At Washington Kastles matches, fans love the action, and the interaction

By Jorge Castillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010; D03

A boisterous sellout crowd of 2,600 cheered loudly and hip-hop blared as Venus Williams danced her way onto a multi-colored tennis court downtown last week for her debut match with the Washington Kastles.

The staid All-England club, with its hushed tones and muted greens and whites, this was not.

Which, World Team Tennis organizers say, is the point. Virtually unknown outside tennis circles, the league has survived for 35 years by offering its fans mixed-gender competition in an unconventional, family-friendly atmosphere.

Marketed much like minor league baseball, it nevertheless has showcased many of the sport's greats in brief seasons that offer tennis in some U.S. cities without a pro tour stop and others starved for more of the sport.

"WTT provides a different player experience than tournament tennis," league co-founder Billie Jean King said in an e-mail interview. "The intimate setting provides closer access and interaction for the players with the fans. These players really like giving back to our sport and it is a big part of what makes our league successful."

Since the league began play in 1974, those players have included King, Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Williams and her sister, Serena, to name a few.

"It's actually really, really, really good preparation as players transition from the European season [mostly played on clay and grass] to the hard court season in the United States," said Washington Kastles owner Mark Ein, whose team has the Williams sisters this season.

The teams are playing 14 matches in 18 days this July, followed by two rounds of playoffs. The matches are divided into five sets -- men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles and mixed doubles. Under the scoring format, every game counts toward a team's final score, so every point and game matters. Each match is usually completed within 2 1/2 hours.

Each team is allowed one "marquee" player per match. In addition to Venus Williams, John McEnroe, Andy Roddick, James Blake and Kim Clijsters will appear this season. Serena Williams had been scheduled to play in four Kastles matches this season but withdrew earlier this week with a foot injury.

The league currently has 10 teams in 10 cities. Only five American cities have both WTA and ATP tournaments, while several big-market cities such as D.C. host a tournament from one tour and others, such as Boston, currently have none.

The road to the WTT's current status has not been smooth. Financial trouble has plagued individual franchises and the league, which suspended play after the 1978 season before resuming in 1981 with four teams, a quarter of its original number. The Delaware franchise folded last year, the Houston team dissolved in 2008 and Hartford went belly-up in 2007.

Philadelphia and Boston, two of the league's original teams, were dormant for nearly 30 years before they were revived in 2001 and 2005, respectively. Sacramento, which has had a team for 25 consecutive seasons, is currently the league's longest-running franchise.

King and Ilana Kloss, the WTT's chief executive officer, said the league wants to increase the net worth of each franchise and is not considering expansion. The Washington franchise, established in 2008, is the league's most recent addition.

Officials said league attendance has hovered around 150,000 per season in recent years and varies by venue size. According to Ein, the Kastles, whose site has the league's largest capacity, benefit from the highest ticket and sponsor revenue in the league.

Kloss estimates that the Kastles, the defending league champions, bring in 20,000 to 25,000 spectators per season, while franchises on the lower end bring in about 10,000. The league also broadcasts 250 hours of national and regional television per season and has several sponsors, including Geico.

"We've been profitable, otherwise we wouldn't have made it this long," Kloss said.

Jason Spitz, WTT's vice president of marketing, said that "we work very hard with each team to try to create that niche for themselves in hopes that we will continue to grow and attendance will continue to rise."

In addition to its one or two stars, each club has a roster of players who appear in all or most of a team's matches. Among the prominent names in that category are Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis, each of whom won multiple Grand Slam events before retiring from the WTA tour.

Marquee players often take part in league-sponsored clinics with children prior to matches and earn more than regular roster players for their appearances, said Kloss, who estimated that stars command at least $7,500 per match. Players are paid guaranteed base salaries in addition to performance- and award-based bonuses at the end of each season, she said.

The Kastles, who are tied for the lead in the Eastern Conference at 6-3, play Thursday in New York and then Sunday at home against the Boston Lobsters.

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