90 Second Interview: Donald Dell Gets Deals Done #CitiOpen

Dell doesn't pull punches

After the formalities of the press conference detailing the CitiOpen merger/acquisition of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic had concluded yesterday, I wanted to talk one-on-one with former U.S. Davis Cup Captain, current super-agent and Tournament Director Donald Dell. He’s spent forty years marketing the game, and he’s the yin to the yang of former law partner and tennis statesman Ray Benton, who I interviewed two months ago. After our brief discussion on the roof of the W Hotel in Washington, D.C., I’m inclined to buy anything he’s selling. I’m sold on the notion of a joint tournament, and I think the WTA is in very good hands.

I began by asking him where pro tennis stands today.

They just announced yesterday that three new sponsors came in this week for the summer tour. BB&T just announced for Atlanta. Yesterday, the insurance company in Cincinnati just extended for another five years. And we brought Citi in, so three of the top six tournaments just had big new sponsors. There’s a really big rebirth.

Is this a sign that the US Open Series could be considered a success?

“A month ago, I would have to said to you, ‘it’s scrambling’, but today we’ve announced three news sponsors”, he said. “It’s been a while, and the support is welcome.”

Donald Dell gets Deals Done

What happened with CitiOpen getting a late start out of the gate last year in terms of visibility, despite the best efforts of his firm, Lagardere Unlimited, and the host, Tennis Center at College Park?

I’m not making this up. This was the first time Citi had done tennis. Their lawyers in New York were very cautious, and we didn’t get final approval for the logo and the advertising until eight days before the first ball was hit. We couldn’t announce it and couldn’t promote it, and a tournament can’t survive that way.  This year, Citi was fully on board, not just for the women’s event, but to take over the title sponsorship of the men’s event too.  So, we had a deal. We’re out starting promoting this (year’s CitiOpen) tomorrow.  And we have a few months this time. If we didn’t get that (the timely contract), we wouldn’t be doing it. We couldn’t be doing it. But without a title sponsor, the tournament would have a difficult time surviving. 

 

The CitiOpen runs from July 28-August 5 and the official website is citiopentennis.com.

–S. Fogleman

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Today’s CitiOpen Press Conference, Q&A #DC #CitiOpen


 

It was a beautiful day to be perched on the biggest rooftop in all of the Nation’s Capital–the W Hotel Roof Bar and Ballroom. Directly adjacent from the White House, it has kept the eyes of watchful Secret Service agents on the VIP-neighboring rooftop very busy for many years. Today, the eyes were on tennis in Washington, and like all gossip in this town, the major details had crept out before the announcement was officially made.

The ATP Event Formerly Known As Legg Mason Tennis Classic (TATPEFKALMTC) is now CitiOpen. What’s more, the WTA event known as CitiOpen is also coming to D.C., ending a one year run only twenty minutes away in College Park, Maryland.

The old Grandstand, behind the main stadium, will be upgraded and a second Grandstand show court with 2,500 seats will be added at the north (entrance) end of the Rock Creek Park facility.

As you can see from the Q&A conducted by 2012 Tournament Director (and no introduction needed) Donald Dell, you are assured that:

* Parking will not be affected during construction

* Practice Courts will continue to be open for public viewing

* Ticket prices for this year will probably not go up

* No Hawk Eye on Grandstand for now, as that requires a Jumbotron for fan engagement

* No set plans to use the Washington Kastles Stadium at the Wharf in D.C., but not ruling it out

Jeff Newman, ATP Tournament Director

After the conference, we spoke briefly with 2011 ATP Legg Mason Tournament Director, Jeff Newman, on the long-term sustainability of the CitiOpen from the WTA perspective.

“We know what the public wants, and we feel we’re meeting that demand. We really feel we’ve added a great deal of value to the event for 2012, so hopefully over time that is going to elevate the tournament”, he said.

Will the fact that an established ATP event is already taking place on the grounds help the WTA side of the tournament?

“I think so. If you look at the demographics of tennis fans, it’s 50/50 men and women. It will clearly help us get more fans.”

