Commentary

Helfant ready to bring ATP to next level

At the geriatric age of 44, new ATP executive chairman and president Adam Helfant already commands global cachet and pedigree. Now it's his responsibility to put his imprint on tennis.

Originally Published: January 12, 2009
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

It's a measure of new ATP chief Adam Helfant's management style that an accomplished man almost 30 years his senior would affectionately refer to him as "a teacher … the best leader I've ever had."

Helfant hired George Raveling -- who had a distinguished career as a college basketball coach at several schools, including the University of Iowa and USC -- as global director of basketball marketing at Nike in 2003. Raveling reported to Helfant, then vice president for global marketing for the sports apparel behemoth, for the next four years.

"He's at his absolute best when the heat is on and the issues become complex," Raveling, 71, said in a phone interview Monday.

Adam Helfant
ESPN.com IllustrationAdam Helfant is considered a tough negotiator, but fair-minded also.

"Adam is a really bright person who doesn't try to beat you over the head with his intellect. His style of criticism was to let you know, in a very subtle way, that there might be a better way to do things. No one ever questioned his judgment, and people still quote him around Nike."

The 44-year-old Helfant, a father of two, completed the requirements for an MIT engineering degree in 3½ years, went on to Harvard Law School and was briefly in private practice before working for the National Hockey League's legal department. He rose through the ranks at Nike quickly, mentored by global marketing guru Ian Todd, and left the company in late 2007 for undisclosed reasons.

Raveling, who still works in the same position at Nike, said he wept when Helfant called to tell him he was resigning. "There wasn't a dry eye in a room full of adults at his goodbye party," Raveling said.

The ATP World Tour formally announced Helfant's appointment, effective immediately, as executive chairman and president Monday. He succeeds former Disney executive Etienne de Villiers of South Africa and, like de Villiers, will work out of the organization's London office.

Helfant's cachet as a former top executive with one of the world's biggest and best-known brands certainly enhanced his appeal to the power brokers in one of the world's most multicultural sports organizations. But Helfant also has the very basic negotiating skills essential for the job, according to those who have sat across the table from him.

"He's a pleasure to deal with -- tough, but fair-minded," said NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who said he and Helfant have taken in several U.S. Open matches together from the Nike suite at Arthur Ashe Stadium. "He understands the perspective of individual athletes and brands, but he also understands how individual athletes and brands can add value to a league or an organization like the ATP.

"Adam is used to managing people around the world, and he has extensive Olympic experience, negotiating with leagues and [sports] federations. This will be an opportunity for him to put his imprint on a sport."

Helfant, well aware of the top players' recent dissatisfaction with communication from the top, logged extensive flying time in December to visit with the ATP's top three players on their turf. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic all won seats on the Player Council, an advisory body to the ATP board of directors, and Federer is the council president.

"Suffice to say those meetings went pretty well," said Tony Godsick, Federer's agent and IMG senior vice president. "Roger was very interested in finding someone who is going to take tennis to the next level.

"[Helfant's] biggest challenge -- and I think it's a great one -- is that there are so many great story lines out there in men's tennis right now," Godsick said. "Will Rafa stay No. 1? Will [Andy] Murray win his first Slam? Will Roger break the [Slam] record? So how do you harness this excitement and put it into a package that will sell to fans and sponsors in a very challenging economic environment? Adam knows how to maneuver globally, and he has always wanted to get a deal done that was fair to both parties."

Bob Kain, a former IMG executive who is vice chairman of the NFL's Cleveland Browns, agreed, saying Helfant was regarded as a "win-win" negotiator. "He wasn't trying to squeeze every last dollar out of you," Kain said. "He was intense and aggressive, but in the end, you'd still end up with a good relationship with him. He's filled with integrity."

One of the biggest stars in Nike's tennis stable is Maria Sharapova, and her agent, IMG's Max Eisenbud, has personally negotiated past deals with Helfant. "It's very obvious he's the smartest person in the room," Eisenbud said.

"He's dealt enough with tennis to understand it, and he likes the sport," Eisenbud said. "A lot of people who come from the outside don't understand how fragmented our sport is, that there's a role for the ITF and a role for the USTA and for [management agency] Octagon and IMG, and that's never going to change. One of the reasons [WTA chairman] Larry Scott does such a good job with the WTA is that he understands that and works with it.

"Some people wanted a total outsider for this job, and some wanted a total insider, and they got a nice hybrid with Adam."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.