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Monday, December 8, 2008
ATP's new leader will have to be a follower


Wanted: Chief executive officer for a flourishing multinational business that employs some of the most recognizable celebrities on the planet. Must be willing to travel internationally, dine in the finest restaurants and hobnob with princes, movie stars, heiresses and Tiger Woods. Must enjoy being around athletes and high-profile sporting events (including Wimbledon). Salary is negotiable.

That's roughly how a want ad for the ATP CEO's job might read, but we know the reality lurking beneath the gloss. Let's translate:

Wanted: CEO for a fragmented international business consisting of cutthroat rivals who always seek their self-interests. Senior employees might be intractable and exacting, and often at cross-purposes. Must be willing to travel incessantly and wait for hours in hotel lobbies and restaurant. Must possess a thick skin for absorbing withering criticism from staff and workers. Perks include entrance to Wimbledon player lounge during rain delays.

Now that's more like it. If you're hoping some new messiah will emerge to bring bliss to the ATP and tennis fans worldwide, I have news for you: It ain't gonna happen. That's because no hard-charging boy wonder (or corporate veteran) would want this job. As Etienne de Villiers learned, the ATP tribe is a restless one, constantly bickering and feuding. It is more inclined to burning its leaders at the stake than to adopting the discipline of a highly trained work force that will march toward a better future in lockstep.

There's no point in blaming anyone in particular for this state of affairs, either. The way the pro tour evolved, it simply doesn't lend itself to producing -- or tolerating -- a leader who is either sufficiently inspirational or, more importantly, sufficiently powerful to impose his or her will or vision. The job of the ATP CEO is that of a head negotiator between various constituents that are partners one moment, rivals the next. Basically, it's thankless work.

The ATP could find a contemporary version of Pete Rozelle, hire him tomorrow, and still nothing much would come of it. That's because the game exists in a perpetual state of gridlock. Every tournament is a business unto itself (with attendant rights), and so is every player. Some of the most basic and obvious strategies for improving a business -- downsizing, reducing labor costs, cutting (or increasing) hours of operations, boosting efficiency while holding down costs -- simply aren't available to the ATP CEO. Just look at what it took to deal with the Hamburg-Madrid situation earlier this year.

Like many CEOs, the ATP head honcho answers to a board of directors. But in the case of tennis, that board consists of employees (the players) and representatives of tournaments whose own stake might be imperiled by the kind of maneuverings that a successful CEO might undertake. Thus, the CEO becomes a figurehead whose hands are bound.

I'm predicting that the ATP won't hire a strong visionary leader, because I'm not sure any person who fits that description would want the job. The next CEO will be an "insider" who is most acceptable as a negotiator among self-interested parties. Let's be frank about this: It's a job for an I-dotter and a T-crosser, not a visionary.