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Thursday, December 14, 2006
Updated: December 22, 8:55 AM ET
Remembering Lamar Hunt

Lamar Hunt, arguably the most influential entrepreneur in what is now looking like the golden age of pro sports (from the 1960s through the end of the last century), has died in Dallas, at age 74, due to complications from prostate cancer. He was, in many ways, the epitome of the hard-nosed, humble, American businessman with his sleeves rolled up. The guy was worth billions, but he flew tourist, bought his suits off the rack and showed great deference to all men, great and small.

Hunt will be remembered as a founder of the American Football League and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, entities that eventually merged with the NFL. In fact, Hunt came up with the name "Super Bowl" (sound familiar?), when the game was conceived as the premerger AFL vs. NFL championship game for pro football bragging rights.

But despite Hunt's Everyman ways and manner and his abiding love for football, he was also an international sports visionary. In 1967 he created the first organized pro tennis tour (World Championship Tennis), and in 1968 he helped bring pro soccer to the United States with his Dallas Tornado of the old North American Soccer League. In both cases, he helped put sports little-known in the American mainstream on the radar for entrepreneurs and fans alike. We'll focus on the tennis part.

If you're a tennis fan wondering why the calendar is such a chaotic, overcrowded mess, here's one intriguing thing to contemplate: Anticipating the explosive growth of tennis in the Open era (professional players were barred from playing in the major tournaments until 1968), Hunt founded WCT, a tour built -- albeit loosely -- on the NFL and Major League Baseball models. He was enamored with tennis pioneers like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, ESPN tennis commentator Cliff Drysdale and other old-school players, and he persuaded a group of them (known as the "Handsome Eight") to sign contracts to play under the WCT banner.

Although the format changed slightly over the years, the basic idea of WCT remained the same: create a series of tournaments linked under the WCT brand, put the players under contract to take part (although the tournaments were for prize money), and end each season with the equivalent of a playoffs for the top performers -- an event that came to be known as the WCT Finals. In fact, one of the two seminal tennis matches of the Open era (along with the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs throw-down) was the 1972 WCT Finals championship match between Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall; the match, seen by 21 million viewers, was a flash point of the tennis boom.

You might have thought that the Lords of Tennis, huddled in their individual fiefdoms of Wimbledon, the French Open and other national enclaves, would have welcomed this sensible approach to bringing order to the frontier. Instead, they saw WCT and Hunt as a major threat. (It was not mere paranoia: this was the family that will also be known for having tried to corner the world silver market.) If WCT became the tennis equivalent of the NFL, it would, over time, challenge the ascendancy of the Grand Slams and the governing body of the game, the International Tennis Federation (the WCT season never overlapped with the major tournaments, but never mind).

Better to have dozens of lesser, independent tournaments answering to our guys (the ITF), the Lords reasoned, each a getting a small piece of the action.

Ultimately, a coalition of anti-Hunt forces (many of them in uneasy alliances that make Middle Eastern politics seem transparent) successfully killed WCT. Then they started to kill each other, with outstanding carnage all around. What's left, though, in what is now the ATP Tour, is a shadow of the WCT model -- but one lacking the discipline, central authority, continuity and streamlined organization that Hunt brought to tennis. If this were a movie, you could call it Once Upon a Time in Wild, Wild Tennis.

I knew Lamar. He always returned my calls, and he listened as patiently and carefully as he spoke. He created great events that featured a classy aura along with professional integrity. Hunt was a remarkably self-effacing man who loved tennis and brought to it a powerful organizational instinct.

Ask yourself if you wish tennis were more -- or less -- like the NFL, presented on an international platform. How you answer will tell you all you need to know about the opportunity the game missed.

Send in a question for Peter Bodo's next chat, Wednesday, Jan. 3 at 1 p.m.