Drip, Drip, Drip: More Details Leak on Citi’s Acquisition of Legg Mason #DC

Woodward, Berenstain and the Leaks

I’m no Woodward, nor am I a Bernstein. I’m more like a Berenstain Bear, and these leaks from Washington are hitting me right in the head. The latest confirmation of the Legg Mason Tennis Classics metamorphosis comes not from a journalist, but from the ball person coordinator for the tournament.

In an email sent to Legg Mason tournament volunteers in the wee hours of this morning, the Ball Person Chair noted that “the site will be rearranged with Grandstand being where the north practice courts have been for years and will be constructed to fit a larger capacity than the old Grandstand court. In conjunction with this change, they will be paving over a row of the clay courts, making them hard courts, which may be where they put the practice courts. However, we won’t get the official word on the site change until it gets closer to tournament time.”

The email also promises “many new surprises that are unfolding as we get closer to the tournament.”

RIP LMTC 1993-2011

I, for one, can’t take any more surprises. As a Marylander and a tennis fan, this has been a rough week. The State lost the CitiOpen WTA event, lost the naming rights of a Baltimore-based corporation with an 18-year history at the DC ATP event, lost a pro training facility in Howard County, and lost a full week of tennis for fans. As one who covered both of last years pro tennis events in the DC area, it was exhausting. Now, local bloggers will get to spend an extra week poolside this summer. But it’s not about the bloggers, is it? It’s about the fans. The more I think about it, it is lost tennis opportunity. It would be better for fans to have two weeks worth of Orders of Play to catch more matches. It’s TOO MUCH VACATION!

If the event thrives, it will all be worth it. I think.

Just in case all the news fit to print hasn’t already leaked out, you can expect live tweets from @TennisEastCoast this afternoon beginning at 12:30 p.m. from the W Hotel in Washington. Also, @KelynSoong will be tweeting for Tennis Grandstand. I’m excited to see what the W folks have done to the old Hotel Washington, where my grandfather worked as a busboy on the rooftop restaurant in the 1940s. With all these leaks, though, you’d think the Watergate would have been better-suited for the event.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the US Open Member pre-sale starts in 45 minutes.

–S. Fogleman

CitiOpen and the Inevitable, Imminent Invite to DC; Tuesday Presser Called #ATP #WTA #DC

Rock Creek could be co-ed for years to come

The working title for DC’s pro tennis tournament is…
“Leggs and the Citi”!

CitiOpen, Maryland’s first professional tournament in decades, is on the verge of announcing a move across the border from College Park to Northwest Washington. The signs have been pointing in that direction for the WTA for some time.

In February, this blog broke the news that CitiOpen would not return to the Tennis Center at College Park. With the Olympics scheduled for the same period as CitiOpen, there was some concern that it would be held at all. TCCP CEO Ray Benton opined at the time that it would probably end up in DC alongside Legg Mason, and it appears that the Tennis Statesman knew exactly what he was talking about. Late last year, the WTA international event was set for the same main draw starting date, July 30, as the ATP’s Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington. 

Last week, I noted on twitter that the Troy Park Tennis Center in Elkridge, Maryland, which was once touted as a future permanent home for CitiOpen, had been axed as another victim of local budget cuts.

On Friday, Lynn Berenbaum reported from twitter handle @LynnLovesTennis that the Legg Mason twitter account changed last week from @LeggMasonTennis to @DCATPTennis. Of course, that news by itself could simply imply that the title sponsor had backed out.

When you factor in that CitiOpen recently changed its handle to @WTACitiOpen, you realize that it must be far more than a coincidence that these two events simultaneously decided to add the acronyms of the respective tennis governing bodies in their twitter names. It wasn’t done to pay respect to the WTA and ATP. It was almost certainly done to distinguish accounts for a separate men’s and women’s tournament in the same locale.

Why, then, would the smaller CitiOpen keep its name and the larger Legg Mason change theirs?

Also on Friday’s feed, @WTAToday noted a Tuesday press conference at the W Hotel in Washington. The advisory for the presser advises us to expect “an announcement that will change the nature of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic – D.C.’s ATP World Tour 500 event – now and in the future”. In addition to the ATP’s Mark Young, Lagardere exec and former US Davis Cup Captain Donald Dell will be there. His company effectively owns CitiOpen. I wouldn’t worry about a new sponsor for the “DC ATP 500″, since a Legg Mason rep is scheduled to speak. Finally, “a high level executive from a leading global company” will be on hand. Occupy Wall Street BFF Citigroup falls into that category.

