World Team Tennis (1974-1978)
Born: 1973 – WTT founding franchise
Folded: November 7, 1978
Owner: Dr. Jerry Buss
A novelty concept known as World Team Tennis provided the first entry into team ownership for a pair of young investors who would go on to build two of the most successful dynasties ever seen in American sport. Chemist-turned-real estate magnate Dr. Jerry Buss got involved with the league at its inception in 1974, backing the Los Angeles Strings franchise.
The following year, 34-year old Robert Kraft joined with a pair of meatpackers and two other local small businessmen to revive the moribund Boston Lobsters, a bankrupt franchise marked for contraction by World Team Tennis officials. Kraft’s entry into sports ownership could not have been more understated. The only trace that persists in Google’s news archive is a tiny UPI wire story from March 28th, 1975 in the Bangor (ME) Daily News under the heading “Novices to head Hub net franchise“.
The Strings debuted in L.A. on May 15th, 1974, hosting the Florida Flamingos at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. The Los Angeles Times poked fun at the announced crowd of 4,666, quoting an unnamed spectator as saying “If there are 4,600 people here, 1,500 are dressed as seats.”
In the early years of WTT, other owners and officials overshadowed Buss. The Strings had no stars and performed poorly on the court. New York Sets Player/coach/co-founder Billie Jean King was the face of the league and her husband Larry King served as both Commissioner and co-owner of the San Francisco-based Golden Gaters franchise. Brash Pittsburgh Triangles owner Frank Fuhrer assembled the league’s powerhouse club, signed stars Evonne Goolagong and Vitus Gerulaitis, and attracted national attention for his tirades against league officials and his own players.
In August 1976, towards the end of Strings’ third season, Buss stepped into the spotlight, telling The Associated Press: “You don’t have a great team without a superstar. So…I’m dedicated to getting one because I’m tired of losing.” He then appealed (unsuccessfully) to the American star Jimmy Connors, offering via the media to make him the highest paid player in the league at $200,000 per season.
In March 1977, Buss landed his superstar, signing the mercurial Romanian Ilie Nastase. Nastase signed with the Strings for $1.5 million over six years, along with matching silver Corvettes for himself and his wife. However, the contract included a clause excusing Nastase until after Wimbledon in July 1977. By then, the season was a lost cause and the Strings finished the 1977 campaign buried in last place with an 11-33 record. With four season now in the books, the Strings had yet to post a winning record.
As the fifth season of World Team Tennis dawned in the spring of 1978, a power shift had occurred behind the scenes. While Billie Jean King remained the public face of the league, Buss had emerged as its true power broker. Frank Mariani, Buss’ long-time partner in his real estate concerns, owned the San Diego Friars franchise. Another associate, Larry Noble, ran the Indiana Loves. Buss and Mariani were also involved in the new Anaheim Oranges expansion club. In all, Buss held sway over 40% of the league’s 10 teams.
In February 1978, Buss signed the 23 year-old American superstar Chris Evert, the #1 ranked female player in the world for the years 1975, 1976 and 1977. The star power of Evert and Nastase led the Strings to success on and off the court in 1978. The team posted a winning record of 27-17 for the first time and set an all-time World Team Tennis attendance record, with announced average attendance of 7,219 at the Forum.
In the 1978 WTT playoffs, the Strings dispatched the Golden Gaters and Billie Jean King’s New York Apples. This Youtube clip shows Evert in action against JoAnne Russell of the Apples at the Forum on during the semi-final series, played on the psychedelic World Team Tennis colored court.
On September 21st, 1978, Buss’ Strings played Kraft’s Boston Lobsters at the Forum for the championship of World Team Tennis. After the men’s doubles, men’s singles and mixed doubles matches, the Strings trailed the Lobsters 18-15 with only women’s singles and women’s doubles remaining to determine the league champion. Then Evert took over.
The fourth set pitted 1978 U.S. Open champ Evert against the 1978 Wimbledon titleist Martina Navratilova of the Lobsters in women’s singles. In the 1980’s, Navratilova would come to dominate her famed rivalry with Evert. But in the 1970’s, Evert owned Navratilova, particularly on hard surfaces. This night was no different. Evert needed a tiebreaker to hold off Navratilova in singles, prevailing 7-6 (5-4). Entering women’s doubles – the final set – the Lobsters clung to a 24-22 lead. Evert and partner Ann Kiyomura dominated Navratilova and Anne Smith 6-1 to seal a 28-25 victory and the 1978 World Team Tennis title for the Strings.
On October 27th, 1978 Kraft folded the Lobsters and Sol Berg did the same with his New York Apples franchise, reducing the league to eight teams. Buss followed suit on November 7th, 1978 claiming total losses of $2.7 million over the five seasons that he owned the Strings from 1974 to 1978. Over the next three days, the Buss-affiliated clubs in Indiana, Anaheim and San Diego also shut down, as did franchises in New Orleans and Seattle-Portland. With only San Francisco and Phoenix left standing, World Team Tennis formally ceased operations in March 1979.
In May 1979, six months after folding his World Team Tennis interests, Dr. Jerry Buss purchased the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Kings of the NHL and The Forum from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million. At the time, it was the largest ownership transaction in sports history. Buss owns the Lakers to this day, presiding over two NBA dynasties – the Showtime Lakers of the 1980’s and the Phil Jackson/Kobe Bryant Lakers of the 2000’s, who together have earned ten NBA titles as of this writing. Buss was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
Robert Kraft acquired Sullivan Stadium, home of the NFL’s New England Patriots, in 1988. Four years later, he acquired the team itself for a then NFL record price of $175 million. Like Buss, Kraft presided over a dynasty, earning three Super Bowl titles in New England. In 2010, Forbes valued the Patriots at $1.4 billion, making them one of the most valuable sports properties in the world.
Both Buss and Kraft experienced years of red ink in World Team Tennis as tenants in buildings owned by others, observing their landlords generate parking and concessions revenue from WTT events, while the teams bore all of the costs and burdens of promotion. It is instructive to note that both men made acquisition of buildings a centerpiece of the record-setting deals they struck to buy into their subsequent major league investments.
In 1981, a scaled-down TeamTennis relaunched with four teams in California, including a new version of the Los Angeles Strings, once again owned by Buss. Buss handed off management of the team to his 19-year old daughter Jeanie Buss. “Basically, my dad bought me the team,” Jeanie Buss told Sports Illustrated in 1998. “It was a very empowering experience.”
Jeanie Buss led the Strings through more than a decade of stable existence in World Team Tennis version 2.0. The Strings – and the new league – never again had the national footprint, ambitions or media coverage of the 1970’s incarnation. But the Strings II did attract several big stars, either moonlighting from the pro tour or using World Team Tennis as a form of senior exhibition tour. Navratilova (1981), Connors (1991-1992) and Bjorn Borg (1993) all spent time with the Strings. A 1993 World Team Tennis match between the Phoenix Smash (featuring Connors) and the Strings (with Borg) drew 7,693 fans to the America West Arena in Phoenix and attracted national coverage from The New York Times. It was the last headline for the Strings who folded quietly after the 1993 season.