Baseline to boardroom

KarlBudge-1From ‘Serena-gate’ to Jack Sock (fittingly) claiming the men’s title, this year’s Auckland Open (ASB Classic – men’s and women’s) served up plenty of drama.

While some sports may struggle to put bums on seats, or satisfy palates of fans in the stands, the Classic has been routinely netting first rate financial returns. By providing a satisfying experience for players, sponsors and fans, tournament director, Karl Budge, is tasked with ensuring Tennis Auckland’s cash cow continues to make with the milk.

“I don’t want to compare our tournaments to just any other international; I want to compare them to Wimbledon. If we do that, the rest will take care of itself. We’re leading the women’s tour and we’re right up there with the men’s in terms of how to run a successful, modern tournament – that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

“When I first took on this role, I was told: ‘it’s not a grand slam.’ I used to be head of sponsorship for a grand slam [the Australian Open], so trust me, I know! But, if we act like it is, we might just become the best WTA [Women’s Tennis Association] international event, or (who knows?) the best summer event in New Zealand.”

Karl expects this year’s Classic will deliver its best ever returns, netting approximately $2.5 million. Although many top seeds (including the Williams sisters), failed to fire, he believes they were as successful on court as in the counting house.

“No one thought Serena or Venus Williams would ever play in New Zealand… Christ, we had the women’s world number one playing here, that’s pretty phenomenal! If we could go back to January and know how it was going to play out [with Serena knocked out in the second round] wouldn’t you take it? Of course you would!

“The only time you’re guaranteed to see a star player is in the opening round. That’s why we’ve invested so much [off court] with the music and the food, so that it’s a great day out regardless of which players are on court.”

Karl has a point. If the world’s best always won, sport would be pretty damn boring!

With regards to the Williams sisters’ controversial hotel bill – reported at more than $30,000 – Karl says, thanks to contra agreements, Tennis Auckland’s net cash contribution was insignificant.

“That was a storm in a teacup! We put them in Sky City for a reason, we get free rooms there… the real impact of that bill was negligible and completely in line with amounts expected. Sky City does plenty of business from the ASB Classic each year, so, if they have to give away a few free hotel rooms and food, they’re pretty happy to do so!”

To further ‘square the ledger’, he asserts Serena’s remarks about windy weather – experienced during her notorious second round defeat – resulted more from disappointment in her own game.

“It was just a case of a player being pissed off and lashing out… she lost a match that she knew she shouldn’t have. I’m sure Serena will remember that wind for as long as she lives, but weather’s weather and she won’t hold that against us,” he says.

And, with plans for a new stadium featuring a retractable roof underway, the prospect of attracting stars in the future looks good.

To a certain extent, Karl’s role requires he play nursemaid to the stars. But supplying a certain type of water or chicken soup (or even a karaoke machine for Serena!) is a small price to pay to ensure they’ll return to play another day.

“I’d rather players come and ask than walk away disappointed. It’s all part of developing close relationships; most know they can come have a whiskey in my office with me at night. It means, when deciding where they’re going to play next time, I know we’ll be in with a shout.”

The Classic’s success stands in stark contrast to New Zealand’s low club numbers. And, at the highest level, Marina Erakovic alone is the only Kiwi close to cracking the world’s top 100. Encouraging youngsters to kick the football into touch and pick up a racket is “critical” to the success of tennis in New Zealand, he believes.

“We’re often judged by how many top players we create, but I look at it slightly differently. Last year, a dozen kids or so secured scholarships in the USA; I think we have a real success story building, but we’re not doing a good enough job telling it.”

By serving as a shop window for tennis, the ASB Classic is bringing “everyone’s second-favourite sport” to the fore in our own backyard, Karl contends.

“I’m a dollars and cents guy. It’s not strictly that un-emotive, but these tournaments are our biggest fundraising tools… to some extent, I measure my success by how much we generate.

“We’re always going to struggle to produce talent because our best athletes aren’t playing tennis, and for every Maria Sharapova or Roger Federer, there’re a thousand others who don’t make it. We have to turn social players into high performance players; that’s the journey we have to take.”

Made to… match

Karl Budge has negotiated the corporate ladder with aplomb rising to manage one of New Zealand’s premier sports events.

“I think I’m motivated by a chip on my shoulder,” he says. “When I left school at 16, some wouldn’t have thought I’d go on to achieve what I have. I kinda like that; I like being the underdog.”

While I’ll leave the details to his future biographer to divulge, suffice it to say that he has worked in a variety of roles around the world, with the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), the Australian Open and the Oceania Football Confederation, to name a few.

Today, with five ASB Classics under his belt, Karl’s more settled.

“I’ve worked all over the world [but] I’m in a different space in my life now.” He pauses and looks down at the court from a boardroom where he often holds court, then continues:

“I’ve had opportunities elsewhere in the world but I’m lucky with this role. The Classic is big enough that it can make an impact but small enough that I can do plenty of cool stuff with it!”

By Jon Rawlinson