U.S. Tennis Gets a Bailout

Not only does the U.S. economy need a bailout but part of its tennis world does too.

ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament - Day Four

I finally tuned in to TennisTV.com today and checked out some of the matches in Rotterdam. As I was watching Rafael Nadal outlast 478th ranked Grigor Dmitrov in the third set, the first thing I noticed was the net.

It wasn’t the “ATP WORLD TOUR” strung across the net as much as what wasn’t there: the Mercedes Benz logo. I knew that Mercedes Benz had pulled out as an ATP tour-wide sponsor but I didn’t know that the ATP hadn’t found a replacement yet. We were talking about this in comments this week: How will tennis manage during the economic turndown?

The Masters Event in Indian Wells lost its sponsor, Pacific Life, but managed to find a new one in BNP Paribas. That’s rather a curious choice because BNP Paribas is a huge French bank, not an American bank. As far as I know, I can’t waltz into a BNP P local branch in the U.S. and deposit my shrinking paycheck.

BNP P is a huge supporter of tennis. Besides Indian Wells, which will now be known as the BNP Paribas Open, there is also the BNP Paribas Masters – the year end Masters event in Paris. And if you look here, you’ll not only see that it’s a sponsor for Davis Cup, Fed Cup, Roland Garros, Rome and Monte Carlo, but it was also the progenitor for the Ladders.com ad where everyone runs onto the tennis court during the middle of a match. Guillermo Vilas turns up in the BNP P ad but, then, he turns up everywhere.

It turns out that there might be a bit of an economics lesson here. In August of 2007, a year and a half ago mind you, BNP P reported problems with three of its financial funds because of exposure to subprime lending markets in the U.S. The European Central Bank bailed them out of that problem and keep in mind that France has nationalized its banks twice since World War II, once in 1945 and again in 1981.

Those banks are now private again, but as the U.S. bails out its economy, some economists are calling for nationalization of the banks. I’m just sayin’, Europe appears to be ahead of the curve and now they’re stepping in and supporting a tournament that the U.S. can’t support.

BNP P may not have bank branches on U.S. soil but it’s deeply entrenched in U.S. finance. Among other financial institutions, it owns the Bank of the West (sponsor of the WTA event in Stanford), the First Hawaiian Bank, and Mutual of New York – the company that used to reside in that 25 story building in Manhattan with the huge MONY sign on it. MONY demutualized itself in 1998 and in 2004 became a subsidiary of a subsidiary of BNP P.

BNP P may have been rescued from its subprime problem but last week the Wall Street Journal reported that it lost over $430 million in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Maybe it’s a good thing that BNP P is taking over. We couldn’t be doing much worse and at least we’ll learn how to pronounce French even if we can’t speak it.

One more thing I’d like to say about the economic turndown. This year the ATP and WTA rolled out new restrictions on players in exchange for higher prize money. Higher prize money doesn’t look so good now that spending is down and corporate sponsors can’t even use their bailout money to send employees on a Las Vegas junket let alone sponsor a tennis tournament. However, it is a good idea because all of the top players will turn up at the big events else they’ll face a huge fine.

The ATP has also changed its ranking system to give more points to players who reach higher rounds at the bigger tournaments. This means that a player has to do well at slams and Masters events if they want to be in the top ten or top five. No more piling up points at smaller events. Do you hear that Nikolay Davydenko? Let’s see if you drop in the rankings this year.

It also means that the top players will get more rankings points because they do well at slams and the top of the rankings will be more stable. Lower ranked players might not like it because it’s harder to get to the top, but it’s all about marketing top players so tennis has made a smart move.

I’d also like to say something more about Grigor Dimitrov, Nadal’s latest victim, but TennisTV.com has that live streaming problem known as “no going back.” There’s no way to rewind the stream or record the stream. TennisTV.com’s predecessor, ATPMastersSeries.TV, offered replays at $3 a pop, but that adds up and I live on the west coast of the U.S. Those European matches finish around lunchtime so I only caught the end of the third set.

Dimitrov is a 17 year old Bulgarian who won the Wimbledon and U.S. Open junior title last year. He beat Tomas Berdych in the first round at Rotterdam and took Rafa to three sets today in the second round. It’s easy to get carried away with a new talent and the world is littered with athletes who didn’t live up to the hype, so I’m going to keep following Marin Cilic and Ernests Gulbis – and particularly Cilic who’s won two titles this year, and let the young guy Dimitrov toil in anonymity a bit longer.

And tomorrow I’ll try to get home in time to tune in to Rafa versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Tsonga beat Dmitry Tursunov today and is there anyone out there with as sweet a volley as Tsonga? He digs out those dipping balls and turns them into drop volley winners better than anyone I’ve seen since Wimbledon stopped being a grass court and turned into a plain old fast hard court.

If Tsonga is on his game and Rafa outlasts him too, everyone should be very afraid.