So, there you have it. DC gets a joint event. Elementary, my dear @HeatherWatson92.

While twitterers had it right first, it was reassuring to have Daniel Kaplan of the Sports Business Journal confirm it this morning. It’s a merger. It will all be called “CitiOpen” now. The larger Citigroup has indeed swallowed smaller financial services sponsor Legg Mason, at least for pro tennis purposes.

This should work wonders for fans and the sport. Last year, CitiOpen backed right up to Legg Mason on the calendar, meaning a die-hard tennis fan needed two weeks and three weekends in a row to take it all in. A joint tournament will ensure an exciting and compact event. Legg Mason and Rock Creek Park is well-known as the place that regional tennis fans flock each August. By contrast, attendance at CitiOpen in College Park was highly disappointing. As Tennis Center at College Park’s Ray Benton told Tennis East Coast in January, “it didn’t work”.

Though I am a proud Marylander, the disappointment that the Free State will not play host to a pro tournament is mitigated by the idea that the DC/MD/VA area could sustain a successful WTA international level event for years to come. I’ll miss the Legg Mason designation, but it doesn’t matter what they call it as long as it remains in tennis perpetuity.

–S. Fogleman

Meet Our New Correspondent

2010 Legg Mason Kid's Day, Washington

We’re pleased to introduce Annabel, Tennis Maryland’s newest contributor. Annabel has been a tennis fan since she attended the Rogers Cup ATP event in Montreal, Canada on her first birthday in 2009, watching Novak Djokovic win on Court Banque National and Andy Roddick prosper at Stade Uniprix.

She followed that experience with a debutante appearance at Legg Mason Kid’s Day in 2010 and a return visit to Montreal, this time for the WTA event.



Around this time, Annabel’s mom put her tennis foot down and declared that Annabel ought never to be seated in the front row at a pro match for reasons involving the child prodigy’s then-inability to keep quiet. Imagine!

Thereafter, Annabel’s involvement in the game has exclusively involved tournament Kid’s Days (Washington, Newport, CitiOpen), annual pilgrimages to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Wii Grand Slam play and on-court Quikstart instruction. She even took a lesson from Sebastien Decoud last summer.

Though she’ll only be contributing on a part-time basis, you can expect full-court coverage from this li’l Jimmy Olsen. Her first product review will appear on the site tomorrow.

From Grassroots to Boardrooms: Ray Benton is a Statesman for the Game

TCCP/JTCC Chief Ray Benton

 
by Steve Fogleman, TennisMaryland.com
 
When I arrived at the Tennis Center at College Park to speak with its CEO, Ray Benton, he was finishing up a lesson with former U.S. Congresswoman Jane Harman.  He’d agreed to speak with me after the practice and he was still stretching when our conversation began. I admit that at first I was bemused by the notion of a crossroads of  politics and tennis. You don’t see that every day. But for tennis statesman Ray Benton, it was business as usual. He’s as comfortable on court with children as he is in the halls of power in Washington. Legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to repeatedly insist that all “politics is local”. Witnessing the VIP lessons he’s giving and the expansive, state-of-the-art tennis training facility he’s managing (largely funded by the former Chairman of the US Export-Import Bank), you realize that Benton is the embodiment of O’Neill’s mantra. Benton’s career arc has taken him from local to national to international and now, to some degree, back to local tennis. With that breadth of experience, he brings with him the uncanny ability to cultivate a major-league presence even in the deepest of grassroots tennis.
 

His office substantially resembles the International Tennis Hall of Fame in miniature. The walls of his paper-piled workspace are adorned with posters and photos from tennis events from the last forty years. With all of his energy, it is difficult to believe he is 71. He still competes in senior tournaments “when my body’s working”, he said.

