By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008
What started as a small river running through the VIP hospitality tent has now become a seeping, splashy mess. It's a Wednesday night, the final match of the first season of the city's newest professional sports franchise -- the Washington Kastles. Team tennis. (No, not table tennis, team tennis!) They're named for an alarm system company; they play on a temporary court on the filled-in hole where the old convention center once stood; it's their first season, okay?
Just before the men's doubles event -- before guests even got to see visiting player Anna Kournikova play, or do whatever it is that she does in that small skirt -- the rain began.
Drops, then buckets, then sheets, until the match was halted, and the tent for the fancy people was opened to the 200 or so fans who chose to wait out the water. The plastic roof is sagging, looks like it could go at any minute.
A blonde in a strapless top marches over to a tan guy in a dark suit.
"I'm wet," she says, pouting.
"Ah," he says, politely. Before he can think of a solution to her particular problem, a man in glasses and a sci-fi T-shirt has another question: If the match gets moved to the indoor bubble at Hains Point, what time will it start, and is there any parking, and will there be refunds if Kournikova doesn't play?
In your other rich-boy franchises, say your Dan Snyder Redskins or your Ted Leonsis Caps, there would be some announcer type dealing with these logistics, some efficient customer-service PR type, who should be handing out maps and Kastles ponchos, and deciding whether to unplug the electrical equipment now or wait until the match is officially canceled.
But everyone is coming to this guy in the suit, otherwise known as Mark Ein, otherwise known as the multimillionaire owner of the newly minted Kastles, named after Kastle Systems, which Ein purchased last year.
He makes some decisions, then gets on a mike to let everyone know. The match is going to Hains Point. It will start in about 45 minutes. "We're going to make lemonade out of lemons," Ein says, more than once.
Ponchos for everyone!
People start to make desperate dashes for their cars, but Ein stays on the raised platform, overseeing the exodus.
"I feel like I'm the captain of the ship," he says, "and I should be the last to leave."
Yes. When, in the span of six months, you purchase a team for a sport no one's ever heard of and build a stadium in the middle of a parking lot in downtown Washington, you are the captain. You are also the first mate, cruise director, deckhand and the team's biggest cheerleader.
* * *
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a sports team.
On the usual list of desirable franchises for a man of means to purchase, World TeamTennis is near the -- well, actually, it is unclear whether the WTT is even on the list of desirable sports franchises.
It's been around at a professional level for nearly 30 years but has just 11 teams nationwide, and one of those teams is in Springfield, Mo. The rules (different from traditional matches) and the vibe (raucous cheering encouraged) are baffling to newcomers. Not every team makes it: The Houston Wranglers folded last year.
Generally, it works like this: A bunch of talented pro players you've never heard of take time in July to make some extra cash and get some exposure. Because average folks don't typically want to shell out good money to see people they've never heard of, each team also gets a "marquee" player, who is required to play only a portion of the matches.
Career- and talent-wise, marquee players are all over the map, ranging from peak (Serena Williams) to passe (John McEnroe) to useless but hot (Anna Kournikova). Because average folks still might not shell out good money (tickets start at $40) for a sport that does not involve cheerleaders, the WTT has added: 1) cheerleaders; 2) a halftime show, involving Wii tennis tournaments and fan games; 3) the "We Will Rock You" headbanging soundtrack prevalent at most football and basketball games.
On court, players range from seeming juiced by the attention to deeply saddened by the state of their sport.
A person who takes on the endeavor of owning this enterprise should have the resources and desire to live and breathe tennis for the duration of the season, which is, granted, only three weeks long.
Ein, 43, is an uber-businessman who appears in the society pages of Capitol File and Washington Life. He has a vaguely familiar name and an unremarkable face that you feel somehow inadequate for not recognizing. His friends are other businessmen with their own sports teams, like Leonsis and Wizards co-owner Raul Fernandez.
Ein captained his tennis team at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He's played pro-am tournaments. Studied finance at Penn, had a stint at Goldman Sachs, then earned an MBA at Harvard. He became a principal at the Carlyle Group during those last heady days in the late '90s, when a person's net worth was like a parade -- six figures, seven figures, marching on to eight! In 1999, he went out on his own and started Venturehouse Group, an investor in XM Satellite Radio. In 2002, he decided to buy the R Street mansion of the late Katharine Graham, which had been listed for $8.35 million. His Capital Acquisition Corp. completed a $262.5 million initial public offering last November.
One of these days, he says, he'll move in to that house; the plans have all been drawn up, two sets of them. He's been busy, mostly with business but also with charity, with the National Gallery of Art and the SEED Foundation, and then the NIH foundation and Federal City Commission. He sits on the board of the Tennis Center at College Park. When a tennis pal mentioned World TeamTennis to Ein, and when he hit it off with WTT founder Billie Jean King, he had a vision:
"It was like 'Field of Dreams.' It was like, if you build it, they will come." So he did. The franchise fee was $100,000, and the WTT's Rosie Crews estimates that the annual operating costs for a major market team range from $600,000 to $1 million-plus. That figure includes salaries for those marquee players, who may get up to $75,000 per night.
In came 2,000 tons of concrete to level out the parking lot at 11th and H streets NW. On went the players' draft, in which Serena Williams was tapped to be the Kastles' marquee player.
