World TeamTennis poised to set significant precedent for staging events in front of fans 

(Credit: Getty Images)

  • Mixed-gender league to hold entire season at The Greenbrier in West Virginia this summer
  • Three-week tournament will be one of first in US to be held in front of limited spectators
  • Organization has had increased interest from players and sponsors since unveiling plans 

World TeamTennis is poised to lay down a significant marker for the return of live sports competition in front of spectators in North America when the organization stages its 2020 season at a single neutral-site venue this summer.

The mixed-gender professional tennis league has announced that it will hold its 45th season as a three-week event at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The regular season will take place from July 12-30, with the semifinals and final to follow on August 1 and August 2, respectively.

In the regular season, there will be 63 matches over 19 days, with at least three matches per day – due to start at 10am, 2pm, and 7pm ET – at the 2,500-seat outdoor tennis stadium at The Greenbrier.

Traditionally, WTT teams play a 14-match, regular-season schedule in a home-and-away format across the United States. They are: expansion team Chicago Smash, New York Empire, Orange County Breakers, Orlando Storm, Philadelphia Freedoms, San Diego Aviators, Vegas Rollers, Washington Kastles, and two-time reigning champions Springfield Lasers.

However, in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic, and the various health and safety protocols that differ from state to state, the organization has decided to stage its campaign at a single venue.

It is an initiative that is scheduled to be adopted by other team-based organizations, such as the Premier Lacrosse League and National Women’s Soccer League, while the likes of the National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer are also planning to follow suit.

Most notably, WTT will become one of the first sports organizations in North America to resume competition in front of spectators amid the ongoing health crisis.

In accordance with state health guidelines, WTT will allow up to 500 fans, which represents 20 per cent of capacity, to attend outdoor matches at The Greenbrier. Spectators will be spaced out to ensure social distancing.

The outdoor tennis court at The Greenbrier where World TeamTennis is scheduled to stage its 2020 season (Credit: WTT)

The Greenbrier, a luxury resort which is owned by West Virginia governor Jim Justice, has already opened to guests to a limited extent, with temperature checks for employees, social distancing for customers inside its restaurants, and employees sanitizing door handles, light switches, and other high-touch areas.

And it was specifically the allowance to play in front of spectators that led WTT to choose The Greenbrier over a number of other potential locations, including Las Vegas, Austin, Jacksonville, and Carlsbad, California.

WTT is poised to follow in the footsteps of Professional Bull Riders, which has planned an event in front of live crowds in South Dakota on July 10-12. The WTT tournament, however, involves many more participants and will take place over a far longer time period, which will require greater testing and screening for coronavirus for its competitors, staff members, media, and spectators.

A growing number of states, such as Texas, are beginning to allow spectators at sporting events in the coming weeks and months. As such, many eyes are expected to be on The Greenbrier as sports organizations look to adopt best practices.

Significantly, WTT will also essentially herald the return of professional tennis in the United States, with the Association of Tennis Professionals, Women’s Tennis Association, and International Tennis Federation having postponed their respective seasons until at least early August. A small number of exhibition events are taking place globally in the interim period.

At present, participating players include the likes of 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin (Philadelphia Freedoms), 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens (Chicago Smash), and leading United States men’s doubles team Bob and Mike Bryan (Vegas Rollers).

Since WTT announced its return, there has been significant interest from the agents of numerous tennis stars who are eager to get back to competitive action. WTT is considering how best to accommodate these marquee players; it is possible that each team will gain an extra player to their five-person rosters.

As well as providing more star power, the addition of extra players is likely to help participants avoid injuries due to the expected wear and tear of playing so many matches in a condensed period.

All games at The Greenbrier will be distributed on CBS, CBS Sports Network, Tennis Channel, and ESPN+. The main CBS broadcast network will air a regular-season match on July 19 and the WTT Final on August 2, while CBS Sports Network on cable will carry 13 regular-season matches and both semifinals on August 1.

The WTT is also increasing prize money to a record $5m, with an added $1m awarded in WTT Playoffs compensation. The team who wins the King Trophy will get a $500,000 bonus.

SportBusiness spoke to WTT chief executive Carlos Silva about the challenges and opportunities of being a first-mover in the return to sporting competition in front of spectators amid the coronavirus crisis.