Benton is an Iowa native who moved to Washington in 1971. He started playing the game at 15 and “really took to it right away”. Later, he spent two years with the Iowa Hawkeye team in Big Ten play. While attending college, law school and a year of business school, he worked in the summer as the tennis pro at Dubuque Country Club in Dubuque, Iowa. He was brought in to start a tennis program at a “golf wacko club where tennis was a nuisance”. It had “two broken-down courts and 35 tennis playing club members”. He was up for the challenge, and within a few years, Benton had installed six lighted courts, attracted 500 players and even trained 20 state-ranked juniors there. “That’s when I figured out maybe I should be in the business”.

 
Even after he was drafted and sent to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama in 1966, he managed to stay active in the game, serving as head pro at the Gadsden and Anniston Country Clubs and varsity coach for Jacksonville State University in Alabama.  He then spent a couple of years in Colorado running that state’s Youth Tennis Foundation and putting on professional events before Washington called. Then, Benton’s call to DC came to Denver. Through Dubuque.

 
“As I was finishing business school, a guy I knew from Dubuque had hit it big, Bob Lange. He invented the plastic ski boot. I went into business with him to develop the first plastic tennis racquet. We had a prototype and I suggested that we have a tournament in Denver. And in order to get any American players there, I had to talk to the Davis Cup captain named Donald Dell.  We worked together and a year later, I moved here.”
 
Dell was looking for partners in a law firm that would eventually morph into sports management company ProServ years later. During his early days in Washington, he also served as the first National Executive Director of the National Junior Tennis League.
 
From DC, the firm represented big names in tennis like Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Tracy Austin. They also managed top athletes throughout the world of sport, including Michael Jordan, Boomer Esiason, Dave Winfield and Payne Stewart. Yet the firm’s focus stuck with tennis for an important reason.
 
Mark McCormick started IMG and based it around golf and Donald started ProServ around tennis. After all, he was the Davis Cup captain and Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe were on his team.
 
As a law firm, we couldn’t solicit clients. We could write a letter to a company saying ‘I’m writing on behalf of Arthur Ashe to see if you might have interest’. We couldn’t put out a promotional brochure for Arthur, so we started the company Proserv. It was an affiliated marketing company to the law firm. When our firm split in ’83, Donald and I kept the name ProServ and made it the major identity.
 
 
During the nineties, Benton founded the Worldwide Senior Tennis Circuit. He secured more than $35 million in corporate sponsorships at a time when interest in tennis had started to wane. He also saw the events as more than a tournament, but an “entertainment event” with theme nights, contests and celebrity matches.
 

Benton created the Nuveen Tour

After spending most of the last decade doing marketing consulting for clients like the ATP, the PGA, the Vic Braden Tennis Academy and national mentoring advocacy group MENTOR, he was hired as the CEO of the Tennis Center at College Park. Once again, politics and tennis intersected, as banker and Clinton Administration appointee Kenneth Brody needed someone to market the tennis facility he had built in College Park. And he went straight to Benton to market it.
 
So, now that this writer knows he’s talking to the right person for the question, is DC a tennis town?
 
It is, but it needs to regain the stature it once had, and not only Washington, but many other area of the country. Tennis is totally a bottom-up sport. The great majority of energy comes from the grassroots. And that’s what advances tournament play, pro play, collegiate play. Frankly, I think we got lazy in this sport. We had so much momentum, so much success and great stars and I think the leaders of tennis, everyone became deluded that tennis was driven by Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. And the fact of the matter is in the days of Connors, Borg and McEnroe, participation in tennis in the United States decreased. We didn’t develop the next generation of Nick Bollettieris, of Vic Bradens or Dennis Van Der Meer or Peter Burwash. Who are the biggest names of teaching pros these days? Still those guys. If I asked you that same question 35 years ago, you’d have the same answer.
 Benton’s approach to bringing the game back is simple. “A kid should be introduced to tennis the same way they should be introduced to basketball, which is they should have fun, be on a team, and compete the first day. And then they get hooked on the fun. And when they improve, then you offer them instruction. How many kids would play basketball if they were required to take three weeks of dribbling lessons and two weeks of shooting lessons before they were allowed to play the game? You’d have a lot fewer basketball players, wouldn’t you?”
 