The stadium is built on the concrete expanse that used to hold the convention center, and then a parking lot, and then an arty parking lot with crushed glass sidewalks and fake grass. It cost $1.3 million; the city kicked in $200,000. As WTT locations go, this spot is apparently a big coup: "I've played in baseball diamonds and cow pastures," says Murphy Jensen, a Tennis Channel host who played on several WTT teams before retiring. "I've played next to the world's fattest pig at a fair. Honestly, this is the best stadium I've ever been to."
Kastles employees (and many summer interns) swarm at every match, ready to be of the slightest assistance, but you get the sense that if Ein could, he would do everything himself.
"He's a big person," says his dad, renowned allergist Daniel Ein.
"He's committed," says his mom, Marion Ein Lewin, who adds that she wishes her son would get married.
"He's passionate," says Fernandez.
Says the Kastles' coach, Thomas Blake, "He's obsessed."
Gets on the court to play with the team every day. Arranged a feature on the Tennis Channel, and tea at the New Zealand Embassy (player Sacha Jones is a Kiwi). Cheers like crazy at every match.
He will make you love World TeamTennis.
"We were just talking," says Ein, in the VIP alley outside the VIP tent on another match night, "about whether there are any consumer businesses where John could get involved."
"John" is John McEnroe, the marquee player for the New York Sportimes. As part of their three-week moneymaking spree, marquee players are contractually obligated to attend news conferences, to offer youth clinics and to hobnob with bigwigs before the event, which is how it happens that Ein is introducing McEnroe and his agent, Gary Swain, to William Walton, the CEO of Kastles sponsor Allied Capital.
McEnroe is into promoting "healthy, active-living" things, says Swain.
"Like Clif Bars?" Walton wants to know. Allied has a stake in Clif Bars.
With that connection made, Ein looks for the next piece of business to oversee.
Another match, another night. After mixed doubles he springs out of his chair, quickstepping his way around the stadium and greeting the people who must be greeted.
"Hey!" to Laurent Menoud, the maitre d' of Cafe Milano. The team is thinking dinner there after the match. Got a table? Good.
Hey to the guys from the Pappas Group, brand identity firm/team sponsor. Can they get some match footage up on the Web site? Awesome.
Hey to Russ Thaler, local Comcast sports host, and Hey to some guy named Matt, who works with some guy named Paul. Remember him? Of course.
Hey to Ein's personal trainer, who sits as a guest in the owner's box directly across the court from Gene Samburg, CEO of Kastle Systems. (The reporter, slightly dizzy at this point, wonders: And Kastle Systems does what again? Later, a clue on the firm's Web site: "Our in-depth knowledge of the lower mainland means that our false alarm call-out rate is significantly lower than that of our major competitors." Gotcha.)
So, what does the trainer think of player Scott Oudsema's serve? Whew, right? Hey to Ken Brody, former Goldman Sachs chairman and Ein mentor, who himself financed the construction of the Junior Tennis Champions center in College Park. Brody and Ein chat until both receive e-mails. Then they BlackBerry in silence, side by side.
Hey to Elaine Freeman, executive director of the United States Tennis Association's Mid-Atlantic region. She's got a great publicity idea thing! Is Ein already a member of the USTA? Because if he's not, then they could get a photo of him signing up, right at the booth over there. He is already a member. Oh. Well, is Ein a lifetime member of the USTA? He is not. Quick, someone find an assistant to find the photographer, and everyone meet at the booth in five.
Celebrity guests on various nights include Mayor Adrian Fenty and Wizards' player Gilbert Arenas, but most of those in attendance have paid $40 for a bleacher seat, and spend the match getting used to the idea of doing the wave after a good serve.
Ein is equally genial to everyone (Are you having a good time? Isn't this great?), which is probably why everyone thinks they can ask for something:
Can I have a free racquet for my son? A poncho? A T-shirt?
"Can I take the vodka?" Samburg, the CEO, asks during the Sunday match. A bottle of Ciroc sits on the white tablecloth of every VIP table.
"I think it's a prop," says Ein. "But sure, you can have it if you want."
Everyone loves a freebie.
On another night, Ein gives Leonsis a tour of the stadium, including the VIP tents in the back where everyone eats free Chipotle.
A middle-aged woman approaches. She gives her name. Ein and Leonsis smile. She says she works for a theater. Ein and Leonsis smile. She says she just-needs-$2-million-to-make-this-theater-accessible-for-people-with-disabilities-and-it's-really-a-very-good-cause . . .
Ein laughs nervously, gently steering Leonsis away from the conversation that went so quickly off the rails.
"It's like that new Facebook thing," says Leonsis cheerfully. "Thanks for friending me. Can I have a million dollars?"
The rich have very different Facebooks from you and me.
* * *
Anna Kournikova is turning out to be somewhat of a problem. First, she needed Ein's driver, Harry, to make a separate trip to ferry her to the indoor rain site. Second, she's playing really badly.
While playing women's doubles, she chomps on a gigantic wad of gum, half-heartedly flicking her racket in the direction of the ball, missing more often than making contact, and looking like she'd rather not break a sweat.
This could be disastrous. No one paid good money, braved the rain and trekked to Hains Point to watch Kournikova be surly.
But then something happens. The fans do not care about Anna Kournikova. Instead, they are cheering for the home team: Jones and Mashona Washington, who score point after point after point.
Ein, the king of the Kastles, looks satisfied.