Beware wolf at the HKTA door

Officials must keep control of the city's WTA event, rather than subcontracting the work to private interests

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 5:08am

The BNP Paribas Showdown in March featured two legends - John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl - as well as Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska for a night of exhibition showmanship. Organisers promised this was the first of an annual event to mark the International Tennis Federation's World Tennis Day.

But it now emerges it is not as simple as just turning up for a one-night stand. There is a real "showdown" taking place behind the scenes, one which would put all the made-up histrionics of McEnroe and company in the shade, and has cast doubt over the future of this event.

The fight is between the local governing body, the Hong Kong Tennis Association, and the event organiser, Star Games, an overseas-based entity run by chief executive Jerry Solomon, who is the mastermind behind World Tennis Day.

It started over a sanction fee that the HKTA has requested - HK$1 million to HK$1.5 million - which would bring much-needed funds for the development of the game. Is it a fair request? That depends on which side of the court you are on.

The HKTA believes it should be recompensed for all the behind-the-scenes help, plus providing the ball boys and even a scoreboard for the inaugural event. The request came after the HKTA learned that World Tennis Day was really an initiative of Solomon, who apparently pays the ITF a fee.

"We initially thought this was an ITF event and that is why we readily chipped in and helped them [Star Games]. But now it transpires this is an event which they are profiting from and as such we felt it was only reasonable that we, too, get something from it which will help the game in Hong Kong," says Herbert Chow Siu-lung, a member of the HKTA executive council.

This request has incensed Solomon, who has accused the HKTA of "grandstanding" and demanding "an arbitrarily priced sanction fee". He has stated he is not going to be bullied by the HKTA.

A potential gunfight has not thwarted the HKTA, which is standing firm. And it holds all the aces thanks to the venue of this year's event - AsiaWorld-Expo - being unavailable on March 4 next year, the designated World Tennis Day.

Star Games knew beforehand that the spacious venue next to the airport had been booked out for next year and had tried the Hong Kong Coliseum. This 12,500-seater indoor stadium is also unavailable, leaving Victoria Park centre court as the only option. But this has been booked by the HKTA for its annual National Junior Championships.

The HKTA was willing to share centre court for a few hours with Solomon but at a price - the sizeable sanction fee. This is not to the liking of Solomon. He has now come forward with a plan hinting he might be amenable to some sort of a deal provided he has a hand in running September 2014's WTA event.

That's tantamount to asking the HKTA to pawn its future. The WTA event, which has got off the ground thanks to a US$2 million grant from the government to buy the licence for a Tier III tournament, will become the flagship international tennis event in Hong Kong.

There are plans, if the inaugural event is a success, that more money and resources could be invested to make it bigger and better. There is obviously huge scope. It would be any entrepreneur's dream to get involved, especially someone who knows the ins and outs of the world of tennis. This is the card Solomon has played.

It would be foolish for the HKTA to hand over control of such an event. Yet, it can be tempting. Hand over the prized asset and let everything be run and taken care of, in return for an annual fee. The HKTA hierarchy should snap out of such thoughts, and instead run the show themselves.

It will be hard finding corporate sponsors to headline the return of a proper professional tennis tournament to Hong Kong after more than a decade. It will be hard to convince the world's leading players to turn up - the Tier III only guarantees one top-10 player - unless appearance fees are paid. There is a lot of hard work to do.

But nothing comes easy. The HKTA has to bite the bullet and handle the WTA tournament on its own. It only has to look at how the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union has turned the Hong Kong Sevens into a cash cow to remind itself of the rewards that are there for the taking. Handing it over to outsiders would mean the HKTA has no stomach for a showdown.