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Team Tennis Needs Some March Madness

David Kahn has been general manager of the Indiana Pacers, president of the Minnesota Timberwolves, head of the Oregon Stadium Campaign for Major League Baseball and is currently teaching two courses on sports economics at New York University.
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Leaders of tennis federations from around the world are meeting in Santiago, Chile, this week to select their new president.  It's a critical election for tennis because there's a real opportunity to revamp the sport's international team championships -- the 115-year-old Davis Cup for men and the Fed Cup for women -- into compelling events more in tune with the 21st-century viewer, not to mention the 10-year-old wunderkind who once might have pursued football but now is looking for a safer sport. 

Unless you're Bud Collins or Mary Carillo, you probably don't even know who won last year (Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka's Switzerland team won the Davis Cup, while Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova led the Czech Republic to the Fed Cup), or that the 2015 Davis Cup semifinals were played last weekend, with the U.K. beating Australia and Belgium topping Argentina.

The problem is that, on a bloated sports calendar, these championships may as well be the Memphis Open tour stop for all the interest they draw in the U.S. and many other parts of the world.

Tennis commands the attention of the casual sports fan in the U.S. for just four of the 52 weeks of the year: the two weeks of Wimbledon and two weeks of the U.S. Open.  That limits its mass appeal and makes the sport seem richer and haughtier than need be -- less accessible for the day-to-day consumer. And more lonely for the budding player who likes camaraderie and teamwork.

Four candidates remain in the running for the presidency of the International Tennis Federation: David Haggerty of the U.S., Anil Khanna of India, Juan Margets Lobato of Spain and Rene Stammbach of Switzerland.  They have all signaled they are in favor of changing the Davis and Fed Cups -- Stammbach,  for example, wants both finals to be played the same weekend at a neutral site --  but they are far too timid. .  The revamped competitions should be for tennis what the Ryder Cup is for golf:  something loud, something nationalistic, something that connects with younger viewers.  

Lack of interest isn't due to the competition format: two singles matches on Friday, a doubles match on Saturday, followed by reverse singles matches on Sunday.  That part is easy to follow and worth keeping.

The problem is that the cup runneth over four separate parts of the year.  For the men this year, the Round of 16 was in early March; the quarterfinals staged in mid-July; the semifinals last weekend; and the finals will be Thanksgiving weekend.  That's antithetical to building suspense.  Think of March Madness -- but played out over a suspense-sapping nine months.

In fact, the NCAA basketball tournament would be an appropriate model for a re-imagined tennis championship that would take place over two weeks.

Four "regionals" of four nations each would convene in different cities in one host country -- if it were held in the U.S., for example, it could be Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, none of which hosts an annual pro event.  (It's hardly an exhaustive list: the ATP plays only two tournaments west of the Mississippi.)  This Round of 16 would take place on a Monday to Wednesday, with afternoon and evening sessions --say, Canada-Brazil in the morning, Japan-Sweden in the evening.

These four regionals would be occurring simultaneously, so television coverage (and mobile devices) would swing to key moments throughout the day.  Things would be hectic, fast-paced. 

As with an NCAA regional, the winners in these matches would then stay in the same city as part of the Elite Eight, played Friday through Sunday.  The final four would then have a travel day, and play the semifinals and finals the following week.

This is ambitious -- and yet it would return two weeks of the calendar back to the tours and players for more tournaments or more rest.  The events may also gain by subtraction: Play them every other year, like the Ryder Cup, with the men and women alternating. 

No doubt, some foreign federations would view turning the cups into more frenetic, TV-friendly events as American-centric . But as the U.S. Open again demonstrated, here is where the sport's most lucrative wallets and broadcasters reside. Moreover, in today's hyper-connected world, younger viewers everywhere are seeking loud and proud, not the drip-drop, drip-drop of the current format.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
David Kahn at dbk4@nyu.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net