November 16, 2020

By  – Staff Reporter, San Francisco Business Times

Aiming to score big-ticket Bay Area sponsors, a sports marketing agency is assembling a bid to host a Covid-limited bubble season for a pro tennis league co-founded by Billie Jean King.

World TeamTennis is gathering bids over the next month to host its second season in a single quarantined location — like the National Basketball Association and other leagues did for their playoffs this season — rather than teams traveling between their namesake cities. Sites in Florida, Texas, West Virginia and Las Vegas also are expected next month to submit bids to the WTT, and league officials expect to make decision on a home for the 15-day July season between the end of this year or mid-January.

The Bay Area bid — led by Pivot Agency, a sports marketing firm in Alamo that also plans to launch a WTT franchise in the Bay Area in 2022 — is kind of a long shot against regions that already have hosted large-scale sporting events during the Covid pandemic. The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, for example, hosted WTT’s 2020 season, the NBA’s bubble was at Walt Disney World in Florida and Major League Baseball’s World Series was played exclusively at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

The Bay Area bid won’t even have a venue picked before it is submitted, though Pivot CEO Ben Shapiro said it could land at Oakland Arena or Chase Center in San Francisco. “In the worst-case scenario, we could have an outdoor venue of a couple thousand (fans),” he said. “We have more time to decide on a venue.”

Yet Shapiro and WTT CEO Carlos Silva said the Bay Area’s potential to attract well-known, deep-pocketed sponsors to the league and the new Bay Area franchise could be a game changer.

The size of the Bay Area’s pledged corporate sponsorships will be a “deciding factor” in whether to bring the season to the region, Silva said. At least $1 million in corporate sponsorships is a break-even point for the season, Shapiro said.

“With all the blue-chip brands in the Bay Area, there are multiple opportunities,” Shapiro said.

The WTT tournament would be one of a handful of smaller sporting events that have looked beyond politically contentious events, such as the Super Bowl, America’s Cup and Olympic bids, to secure sports tourism dollars for the Bay Area. The San Francisco Giants and San Francisco Travel hosted the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2018, for example, and the pandemic-delayed PGA Championship was played this summer at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Shapiro is counting heavily on a sales pitch that centers on WTT’s history, a sense of corporate responsibility and the Bay Area’s passion for tennis. WTT is the only pro league in which women and men play on the same team, which Shapiro said could play to the Bay Area’s commitment to diversity and equality. Plus, he said, the 40,000-member Northern California chapter of the United States Tennis Association is the second-largest chapter and is writing a letter to the WTT in support of the bid.

What’s more, Shapiro said bringing the league tournament to the Bay Area could be a boost for hotels, restaurants and retailers hit by restrictions during the pandemic that has infected more than 11.1 million Americans and killed nearly a quarter million.

But Covid surges, the lack of a broadly available vaccine until at least mid-2021 and California’s quick-changing reaction to increasing Covid caseloads could wreak havoc with an event heavily dependent on ticket and merchandise sales.

“I tell everyone that the best asset we can have is to stay light on our feet,” Silva said. “Florida and Texas are obviously on the short list. They’ve got a 45-day jump on planning cycles, but things have changed there as well.”

WTT, which this season attracted pro players such as U.S. Open winners Sloane Stephens and Kim Clijsters, Gold Medal winner Monica Puig, twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan and Venus Williams, is closely watching how the Golden State Warriors execute their Covid-testing plan for fans this season. If successful, that testing scheme could allow 18,000-seat Chase Center to be at half-capacity for games that start in late December.

“It’s a great market,” Silva said. “Southern California was an option (for the 2020 season), but it was removed because of what was going on (with Covid restrictions), so that’s why we picked West Virginia.”

The corporate sponsorships also serve as a proof-point for Pivot’s long-term tennis ambitions. The 6-year-old agency launched its tennis division late last year to sell experiences and hospitality packages while working with tennis stars Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi on endorsements.

But then Covid hit as WTT launched its all-star weekend in mid-March in Southern California with Pivot as a small sponsor. The agency expanded its work with WTT to increase sponsorship revenue, especially around the quarantined 2020 season in West Virginia and to identify groups for West Coast expansion.

The Covid-limited season meant 25% capacity at a 3,500-person Greenbrier tennis stadium but produced 2 million viewers for the WTT finals on CBS.

By the end of the summer, WTT picked Pivot Agency to lead a Northern California team that plays off the roots of the San Francisco Golden Gaters that played in the WTT in the early 1970s. Instead of starting the franchise during Covid, Shapiro and WTT opted to launch in 2022 while using a 2021 bubble season potentially in the Bay Area as a bridge.

WTT has ambitions of its own as well. League cofounder and tennis legend Billie Jean King sold her majority stake in the league in 2017 to ServiceNow founder Fred Luddy and venture capitalist Mark Ein, owners of WTT franchises in San Diego and Washington, respectively, who installed Silva as CEO last year with plans to expand. The nine-team league has added franchises in Chicago, Las Vegas and Orlando over the past three years.

World TeamTennis play is different than traditional tournaments: Two men and two women play on the same team, battling in single-set matches of men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles and mixed doubles. The first team to reach five games wins a set, with that single point added into the team’s cumulative score.

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