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IPTL CEO Morgan Menahem: Serving up a tennis version of the IPL

Count me in: Tsonga has confirmed his participation in the IPTL.
Count me in: Tsonga has confirmed his participation in the IPTL.

All eyes may be currently focused on the tennis action Down Under, but behind the scenes, plans are underway for the inaugural International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), set to take place at the end of the year.

The brainchild of Indian tennis veteran and doubles specialist Mahesh Bhupathi, the IPTL, was officially announced last year in May right before the kick-off of the French Open.

It is a tennis league, modelled on cricket’s financially successful Indian Premier League, set to take place over three weeks in November and December 2014 with the aim to bring world class tennis to cities across Asia in a new and exciting format.

The league will feature five franchise teams – all in Asia – with each team ideally including between eight to 10 players, of both men, women – active players as well as legends.

Team owners will have to allocate up to $10 million (Dh36.7m) as a budget for the players’ salaries along with $12 million (Dh44.7m) for a 10-year term.

The matches will be no longer than three hours, to make them more appealing for TV and viewers.

Speaking to Morgan Menahem, the CEO of the IPTL, the Frenchman confirmed that four of the five franchises will be in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Mumbai.

Menahem, who is also the agent of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, is based in Dubai and says they are hoping to have the fifth team based somewhere in the Gulf region.

“We’re in talks with a few people in the region who are interested. There’s definitely some strong interest. We’re really confident that we’ll get a team from the Middle East,” Menahem (below) told Sport360°.

Many top players have shown interest and publicised their commitment to playing in the IPTL including the likes of Serena Williams and Tsonga. Novak Djokovic called the concept “revolutionary”.

Andy Murray, who was initially committed to the project, refused to confirm his participation when asked by Sport360° last December during the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi. But the Scot world No4 maintains that he still thinks “it’s a good idea”.

Tsonga agrees with Murray, even though the league dates will overlap with the official tennis calendar’s off-season – a time where players are either vacationing, or busy preparing for the following year.

“I think it’s a good idea because it’s going to be good for tennis. It will develop the sport everywhere in the world. “Today we have four majors that are huge, but tennis is not for two or three or four countries, it’s for the whole world and I want it to be worldwide,” said Tsonga.

“The matches are a little bit shorter so we won’t be too tired after that, so it won’t be difficult to practice for the next season at the same time.”

Menahem also explains that a team member is not obliged to play all dates.

He said: “It’s a simple yet complicated scenario. But none of the players are obliged to play first of all. If a player says ‘it will fit in my training regimen and I want to play two or three dates’ then we can work around that.

“It’s not a commitment where the players are obliged to play all matches. They can play a few matches, all of the matches – it’s a case by case scenario.

“Realistically, to make a team you need between eight and 10 players. To work around injuries, one guy missing a match but playing the following one… that kind of thing.”

The draft for the five teams will take place in Dubai following the ATP 500 tournament which concludes in the emirate on March 1.

There will be five categories of players and every category will have a base price. Players will be slotted on the basis of ranking, popularity and potential.

“Once we have the draft, we’ll be able to better work with the local teams and their local partners to set up everything.

“The schedule is going to be like the NBA a little bit. There’s going to be 20 matches over the three-week period so we have to figure out what’s the best way to cut the travel time for some of the players,” says Menahem.

Bhupathi and Menahem have hired the company MP & Silva to sell the TV rights for the league, which is expected to generate a large chunk of the revenue. 

The top tennis tournaments in the world can make between $30 million (Dh110m) and $70 million (Dh257m) per year in TV rights deals.

ESPN pay an annual average of more than $70 million for all US Open rights, Seven West Media pay about $35 million (Dh128.5m) a year for the Australian Open rights, while the BBC’s latest contract extension (from 2015 to 2017) will see them pay around $38 million (Dh139.5m) per year for Wimbledon rights in the UK.

It is unclear how much money the IPTL can bring in through TV rights sales but both Bhupathi and Menahem believe they can attract top networks simply because match times are limited to a maximum of three hours, which will also be appealing to spectators.

“It will be broadcast worldwide we’re very confident about this,” assured Menahem. “It’s a made-for- TV event, so it’s definitely something that’s going to attract TV viewers at a time where there’s no tennis on.

“You come to a tennis tournament and you don’t know who you’re going to see because it’s all up in the air and you don’t know when it starts and when it finishes.

“With this, you’re going to know who’s going to play on that day, what time the matches start, what time the matches finishes and what we’re going to build around that. Because there’s going to be some outreach programmes for kids.

“There’s going to be community outreach in every single one of the cities we’ll be in and there’s going to be a charitable aspect as well, because it’s something very important for us.

“One of the best-run programmes is NBA Cares and if we’re 10 per cent of what NBA Cares does then it’s a win-win situation for everybody.”

The organisers believe the number of teams will increase following its inaugural season and Menahem says there is a huge potential for growth.

“Who says that in 10 years time we’re not going to have the Americas, Europe, Asia, and they play against each other and then we have a Grand Final in Abu Dhabi or in Dubai for example.

“Kind of like the world championship of soccer for clubs. If I tell you it’s something we think about people are going to say we’re crazy, but if it happens it happens,” said the Frenchman.