What could be better tennis television than having four top professionals compete for thousands of other people's dollars on every shot?
Organizers of The Stakes Match are betting the answer is nothing.
That's because last year, The Skins Game -- the four-man, high-stakes golf event based on a traditional method of wagering in that sport -- was television's highest-rated golf event. Yes, more people watched Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Fuzzy Zoeller flail it out on NBC last November for as much as $140,000 on one hole than watched the U.S. Open, British Open or The Masters.
This weekend, Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino and Zoeller will tee it up again at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., for nine holes Saturday (3:30 p.m., WRC-TV-4) and nine Sunday (4 p.m.). The first six holes each will be worth $15,000; the next six, $25,000; the final six, $35,000. If no one wins a given hole, the value of that hole is added to the value of the next one. Thus, it is possible for $450,000 to be riding on a putt at 18.
However, at the moment that putt might be stroked on NBC, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Pat Cash or Stefan Edberg might be playing a match for just as much money on ABC in the final game of The Stakes Match. (In Washington, though, most televisions probably will be tuned to CBS' Washington Redskins-New York Giants telecast.)
Lendl, McEnroe, Cash and Edberg will start The Stakes Match today at Palm Beach Polo and Country Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., with $250,000 apiece. Each will play the other today in a single 15-point game that must be won by two points. They will do the same thing Saturday (1 p.m., WJLA-TV-7). The winner of each of these games earns $30,000 from the loser. Each point will be worth $200 for each time the ball crosses the net, with the winner taking money from the loser. Players will earn $2,000 from their opponents for each ace and turn over $2,000 for each double fault. The two players with the most money at the end of Saturday's play will meet Sunday in a best-of-five-game series (4 p.m.).
The value of games in the final will start at $30,000 and then rise by $30,000 per game, so the winner of a fifth game would earn $150,000 from the loser. The money riding on the points and serves in these games is doubled from Friday and Saturday.
Here's the kicker: If a player loses his $250,000 stake at any point during the event, he is eliminated. And organizers emphasize the players are not given any guarantees or appearance money as was the case in those so-called winner-take-all challenge matches in the 1970s.
Credit for The Stakes Match goes to former football coach Chuck Fairbanks and tennis impressario Donald Dell. But in an indirect way, credit also must go to The Skins Game pioneer, television producer Don Ohlmeyer.
"No, I don't think there would have been a Stakes Match if there hadn't been a Skins Game and it hadn't been so successful," said Fairbanks, now a vice president of Landmark Land Co., a development firm that owns numerous golf and tennis resorts -- including both PGA West and the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club.
Ohlmeyer, Dell and Fairbanks said both events were spawned by a desire to create new forms of the two sports that would: Be more suitable for television than traditional golf and tennis tournaments -- that is, provide tangible results every 15 minutes. Appeal to people who don't ordinarily watch golf or tennis -- that is, be attractive to the majority of the sports television-watching public. Involve scoring systems more understandable than those traditionally used in golf and tennis -- that is, one understandable by the majority of the sports television-watching public. Seem to put the athletes under greater competitive pressure than they face at, say, Wimbledon or Augusta -- that is, create an atmosphere in which the athletes are gambling for huge sums of money.
It is ironic, and, Fairbanks says, unintentional, the events will end up going head-to-head.
"We wished that hadn't happened," Fairbanks said. "We end up competing against ourselves." Although Ohlmeyer Communications owns the rights to The Skins Game and Landmark Land Co.'s Landmark Productions owns the rights to The Stakes Match, Landmark Land Co. hopes to benefit from the exposure its resort receives by hosting the The Skins Game.
In any case, the bottom line here is that these events strictly are the products of television, and its advertising revenue.
"True," said Ohlmeyer. "But turn that around. Would the NFL exist in its current form without television? TV and sports are totally intertwined, whether people like it or not."