Experienced tennis executive and new ATP chief Chris Kermode gives Matt Cutler his vision for men’s tennis, and why he wants to turn ATP World Tour events into sports entertainment behemoths.
The saying goes that “things happen for a reason”.
Last summer, Chris Kermode, the brains behind the Queen’s Club Championships and the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) World Tour Finals at London’s O2 Arena, put his name forward to replace Roger Draper as chief executive of the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association), the governing body for British tennis.
As a former professional player, someone with a strong relationship with British tennis’ figurehead Andy Murray and the man who has masterminded the two biggest tennis tournaments in Britain outside Wimbledon, tennis insiders thought he’d be one of the first names on the shortlist.
He wasn’t even given an interview.
The reasons for that will probably never be made public, and Kermode has been vocal in his disappointment at not being considered for the role. But in a remarkable turn of events, two months after Canadian Michael Downey was named Draper’s successor at the LTA in September, the top executive job in world tennis – a role that had been vacant since May when Brad Drewett lost his short battle with motor neurone disease – was given to a certain Chris Kermode.
Is he bitter? Not in the slightest, as after all, things have worked out quite well for the 49-year-old Brit. And in many ways, there isn’t anyone in world tennis better suited to running the professional men’s game than he is. As executive chairman and president of the ATP, Kermode now sits as the impartial member of a seven-person ATP board comprising the two major stakeholders in the sport – players and tournament organisers. Kermode has been both, having played on the men’s tour in the late 1980s, and that means he has an understanding for both sides and will always be looking for solutions that benefit both parties.
Kermode says he went into the job on January 1 “aware of the nuances of the ATP structure, that if you are not aware of, people can be quite surprised by.”
“I went in with my eyes wide open,” he says. “The ATP is a unique organisation…the players and tournament organisers have a 50/50 say in the business. That structure is something I thoroughly believe in – I wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise – but it has its challenges. You have to do everything by building consensus and getting both sides to understand that voting for short-term issues has long-term implications.
“As a result of being a former player – and a very average one at that – I have empathy with qualifiers and guys struggling to make a living on the tour. I’m fully aware of the sacrifices and demands that are needed for players to succeed. Equally, having been a tournament director and a promoter, I also have the advantage of seeing the tour being run as a business. Ultimately, the ATP World Tour is combination of the two.”
Kermode says the reaction of the players to his appointment has been “overwhelming” – Andy Murray has been vocal in his support while 17-time grand slam winner Roger Federer, who is also the president of the ATP Player Council, said he was “delighted” with Kermode’s appointment – while he was able to speak to all ATP tournament directors at a gathering in Monte Carlo before this year’s Australian Open at the end of January.
“Over the last 15 years I’ve been able to forge relationships with players, coaches and agents,” he adds. “They know I am quite straightforward – I talk openly and honestly and will always present a case in a transparent way. The players know they can get a straight answer from me.”
Strong Commercial Outlook
Drewett, who was only 54 when he passed away last year, was highly-respected and much-loved by everyone in tennis, and he also benefitted in the role by being a former player. Importantly for Kermode, Drewett also left behind a positive commercial legacy, with the ATP currently enjoying a golden age both on and off the court.
“Sad is an understatement of what happened to Brad and he didn’t have enough time to do what he wanted with men’s tennis,” says Kermode. “I think my job is to carry on the work he started in terms of really looking at the structure of the tour in terms of the categories of tournaments and the commitments of players.
“I’ve been very lucky to inherit the ATP in a good place: last year we had a record 4.47 million fans attend on-site, commercial revenues have grown 200 per cent since 2009 and tour events generated over half a billion dollars last year.
“This is also an era of great players, and not only at the top end – there’s a huge depth in the supporting cast and the up-and-coming players, and that’s encouraging for the future.
“My challenge is to continue that development, but my mantra is sustainable growth. I tend to bore people with it, but it is not to chase easy wins or money, rather have a long-term plan that guarantees sustainable growth for a decade or so from here.”
Sustainable growth, says Kermode, will be achieved in many ways – but central to it will be forging a stronger relationship with fans and the media. Those two stakeholders, he says, have an important role in the future direction of men’s tennis.
“We have to listen to the fans,” he says. “Ultimately they are the ones paying the money to come and viewing on TV. Like any business we need to gain information from our consumers and that means listening to fans wherever possible.
“The media for me is hugely important. Many governing bodies tend to be wary of the media. We need to, as a governing body, engage and listen to how we can gain more space in print media and airtime on TV. And with all the digital platforms moving at a fast pace, we need to keep up to speed with how people are consuming media content.
“The attendances are incredible, so for me, opportunities come in growing TV audiences. If we do that, we can monetise our broadcast rights more, in particular across digital platforms. That’s where I really see the growth.”
