An Interview With Adam Helfant
Australian Open 2009
by Paul Macpherson|
You won’t find any sporting memorabilia in Adam Helfant’s executive office at ATP headquarters in London. No signed photographs on the walls, no autographed footballs, tennis balls or shoes, despite his many years working with some of the biggest names in world sports. He has some memorabilia from his days at Nike, but he says it’s packed away.
The former Nike executive, who in January was appointed ATP Executive Chairman and President, simply says ‘That’s not me. Some people in our business collect everything, but I’ve never really gone down that path, because someone’s always got nicer toys than you. It’s never been my mentality.”
But don’t confuse an apathy for sport memorabilia for a lack of passion for sport; Helfant grew up playing and following a wide range of sport and perhaps surprisingly, he eschewed fellow Americans like Connors and McEnroe for Borg and Vilas.
An MIT and Harvard Law graduate, Helfant brings a wealth of global sport, business and legal experience following 12 years as a senior executive with Nike, three years with the National Hockey League (NHL) as an attorney and four years as an associate at the international law firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton. Most recently he served as Nike’s corporate Vice President, Global Sports Marketing, a role in which he was responsible for Nike’s relationships and contracts with athletes, clubs, teams, universities and sport governing bodies throughout the world.
ATPWorldTour.com recently sat down with Helfant during his visit to the ATP Americas’ Headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, where the 44-year-old father of two spent a week meeting with senior management and staff.
Dressed in an open-neck business shirt and speaking in a fast-paced yet relaxed manner, Helfant acknowledges that there is a lot to absorb in his first year in the job. He received no shortage of feedback from players, tournament directors and officials during January’s visit to the Australian Open, when he was just days into his new job. This week he is on site at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
Q: Have you always had a passion for sport and which sports did you play growing up?
A: I have always loved sports. I was fortunate to grow up in Brooklyn, New York, in an apartment building with lots of kids my age, so I played just about everything, but mostly American sports: baseball, football, basketball, street hockey. I played tennis, though less with my friends and more with my younger brother and father.
Q: As a kid, which tennis players did you follow?
A: I grew up in the mid to late 70s when tennis was on a huge upswing and I tended to gravitate towards Guillermo Vilas and Bjorn Borg more than John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. I’m not entirely sure why; maybe that’s the contrarian in me. I just thought they were cool. I had plenty of heroes in the American sports I followed, but tennis being a global sport afforded me the opportunity to see a different range of athletes.
Q: In addition to tennis, what sports do you continue to follow?
A: It’s a wide range based on my professional experience. I was exposed to the wonderful world of football [soccer] – I won’t say real football, I don’t want to get in trouble for that! – and I really enjoy watching it on television and in person. My experience with Nike allowed me to indulge my passion in many different ways, whether it be watching Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France or in golf watching Tiger Woods. I’m a big golf fan. It’s just a matter of finding time.
Q: Did you work with many tennis players during your time with Nike?
A: I had some interaction with the players. The tennis sports marketing group was one of the groups that reported to me and Nike has a heavy investment in tennis. I worked with management companies, some of the governing bodies – people who I will be dealing with now in this capacity – and I did work with some of the athletes. The two I spent the most time with were Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer.
Q: Can you tell us about your progression within professional sports, including NHL, Nike and now ATP.
A: I started in the sports business at the end of 1992. I had been a lawyer in private practice and thought that if I could combine my passion for sports with what I had learned as a lawyer, that I would be happier. I had a great experience with the firm Cleary, Gottlieb [Steen & Hamilton] but I thought combining the two would be ideal. I was fortunate to get a job at the NHL as an attorney on the properties side of their business. I worked there until October 1995 and was involved on the business side, with sponsorship licensing, a little bit of television and general corporate work. I had a great time there. I was a huge hockey fan growing up; I loved the New York Rangers. I was there when they won the Stanley Cup in 1994, which is still a personal highlight for me.
The NHL had done a deal with Nike when I was there and I was the lawyer who had negotiated with Nike’s sports marketing lawyer. When he was promoted to General Counsel he asked me if I was interested in going to Nike. As a New Yorker I can’t say that I knew much about the state of Oregon, but I knew Nike was a great company. I went out there first as a sports marketing lawyer. About a year and a half into my time there they created a new, negotiations-focused position in sports marketing. That was in April 1997, so I haven’t practiced law since then, although I’m sure I’ve been a bit of a pain to the lawyers who have worked with me on some of the deals we have done.
From there I moved into a broader global sports marketing leadership position and for a while I did that while also running Nike’s U.S. sports marketing group hands on. Ultimately I succeeded Ian Todd as the person heading up the sports marketing group globally.
Q: How would you describe your management style?
