Michael Downey admits if tennis ability were a prerequisite he wouldn't be the new president of Tennis Canada. "It's funny, everybody kept asking me about my tennis game when the announcement came out (May 3). Let's just say that I'll be needing some lessons." No problem. Downey, 46, wasn't hired so much for his ability to drive tennis balls as for his penchant for driving revenues. "I don't have to be a world-class player to drive this sport. In fact, I sold myself on the fact that I don't bring any baggage. I'll bring a fresh approach. My mission is to grow this sport."
He faces a daunting task. There's incredible competition for the fan dollar in Toronto. The tournament has taken a public beating recently over stars that promote the event -- then fail to show. This year's men's tournament in Toronto, July 24-Aug. 1, doesn't have a main sponsor. And, then, there was the tennis centre itself. Fortunately, there was nothing wrong with the latter that a good wrecking ball couldn't fix.
"People need to know there's a new house in town," Downey said yesterday. He intends to use the $38-million Rexall Centre at York University as the focal point in a crusade to revitalize the sport. "Not only is it going to be great for the fans, but the venues will also be more appealing for the players ... the facility, the comfort, the sightlines, the suites, the amenities," Downey said, bouncing in his chair like an animated Paul Beeston clone. "It's going to attract the top talent."
Hopefully that talent will like it so much it'll hang around for more than just the ticket drive. "Patrons deserve to know who they're going to be seeing," Downey said.
While he may be more at home in a three-piece suit than tennis shorts, Downey knows his way around sporting boardrooms. He spent four years in sales and marketing with the Raptors and Maple Leafs, then was a president of marketing for Molson's Ontario Western region. "I loved being close to sports. I don't read a sports section, I study it. When I left Molson in the fall I really wanted to get back into sports marketing. I'd heard Bob (Moffatt) was leaving and the job sounded challenging."
As a youngster, he recalls marvelling at Ivan Lendl and Bjorn Borg. His job now, he believes, is to make it possible for Canada to develop its own Borgs and Lendls. "When I look back 10 years from now I want this organization to be remembered for having the facility sold out, for giving the sport a great profile. But, more than that, I want it to grow at the participation level and I want Tennis Canada to develop players on to the international level."
Downey points to the growth of basketball's popularity locally since the arrival of the Raptors and Vince Carter. That, says Downey, is how he wants tennis to grow.
"Part of the attraction of following a sport is for kids to have idols to follow. Daniel Nestor winning the gold medal at the Olympics was a great thing. We need to fuel that, get more people playing. Every sport, to succeed, needs to have heroes. We need to have our Mike Weirs and Jamaal Magloires."
Ticket sales for the tournament this summer have surpassed last year's revenue numbers, with 70% of premium seats and suites sold out. So, Downey's hopes of using the new stadium as a fulcrum to give the sport, and Tennis Canada's revenue, a boost seems feasible.
"Tennis is the second or third biggest sport in much of the world. The question is how do we bring that international success here?" Downey said. "How (when the tournament is on) do we make sure it's not a one- or two-week wonder? We've got to find a way to raise the profile for the next year and beyond."
Downey notes that Tennis Canada put $3.5 million into community programs last year and is convinced Canada can become a force in international tennis if it can improve on that funding. "We have to find other sources of income than the traditional sponsorships. I want to look at development programs they use in other countries. There are solutions. We just have to look for them ... it's not like we need to reinvent the wheel."
So, while a Canadian John McEnroe may not be in sight, Downey likes to think good things aren't that far beyond the horizon either. If Canada can beat Switzerland in Quebec in July, our women's Federation Cup team moves into the elite world group. About 170,000 fans are expected to see Andy Roddick and Co. this summer -- about 35,000 more than in past years. And, in September, a win over Romania would retain the men's status in the top World Cup group.
"We are making inroads," Downey said. "The thing is to get the publicity to prove to people that we are making those inroads."