 
He’s already building JTCC for the future. “You need leadership from the bottom. We’re going into schools now. We have a program called “Game On”. We’re trying to spread this game as far and wide as we can. We’re working with Prince George’s County Parks. We’ll have five sites in the summer.  I see a lot more highly-ranked kids. I see a lot more inner city stuff. Five years from now, I see a much larger percentage of our kids coming from the inner city. I see considerable expansion here. We can expand. We’ve got room.”
 
As far as accolades the Tennis Center and the Junior Tennis Champions Center have received recently, he’s not wasting any time basking in the glory. “Attention is fine, but substance is what counts. We were very under marketed when I got here. There’s no question about that. One of the main reasons to get your name out is to attract the best athletes and do fundraising, because we’re a non-profit. We depend on it.”
 
 Benton is audibly proud of the hundreds of kids who have been a part of the program. When he talks about the JTCC talent, it’s as if he is the proud grandfather of all of them. You almost expect him to have a photograph of every one of them in his wallet. “Denis Kudla is #184 in the world right now. There are only one or two players younger than him who are ranked higher. Mitchell Frank is excelling at Virginia. Trice (Capra) is at Duke. Skylar Morton graduated from here in three years and is playing very well, #3 or 4 at UCLA. She should be a senior in high school.”
 
Then there’s the next class of Junior Champions. After we spoke about Riverdale’s Frances Tiafoe and Reisterstown’s Yancy Dennis, he was more than ready to talk up the local girls climbing the ladder. “We have a girl named Elizabeth Scotty, who’s 10 and 16th in the country in under 12s. We are really strong in the 14 girls, including three girls from Baltimore, Nadia Gizdova (Columbia, MD), Raveena Kingsley (Parkton, MD) and Jada Robinson (Reisterstown, MD). And next week, we’ll have a girl that is as good as any of them. Usue Arcornada. She’s coming with (longtime JTCC Coach) Frank Salazar. She’s originally from Argentina, but grew up in Puerto Rico. And she is a tiger.”
 
The average age for the students at JTCC to pick up a racquet is “6-ish”, according to Benton.  The journey for a young player at JTCC begins with “Quikstart with a parent, then to intermediate development, advanced development and then they would try like crazy to get into Junior Champs, which is an invitation program. If they’re moving along, by 7 or 8, they should be in the Junior Champs. If they do well in Junior Champs, around age 10 or 11, they should be invited to the Champs program. That’s also an invitation only program. The definition of being invited into the Champs is this: If you’re invited and you do the work, you have every right to expect to do well and play Division I tennis. And so far, that’s exactly what’s happened.”
 
It’s remarkable that a man of his resume would still bring as much energy to marketing the game as he did back at Dubuque Country Club over fifty years ago. He’d already made his name as a pioneer of  the pro circuit long before he came to College Park. The choice that he has made to continue to develop the sport here on a full-time basis renders him an inspiration as well as a pioneer.
 
 
 
 
 

CitiOpen, US Open Wild Card Playoffs Out of College Park for 2012

 
CitiOpen will not return to the Tennis Center at College Park this year, but it will most likely “end up at 16th & Kennedy”, according to TCCP CEO Raymond Benton. Tennis Maryland spoke with him over the weekend about upcoming events at the Center. As far as the CitiOpen in College Park last year was concerned, Benton stated that “it didn’t work here”. Due to the 2012 Summer Olympics, the dates scheduled by WTA for CitiOpen now coincide with the same dates for the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. “That could be a problem”, Benton added.
 
Unfortunately, the Tennis Center will also not be hosting the USTA’s US Open Wild Card Playoffs later this summer. “We were not a good place for it. They wanted us to do it again, but I said no. You’ve got to remember, it came at a terrible time. People were tennis-ed out, people are on vacation.  I did the CitiOpen just to keep the stands up for the Wild Card. I would consider doing the French Open (Wild Card Playoffs) in the future.”, he said.
 
He noted that Sectional Qualifying for the US Open National Playoffs will be held June 2-5 at the Tennis Center and a 14U Boys and Girls National Open there on May 12-14. Finally, Benton noted that “we’re also fairly close to finalizing having a big ITF tournament here in August, the week before the US Open. It’ll be all the top juniors in the world.”