A: I would let others judge me as opposed to trying to categorise myself. I think I am a pretty open and engaged person. I hope people would agree.
Q: Tell me how the pace of your life has changed since leaving Nike to this current point in time?
A: There was a gap between my leaving Nike and starting here, so I had the luxury of being able to spend a lot of time with my family – wife Sheila, son Aidan (7) and daughter Isabelle (6). When I was working at Nike I traveled a lot and worked hard as you might imagine. So it’s been fantastic to spend lots of time with them this past year. First in Portland and then Riverside, Connecticut.
I was deliberate about what I was going to do next. I had a number of different opportunities, and cannot say I planned on doing what I am doing now. But when this opportunity came along, I guess the best way to describe it is that it grew on me to the point where now I am absolutely convinced it is the right thing for me to be doing. To go from not traveling and being in control of my schedule to where I am today, with a full travel schedule, is very different in terms of the pace, but I enjoy it and I’m very excited about it and I am embracing the challenges.
Q: What do you do in the first few weeks as the new Executive Chairman and President? There must be a lot to absorb in a short amount of time?
A: It’s a question of approach. I know I’m not a classic tennis insider. I know there is a lot to learn. So rather than come into the position thinking that I know everything, I understand I have a lot to learn. I will talk to as many people as possible, focusing on players and tournament directors, who we represent as a member organisation, as well as others in the industry who think we should be doing things differently. I’ve found there’s no shortage of folks willing to give their input, which is a positive thing. Meeting with senior management and staff at our offices has also been a priority.
Q: What do you see as the challenges and the opportunities confronting the sport?
A: Any discussion on challenges and opportunities has to start with the global economic situation, which has an impact on virtually everything. We are certainly not recession proof and we’re monitoring the effects on our tournaments in particular, and seeing how it is affecting fans’ habits. We know it’s had a big effect on hospitality and the sponsorship environment is very different.
But we have a wonderful sport and it’s hard to imagine a better time for the game. I don’t mean to be disrespectful of our past because we have a rich history, but right now the quality of play is absolutely incredible when you look at the rivalry at the top of the game between Nadal and Federer, what Murray and Djokovic have been able to accomplish, and beyond that the young emerging stars like del Potro, Cilic, Gulbis and Tsonga. It’s a wonderful time to be involved in the sport of tennis. I know there is a thought that the sport has not necessarily commercialised its appeal to the extent that it could, and I’m hopeful we can do better in that regard. That’s a real opportunity for us, obviously tempered by the economic climate.
Q: You obviously met with a lot of players, tournament directors and tennis officials at the Australian Open soon after accepting the job. I imagine there was a lot to digest on the long flight back from Melbourne?
A: I’m still digesting it (laughing).
Q: You had separate dinners with Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. How did that go?
A: I had known Roger from my Nike days. Any opportunity to spend time around Roger, I welcome, and doing it in a more casual way is something I look forward to. Andy, I had never met before. They are both very impressive guys. I was very impressed with how engaged they were. In talking with the players I realise that they really have a sense for what is right for the game. There are times when they are honest when an issue has more relevance to them, but most of what they talk about is with the interests of the game at heart. I saw Andy’s comments afterwards and, although I appreciate them, I’m a little surprised that my approach of listening and asking questions and taking notes from time to time has gone over so well. I am going to talk to the people who know a lot more about the game and some of the issues confronting it than I do. It seems fairly obvious to me that I would do that. I have also spent some time with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who serve on the Player Council with Roger, and they have been very helpful in sharing their views on important issues. To have the top players so concerned about and involved in the governance of the sport is a real benefit, and we shouldn’t take that for granted. I know I won’t.
Q: What are your priorities in the months ahead?
A: I’m serious about talking to as many people as possible early on to get their perspectives. And then it will be a question of looking at the changes that we are implementing this year and whether some of the things we have planned or are executing should be tweaked. And I might have an idea or two about how we might do some other things differently. I’m not interested in making change for change sake. But we won’t be afraid to make changes when it’s in the best interests of the game.
There’s a lot to absorb, but I’ve generally been a pretty quick study. I am immersing myself in it, so I’m hoping to the extent that anyone has any question about my tennis knowledge, that after the first few months, that those questions will go away. It doesn’t mean that all of a sudden I’m going to become an expert, but I did have more than a little exposure to tennis before coming into this position.
Q: What is your take on the state of tennis?
A: The game is being played at an incredible level. We’re blessed to have the quality of play we have right now. Adding on to what happens on the court, you only have to look at the way Nadal and Federer conducted themselves after the Australian Open final to see that we have some terrific ambassadors for the sport. We’re fortunate to not just have great champions, but great people.
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