Published in: St. Louis Post Dispatch
Author: Kathleen Nelson
When Aces general manager Dani Apted unabashedly proclaims, "I drafted a good-lookin' team," she's referring to the players' appearance as much as their prowess on the court.
The cover of the team's media guide features Anna Kournikova — who will be playing six matches with the Aces — lounging languidly on a bed of tennis balls and Liga Dekmeijere wearing only a tight tank top that says "ALL MEN ARE dangerous."
The Aces are not alone in their upfront methods of selling tennis to a public that tends to tune in only during Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The New York Sportimes touted Ashley Harkleroad as much for her appearance in Playboy as for her ranking, which rose as high as 39 before she had a baby in March.
And in the interest of gender equity, a bit of beefcake complements the cheesecake. The Aces' media guide also features a shot of Jan-Michael Gambill — who will face the Aces in the season opener tonight at Dwight Davis — with no obvious stitch of clothing.
The trailblazer in the approach was Kournikova. Her highest singles ranking was eighth, and though she won two doubles Grand Slams, she never won a singles title. Yet even after retiring from professional tennis in 2003 she was the highest-ranked female athlete on Forbes' power celebrity list, she posed for Maxim magazine and last month topped a list of sexiest tennis players.
"I think it happens not just in tennis, but I think it happens in all the sports, or anywhere," she said. "As long as it's classy and it brings more people in, why not?"
Kournikova is playing in her seventh World TeamTennis season, her second with the Aces. She will play just one match on the Aces' homecourt, July 11, but five on the road, the better to spread her appeal throughout the league.
"Wherever she goes, everyone wants to be around her," Apted said. "It's good for team tennis. The people who like her will like our brand of tennis. We have four home nights after her to build on."
Promoting the pretty is an obvious way to put fans in the seats in a tough time but doesn't guarantee success, according to Patrick Rishe, associate professor of sports economics at Webster University. Rishe noted that the strategy tends to be most successful with men ages 22-35. But if they have less disposable income, the strategy "isn't enough to get them in the seats," he said. "The risk in this kind of marketing is that you discourage the casual, historic non-attendee who philosophically has issues with this type of marketing."
To cover her bases, Apted tries to hit on all the major demographics on the Aces' promotional nights. Opening night features not only the shirtless Gambill but a Go Green promotion: Bring in used tennis balls and/or cell phones to recycle and get a discount on drinks.
Saturday's match includes free toasted ravioli and ice cream. The first 300 fans ages 3-13 get a free T-shirt, racket and tennis clinic with Kournikova on July 11. Dogs get in for $10 to see Davis Cup team member Sam Querrey play for the Aces on July 15. (The dogs get a goodie bag.) Kids get a free racket and tennis clinic before each match.
"I'll do just about anything to get people out here once," Apted said. "If they see it, I think they'll come back."
Apted also has lured more recognizable players — Querrey, the top-ranked doubles team of Mike and Bob Bryan, and former No. 1 Kim Clijsters — while holding the line on tickets: $25 to $40 for adults, $15 to $25 for children 12 and under.
Despite the emphasis on eye candy, Apted seems proudest of nabbing Clijsters, winner of the 2005 U.S. Open and the 2003 WTA season title. She retired from professional tennis in May 2007 and gave birth to a daughter in February 2008 but announced her return to tennis in the spring.
"After playing with us, she goes to the U.S. Open," Apted said. "It's kind of cool to think she's starting her comeback right here."
Rishe said blending beauty and talent can't hurt, especially with the crowd Clijsters would attract.
"I don't think that this kind of marketing is going to turn off the die-hard, loyal Aces fan, male or female," he said. "They are passionate about tennis, so they're gonna watch."
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