The biggest announcement of Kermode’s tenure so far came in February when he announced changes to the calendar from 2015, with 62 tournaments scheduled in 31 countries and a week-long expansion to the grasscourt season. Queen’s, the grasscourt event closest to his heart that is used by many players as a warm-up for Wimbledon, and the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, Germany, were also promoted from ATP 250 to ATP 500 events.
The calendar changes achieve a better balance between the four different tennis surfaces across the season, says Kermode: “Historically people came from the red clay of Paris [for the French Open grand slam] with only two weeks to adjust to the grass before Wimbledon.
“Queen’s is going up to a 500 event and that will raise the profile of grasscourt tennis and allow players to acclimatise to that surface better. It’s not just the extra week, but it’s also the extra points on offer and that makes it a grasscourt swing.
“For a governing body we need to ensure a variety of surfaces. Hard, grass, clay, indoor – as balanced a mix as possible makes the sport more appealing for fans.
“We are constantly reviewing the calendar and I’ve got a whole load of meetings set up with stakeholders, as everyone has a view of what it should look like. For me, it’s about producing a calendar that makes sense for player flow, player health and the story you tell from the ATP World Tour starting in January and climaxing at the ATP World Tour Finals in November.”
The challenge now, says Kermode, is for him to better understand tennis markets around the world and ensure organisers have the tools at their disposable to create tennis events that are leading sports entertainment packages.
“Each market has its own nuances and challenges,” he says. “Whilst I know the London market, it differs greatly to somewhere like south America, where you have two countries like Argentina and Brazil, two massive markets themselves that are hugely different.
“For any sports event to succeed, it has to become an event. The events almost have to transcend the sport – they have to have meaning and a sense of occasion for fans. If you look at all the best sports events around the world – they manage to attract hardcore fans that would always go, but they also attract the ‘light’ sports fans who might not specifically be into that sport, but will go to visit on site or watch on TV because it’s an event. All good promoters understand that. My task on behalf of the ATP is to find a mechanism where our big and successful tournaments can fly.”
World Tour Finals
Kermode has a three-year contract, and one decision he needs to make in that period is where to take the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals from 2016 – that is, if he needs to take them anywhere at all.
Featuring the ATP rankings’ top eight singles players and doubles teams, the World Tour Finals have been held at London’s O2 since 2009 and has been attended by 1.28 million fans. Last year, for the second consecutive season, the event welcomed more than 260,000 fans; it’s a guaranteed money-spinner for the ATP to have the event at the O2, whose current agreement expires after the tournament in 2015, and Kermode is all too aware of the successes achieved in London over the past five years.
“We are currently reviewing what we want from the event,” he says. “Obviously there is a financial element but it’s also about the statement of the game – over 260,000 fans attend the event. It’s the biggest indoor tennis event ever. It’s a great statement about the sport and it has a great trickledown effect to other tournaments and regions, as well as for sponsors, media and fans. It’s a big decision and we’ll be reviewing potential cities and whether we move it elsewhere or stay in London. We’re aiming to make a decision in the next 18 months.”
Kermode’s tenure is also likely to be defined by the retirement of Roger Federer, with many observers of the game pinpointing that moment as an end of a ‘golden age’ for men’s tennis. Federer turns 33 this year, having only won two of his 17 grand slams in the past four years.
Federer’s rivalry with Rafa Nadal – and the emergence of Murray and Novak Djokovic to create a ‘big four’ – has played a major part in strong attendances, viewing figures and interest from commercial partners for men’s tennis. But Kermode dismisses the notion that anyone at the ATP should be worried about a new generation of top players emerging – and has already set up the mechanisms to ensure they flourish in the game when they do.
“The doom-mongers always say things will never be the same again, but they were saying that when Björn Bjorg and John McEnroe ended their careers, but more stars came along – the likes of Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg,” he says. “Then we had [Andre] Agassi and [Pete] Sampras…there will always be another generation and the fascinating part of the sport for me is seeing people predict who will be the next generation.
“If you ask 20 people, you’ll get 20 different opinions. The next two or three years will be very interesting – I’ve got a couple of players who I’ll never reveal but I believe will be the next two big stars of men’s tennis.
“Nurturing the [next generation of] talent is down to the player, what we need to do is create the opportunity to market them as widely as possible when they do start breaking through. We need to be ready to optimise that talent and really tell their story.
“We have an ATP University that players attend to have media training, in addition to their responsibilities in the game and also their financial future and future health.
“We have it a couple of times a year and the rookie players, when they enter the top 200, have to attend. It’s for four days and they learn a lot of good stuff. For me, the biggest challenge is when a player starts playing in front of people, we need to make him aware that people are paying money to watch him.
“That’s the key difference to what he has been doing before – he needs to understand that he is in the sports entertainment business.”