Team tennis, staging a return, looks much fitter

A spinoff of World Team Tennis, which folded two years ago because of financial and other problems, is back in a much safer hour-team format in 1981, with expansion plans already in the works for 1982.

Team Tennis (its current name) is the brainchild of Larry King, league president, who has established four franchises -- all in California. They are the Los Angeles Strings, San Diego Friars, California Oranges, and Oakland Breakers, of which Larry's wife, Billie Jean King, is player- coach.

This year's season runs for only three weeks (July 7-26), with total prize money of $300,000. Each team carries a minimum of four players, two men and two women, although an owner may add two local alternates if he thinks they might have crowd appeal.

Teams play each other 12 times, six at home and six on the road, featuring one set each of men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles, and mixed doubles.

Play is on Sport-eze, a rubber-backed green court that costs $6,000 and is laid over cement. It provides good bounces and makes for long rallies. No "ad" scoring helps hold down the competition to about 2 1/2 half hours.

Players are not on salary and partly depend on their own personal skills as well as the skills of their team (first place is worth $33,000 for the winning team) to determine how much they make.

For example, if Martina Navratilova, a member of the L. A. Strings, were to win all her league matches, she could earn a high of $56,000, according to King. But if she were to lose every match, she would still come away with $35,000, the minimum.

However, Team Tennis is also protecting its players financially by paying all transportation and hotel costs, food not included. Game officials, like umpires and linesmen, are also paid by the league.

"Even when World Team Tennis went out of the business two years ago, there was still tremendous interest in the concept, especially among the players," King explained. "Finally last January, after I had lined up four investors, I printed up an entry blank for Team Tennis and began handing it out at men's and women's tournaments all over the country. Plenty of writers saw me doing this, the players talked about it openly, yet as far as I know not one writer did anything with it."

By March 15, when Team Tennis announced its first player draft, Larry had received the signed entry blanks of 56 players, although only 18 of them were women, who are still in short supply.

The four team owners drew lost out of a hat to see who would draft first, and the winner was Jerry Buss of the L. A. Strings. Buss immediately took Navratilova.

King says there was actually enough interest and financing for eight franchises, but that he preferred to start small.

"What we all wanted was total control of our situation, one that would keep costs down but still give us a quality product," Larry said. "With four teams in California we're all within easy reach of each other. It's also the only sport where men and women compete on the same teams."

"The reason we decided to play our season in July resulted from a survey we remembered taking during the early years of World Team Tennis," he continued. "It showed a 40 percent increase in attendance all over the league in the 30 days following Wimbledon, and we wanted to take advantage of this."

King says the break-even point for the four franchises this year is 2,500 customers a game. The Strings, who began play with more than 1,000 season ticket holders at between $6 and $15, are probably going to show a slight profit , mostly because their gate sale has also been good.

But the three other franchises, according to King, are expected to lose between $35,000 and $50,000 a piece. Nevertheless Team Tennis will be adding four new teams in 1982.

New franchises coming in will represent Dallas; Houston; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Chicago.The league will sign a total of 32 players for its eight teams (again, two men and two women per team), with each city playing seven home and seven road matches during the month of July.

Prize money for next year's four weeks of play has been increased to $700,000 , and players will also be able to add to their incomes from an all-star game and postseason playoff.

King says a recent survey shows that 52 percent of Team Tennis customers are women and that the average income of season ticket holders is $35,000 a year.

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