World Team Tennis (1974-1978)
Born: 1973 – WTT founding franchise.
Died: October 27, 1978 – The Lobsters cease operations.
Team Colors: Red & White
The venerable sports memorabilia dealer Phil Regli unearthed a rare trove of old World Team Tennis (1974-1978) media guides for Fun While It Lasted recently. I was psyched to find a couple of guides from my hometown team, the Boston Lobsters, including this 1978 guide (at right) from the Lobsters final season with Czechoslovakian superstar Martina Navratilova on the cover. Navratilova played for the Lobs in 1977 and 1978 when….well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
The Lobsters came ashore in late 1973 as one of 16 founding franchises in World Team Tennis. WTT played a May-August schedule, with a mid-season break for Wimbledon. The goal of the league was to attract the top men’s and women’s players from around the world during a relatively quiet time in the tour schedule and group them into geographic franchises, like in the major American team sports. Tennis fans who came to see matches in the big hockey arenas that WTT favored like the Philadelphia Spectrum and the Nassau Coliseum were encouraged to behave in very un-tennis like ways, hooting at cheerleaders and loudly booing opponents and officials. Pro tennis without the stuffiness.
Boston auto dealer Ray Ciccolo founded the Lobsters in 1973 and was the owner for the first season. The team did not feature major stars that first summer of 1974, with Australian Kerry Melville – ranked #6 in the world at the time – probably the biggest “name”. (Melville would later marry one of her Lobsters teammates – Grover “Raz” Reid).
The Lobsters debuted in Boston on May 9, 1974 against the Hawaii Leis, before a just-short-of-capacity crowd of 3,574 at Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena. A post-Wimbledon slump knock the Lobs out of playoff contention and they finished with a 19-25 record. For the inaugural season the Lobsters averaged 2,564 paid tickets for 22 home dates and also managed to broadcast matches on local television.
That wasn’t enough to keep Ciccolo’s team solvent. The young auto dealer lost a reported $300,000 operating the Lobsters in 1974. Boston was one of several shaky franchises revoked by the league during the offseason. New investors were eventually found in March 1975, just two months short of WTT’s sophomore campaign. By this point it was too late to revive the bankrupt club whose players had already been dispersed to other teams, so technically the original Boston Lobsters folded after one season. The new investors then bought another WTT club, the Philadelphia Freedoms, moved it to Boston and re-launched the Lobsters.
The Lobsters really came into their own under the ownership of young paper products magnate Robert Kraft. Yes, that Robert Kraft, who would later go on to rescue the floundering New England Patriots and build the team into a three-time Super Bowl champion valued at over $1 billion. Kraft took over control of the team in 1975 and the team muddled through two more losing seasons on the court, including a last place finish in 1976.
But club’s fortunes turned in 1977 when the Lobsters signed the 20-year Czech defector Navratilova and brought in tennis legend Roy Emerson as player/coach. Emerson won every Grand Slam men’s singles title at least once during the 1960’s, including six Australian Open titles in his native country. Under Emerson, the Lobsters finished 1977 with a league best 35-9 record. Navratilova was the #1 women’s singles player in the league and teamed with South African Greer Stevens to form the league’s strongest women’s doubles duo. However, the Lobsters would lose to the defending champion New York Apples in the WTT playoff semi-finals in 1977.
The Lobsters were a top WTT club in 1978 and this year they finally made it all the way to the WTT championship series in September against the star-studded Los Angeles Strings, led by Ilie Nastase and Chris Evert. Like the Lobsters with Robert Kraft, the Strings were owned by a novice sports owner – real estate investor Jerry Buss – who would shortly become a major pro sports mogul. Buss would buy the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Kings from Jack Kent Cooke the following year and was at the helm of the Lakers dynasties of the 1980’s and 2000’s. The Strings got the best of the Lobsters in 1978, winning the fifth and final championship of the original World Team Tennis.
Robert Kraft folded the Lobsters on October 27, 1978, in tandem with New York Apples owner Sol Berg. Kraft and Berg cited the league’s inability or unwillingness to continue to sign the world’s best players as their reason for withdrawing. Buss – who directly or indirectly controlled four WTT clubs – followed suit a month later and World Team Tennis was out of business by Christmas 1978.
A smaller, less ambitious version of TeamTennis relaunched quietly in California only in 1981. As with the original league, Billie Jean King was at the helm, as both player, executive and spokesperson, along with her husband/business partner Larry King. This revived league continues to exist today and has spread across the country.
In 2005 Boston-area businessman Bahar Uttam purchased an expansion franchise in the new league and revived the Boston Lobsters name. The modern day Lobsters continue to play each summer at Joan Norton Stadium at the Ferncroft Country Club in Middleton, Massachusetts.
==Boston Lobsters Matches on Fun While It Lasted==
|1974||5/9/1974||vs. Hawaii Leis||W 33-25||Program||Game Notes|
|1977||5/21/1977||vs. San Diego Friars||W 29-19||Program|
|1978||9/13/1978||vs. New York Apples||??||Program||Game Notes|