes. The study presents three applicants who each want to purchase a WTT expansion franchise in 1976. Readers may want to evaluate which, if any, of the applicants, they would have wanted as a partner in WTT.
World Team Tennis 1974-1978, trade paperback published November 2020, is available at amazon.com.
Dick Barnes is a former sportswriter and now-retired lawyer in Washington DC.