Fifty years ago, the game of tennis changed entirely as the International Tennis Federation made the switch from amateurism to the Open Era. This yields the question – why the change?
Amateurism was commonly referred to as “shamateurism,” with many of the supposedly “unpaid” players receiving exceptional expense tournament compensation. “We must take action on our own account to make the game honest,” David Penman of the British Association highlighted these issues that led to the push toward the Open Era at their 1967 annual general meeting, “For too long now we have been governed by a set of amateur rules that are quite unenforceable.”
Another major issue was that many of the best players turned pro in search of a more financially secure tennis career, despite being denied entry to some of the most traditional tournaments. This resulted in the dilution of the sport; the top tournaments, such as the prestigious Grand Slams, were without the best tennis players.
At the time of these issues in amateur tennis, US sports promoters began capitalizing on ITF’s losses and signed the best professional players to American tours.
Cue 1968 and Mark McCormack. Not only did the All England Tennis Club allow professionals for the first time at Wimbledon, but it was the beginning of a long-standing client partnership between IMG and the world’s oldest tennis tournament. From his first visit in 1966, McCormack set to commercialize Wimbledon much like he had done with other clients; renegotiated television contracts and extensive media coverage, introduction of corporate hospitality tents, and acquisition of Rolex as a major sponsor.
The victories of McCormack’s clients in the men’s and ladies’ singles (Rod Laver and Billie Jean King) in the first Open Wimbledon foreshadowed just the beginning of the success McCormack would bring to Wimbledon.
From the McCormack archives, we can see in Exhibit A the original contract between the All England Tennis Club and World Productions Establishment – a subsidiary of IMG – as well as documents leading up to and following the agreement. Future All-England chairman R.E.H. “Buzzer” Hadingham jokes with McCormack in his April 1968 letter that he owes him a drink for his assurance to the Club that he and CFO Jay Michaels are “not only the best people to handle this but that you are men of absolute integrity,” followed by the expectation of “a large drink”! (Exhibit B). After the contract was signed, we can see from McCormack’s letter to Pan Am his enthusiasm about IMG’s work with Wimbledon (Exhibit C), and again in a letter to North American Rockwell Corporation highlighting their future production of “the most exciting tennis film ever” (Exhibit D).