What does it mean for World TeamTennis to be the first professional tennis organization back amid the Covid-19 pandemic?

It feels great, a lot of hard work went into getting here. We’ve been trying to support our players all along. We sent our players a $1,000 gift a couple of months ago just to say thank you and knowing that many of them needed to maybe pay some bills. It’s great for them that they’re able to come back but it’s also great for all of us, the staff, to feel like we’re leading that charge back for live sports.

It’s really great with our partners at The Greenbrier in West Virginia that the governor has said, that with safety in mind and doing it the right way, that we can have a limited number of fans in the stadium. All sports thrive on spectators but with our format that has music and feels a little bit more like an NBA experience, having 500 fans in the stands is going to be fabulous.

How much does it help that WTT is not affiliated with the ATP or WTA tours, as well as the ITF, and that you have a certain freedom to do what you want?

We’re big supporters of the ITF, ATP and WTA…[but] in this case, we didn’t need approval from those organizations to come back. I’ve got a great board and it’s a very small group so it made it a lot easier to make decisions quickly. When you’re a big organization and have a lot of constituencies, it’s a lot harder to get everyone aligned.

Why was it so important for you to stage your season in front of fans – and did that ultimately determine the location of the event?

As we looked across all the different states that were possibilities for us, from Florida, Texas, West Virginia, Nevada, and California, all of them were great venues. We would have had a great season in any of these places. As of last week, which was our deadline to make these decisions, the only state that said that they’d like to help bring live sports back and bring fans was West Virginia. So ultimately that was the tipping point.

Will ticket prices be a little higher than usual as there are so few seats in the arena or are you keeping them at the same regular price?

Tickets are limited but we’ve thought about ticket prices being normal. We’re going to create a couple of ticket prices so that we’ll be able to create the proper social distancing in the stadium. There is a lower bowl and an upper bowl and right now we’ve thought about different prices for the two bowls and there will probably be a VIP package that will include some food and beverage.

How much interest has there been from players not in WTT – and are you able to accommodate them?

We had a great roster before the pandemic hit, it was a great line-up. I would say that other than the top players – Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams… – we’ve had calls from nearly every agent of all the others to come to play. A few of them are from international countries so they’re not exactly sure what the rules and regulations will be in terms of traveling to the US. But also many of them have stayed in the US as many came for Indian Wells [which was canceled in early March] and never left.

We’re trying to figure it out. We’ve talked about holding an interim draft and bringing in some of those players into the teams as extra players. You could launch a 10th team but I think that’s a more complicated scheduling thing with our television partners than if we added, say, one player to each team, which would be nine extra players.

More likely, we’ll likely add players to existing teams because in part none of these players, apart from a few instances, have had any competitive play. Now they are going to come in and even though our sets are a little shorter, players will be serving the ball harder and running faster than in practice so it could be beneficial to have more players as people have to get through 14 regular-season matches.

Since the announcement have you had an influx of interest from companies looking to sponsor the event?

There has been a lot of interest over the past few weeks but now that we’ve announced Greenbrier…and indicating that fans are going to be allowed, everyone who said ‘let me know’ is now calling us back saying, ‘let’s talk about opportunities and partnerships.’

How exactly have you been able to increase prize money at a time when money is tight?

We had always planned on doing this before money got tight so we’ve really stuck to our guns to do what we always said we were going to do. We didn’t want to back off of that. We announced the prize money back in November and we wanted to honor the salaries of the players who signed up as well as the prize money. We’ve got a great ownership group and they’ve all supported us in this decision.

What do you think the WTT comeback means for the wider return of tennis globally this year?

The thing about the sports industry is that we all work together but we’re also all competitive. So when I saw a UFC fight happen and the Bundesliga come back and a Nascar race happen, it made me want to come back too. So I know when people have heard that we’re coming back on July 12 on schedule with fans, I’m sure all the sports, including tennis, are thinking, ‘Well, if World TeamTennis can do it, we can figure it out.’

In sports and in life, we’re all a bit competitive so I hope [our comeback] does help pull us along. One of the things we wanted to do in coming back is that we want to show everyone that we can go to a place and be safe and stage our season in a modified format but it will still be complete and still be real.

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