When the Kosmos Group first announced its plans for a total revamp of the 118-year-old Davis Cup format, a formidable and deep-pocketed ally from North America was on board.
Billionaire Larry Ellison, who founded the tech company Oracle and also owns the highly successful BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, reportedly was to invest $22 million in infrastructure alone at his California tournament.
“I am very excited about the new format that the International Tennis Federation and KOSMOS have developed for Davis Cup, and am in full support of the plans that have been outlined for this historic competition.
“I readily embrace innovative ideas and opportunities which is why I am not only lending my written support, but will also become an investor in this competition,” Ellison wrote in a statement to the Palm Springs Desert Sun, before the takeover by Kosmos had been officially ratified at the ITF’s annual general meeting in Aug. 2018.
The expectation was that after the first two years in Madrid, Indian Wells might host the third edition in 2021.
But without announcement or fanfare, Ellison opted out.
“There were some things he didn’t like, he decided not to invest. When you get to the papers sometimes things don’t match,” Kosmos executive director Javier Alonso said in an interview.
An Oracle spokesperson declined to comment on the decision.
Tennis Channel “sure” to engage in future
In another blow to the revamped event’s ability to expand its reach beyond Europe and into North America, Kosmos was unable to come to terms with Tennis Channel – which broadcasts much of the tennis aired in the U.S.
“We tried, but it was not possible with Tennis Channel. It was not a problem of money,” Alonso said. He added that representatives from the channel were in Madrid and he was “sure” they would engage with the new Davis Cup in future.
That meant that tennis fans in the U.S. had to turn to Fox Sports 2 (a channel not everyone has on basic cable and that never broadcasts tennis) for the U.S. ties. And even that was only formally announced by the U.S. Tennis Association days before the start of the event.
For any other ties through the week, including those involving Spain and Rafael Nadal, and Serbia and Novak Djokovic, the only option was Rakuten’s new sports streaming service.
That posed another challenge. Because not only were most fans unaware of where they could find the tennis, few Americans have even heard of the service.
At the end of 2015, the ITF and longtime Davis Cup (and Indian Wells tournament) title sponsor BNP Paribas announced an extension of their association until 2021.
But in March, days after the end of the Indian Wells tournament, the French banking group disassociated itself from the “new” Davis Cup.
It was billed as the “next phase of their partnership“. BNP Paribas had been the Davis Cup’s title sponsor since 2002, and since then has added a number of other areas of ITF tennis to its portfolio.
Whether that was related to Ellison’s ultimate decision not to invest is unknown.
“We decided with the ITF to conclude the ‘Davis Cup by BNP Paribas’ partnership as the competition’s format evolves,” BNP Paribas head of communications Bertrand Cizeau told Sports Pro Media.
Head Sports, which signed a three-year sponsorship deal in Jan. 2017 and provided the official ball, also appears to have disappeared even if the contract wasn’t up until the end of this season.
In October, Dunlop signed on as the official ball for the November finals – although no mention was made of a longer-term association.
So on the sponsorship level, the Kosmos group virtually have had to start from scratch.
The initial plan, as Alonso laid it out to the sports marketing intelligence site Sportcal, was that there would be no one title sponsor.
“There will be two levels of sponsors. Global sponsors, the ones that will be in all countries (and) on top of that, we are working on new commercial packages per region,” Alonso said.
“We plan to find premium ‘presenting partners’ per region in order to maximize commercial opportunities for brands. For the first time in the Davis Cup, we will be able to target on-field marketing for every country where the finals will be broadcast thanks to the virtual replacement technology.”
So far, that has yet to happen.
In the end, major Kosmos investor Rakuten stepped in as the title sponsor. The competition was re-named the “Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals”.
Stepping in on the banking side was the Swiss banking group J. Safra Sarasin.
First edition a learning experience
The issues with the U.S. market were just two of the challenges in an inaugural edition of the new-look Davis Cup hit by low attendances, late-night finishes and technological glitches.
Kosmos admit that there is room for improvement but insist it is committed to the event.
Alonso said the company will consult with the players in order to improve next year’s tournament, which is set to return to Madrid.
“We really have to work on next year. We need to do a debrief how we can organize all of this to their benefit.”
Scheduling has been the most pressing issue, with a number of matches ending in the early hours of the morning. The U.S. defeated Italy on Wednesday in a match ending just after 4 a.m., to no avail, with both sides eliminated.
Alonso said Kosmos worked to address the problem by shortening the time between matches and bringing forward start times at the end of the week. He also defended the tournament’s ticket sales, with only matches featuring Spain having sold out.
“It is true we could have sessions a little more full. But even in Madrid people work in the mornings, on weekdays. We’re getting around 20,000 people per day. It’s good, it’s a new format people need to understand,” Alonso said. “It’s difficult to get the numbers people expect but if you compare us to Masters 1000 or even Grand Slams in the first week we are in a good position.”
Early challenges won’t deter commitment
Gerard Piqué’s Kosmos investment company won an audacious bid for the revised 18-team event by promising $3 billion in investment over 25 years. Alonso insisted that the challenges faced in putting on the debut edition won’t affect those plans.
“We are not just a normal investment company who invest for five or six years. What Gerard wants is to create a platform for sports. There is no reason he would de-invest right now,” Alonso said.
He pointed to success in signing up sponsors, led by the Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, saying Kosmos had beaten its forecasts by 10 per cent.
Tender process for 2021 event
While the initial support from Ellison indicated Indian Wells was a frontrunner to be the next host for the Davis Cup after Madrid, his decision not to invest may open up the field.
“We are going to have a tender process next year together with the ITF and we are discussing with places that have an interest,” Alonso said. “We have an interest in the US in two places. There is an interest in South America, in Asia, and another in Europe.”
The challenges of having the final week of the year take place outside Europe, when the vast majority of the players involved are European, will be another mountain to climb. As will infrastructure and the weather conditions for a potential outdoor event.
The Indian Wells option seemed ideal; the venue already has two permanent stadiums with capacities even larger than the Caja Magica.
During this year’s event, there were rumblings Madrid might host for a third straight year in 2021.
Merger with ATP Cup still possible
However, the format and timing of the Davis Cup may change yet again if the much-discussed potential merger of the event and the new ATP Cup – scheduled to take place in Australia in January – comes to pass. It’s a move that was publicly supported by Novak Djokovic last week.
Alonso said talks with the ATP had been blocked by the handover at the top of the organization, after CEO Chris Kermode was ousted by top players in March.
In the aftermath, Kermode’s former duties have been split in two. A new board chairman, Andrea Gaudenzi, has been named. But there is still no word on who the new CEO will be.
Alonso said talks are planned for January, although currently the plan is to maintain the current calendar date for the Davis Cup. He also pointed to a potential merger with the women’s Fed Cup.
“Not in the short term, but it could be a dream to have the Davis and Fed Cup under the same umbrella in the same week, men and women competing together for their nations. But right now we are concentrating on the Davis Cup.”
(Tennis.Life also contributed to this report)