Butch Buchholz Leaves His Legacy
by Justin Gimelstob|
As he passes the torch in Key Biscayne, Sony Ericsson Open founder Butch Buchholz reflects on a rich life and a dream realised.
Beneath the vast Sony Ericsson Open center court stadium at Key Biscayne, Florida, sits the office of tournament founder and recently retired chairman Butch Buchholz. A collection of photos and mementos depict the myriad events, relationships, and milestones that attest to the influence and importance of the man. At this year’s tournament, Buchholz stood down as tournament chairman, but his legacy will endure, including through the men’s and women’s singles trophies, that are now named in his honour.
Earl “Butch” Buchholz’s tennis odyssey began in St. Louis, Missouri, where his grandfather and father were avid tennis fans. Butch sat by their sides captivated by their passion for the sport. His father, Earl Sr., was a fine player and a renowned instructor who taught his boy an attacking, all-court game. Butch excelled as a junior player, culminating in being the junior champion at Wimbledon and Roland Garros in 1958. The next year he won the Australian junior championships and swiftly made his way up the ranks. By 1960, Butch was the No. 5 ranked player in the world and an esteemed member of the US Davis Cup Team.
“I worked all day and night doing whatever needed to be done, just trying to learn”
However, in those days, there was not a clear path to make a living playing professional tennis as the battle between amateur and professional tennis was at its zenith. Butch decided to turn professional in 1961 by signing a contract with the legendary Jack Kramer, causing him to miss the window of opportunities to compete in the amateur only Grand Slams. As Butch recalls, “Open tennis missed by five votes in 1961. I turned pro thinking I’ll work on my game for a few years and be ready when it passes on the next vote in 1963. Instead Open tennis didn’t pass ‘til 1968 and by that time I was having injury problems. I missed my window.”
Instead, he barnstormed around the world with Jack Kramer’s tour, winning 22 professional titles but more importantly, collecting valuable lessons that would serve him in his next career as an entrepreneur. Says Butch, “In 1971 I knew my playing days were over. I was 29 years old, scared and confused. I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I went back to St. Louis. I knew I wanted to stay in tennis, so I built a 10-court indoor club called ‘Town and Tennis’. I worked all day and night doing whatever needed to be done, just trying to learn. At that stage if someone would have asked me what “cash flow” was I would have told them it was probably when money fell out of someone’s wallet and flowed down a river!”
Whatever Butch lacked in a conventional education, he compensated for with his tireless work ethic and with the life experiences he’d acquired traveling the world playing tennis. Says Buchholz, “The most important experience of my post tennis life was meeting local businessman, Solon Gershman. Our deal was for every hour I taught him tennis he had to talk to me about business for 30 minutes. Our arrangement lasted five years, and it was the best deal I ever made! I learned so much, it changed my life, and I am forever grateful.”
Butch had already built up a sterling reputation in St. Louis, especially in the tennis community. Even while playing, he successfully brought the first professional tennis tournament to St. Louis in 1964. However, Butch’s diligence, passion for tennis, and desire to commercialise the sport he loved was never more portrayed than in 1974. In 1974, Butch convinced the famous World Championship Tour to make a stop in St. Louis, where he managed to play in the event, sell sponsorship and tickets, and be the tournament referee, all while doing the broadcasting for NBC. Beyond demonstrating his multitasking, Butch had staged a very successful event.
Over the next few years, Butch served on the prestigious Sears Sports Advisory Staff. Then, Butch’s next stop on his tennis odyssey landed him with World Team Tennis where he was the league’s commissioner in 1977 and ’78. Soon after that, he served a three-year term as the Tap’s executive director and as a member of the pro council. It was during that period he negotiated room in the ATP calendar for his dream of bringing big-time professional tennis to South Florida.
In February 1985, the Lipton International Players Championships debuted at Laver’s Tennis Resort in Delray Beach, Florida, a venue run by Rod Laver’s cousin, Ian. Butch’s vision of creating a combined men and women’s event was fulfilled. The tournament was born, but the work was just beginning. Butch moved The Lipton to the Boca West Resort when the Laver Tennis Resort went bankrupt.
But, what Butch and the tournament really needed was a permanent home, a tennis stadium built to his specifications and with the space needed to grow into one of the premier tennis tournaments in the world. Says Butch, “I travelled all over South Florida, and eventually I stumbled upon Key Biscayne. I am riding over this glorious bridge, with beautiful turquoise water on both sides of me, where I was about to see a 70-acre property. I was in heaven, until I realized it was a garbage dump! It was horrific! There was a dead dog, broken down cars, and the smell was awful. But then I looked across the street and saw 5,000 parking spaces, then I knew we had found our home.”
“It’s time for me to go. The tournament is in great hands”
Butch’s next battle was much harder than any tennis match, the political struggle to make his dream facility a reality. “I came up with $20 million to build the stadium, and that was a lot easier than the local political issues,” says Buchholz. “A family claimed they owned the land, people in the community were worried about loud concerts, and local residents were literally having kids lay down in front of bulldozers. A judge even shut us down for a while, which ironically proved to be a blessing when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. Had we been building then, the hurricane would have blown us away. Eventually we built our stadium, which enabled the tournament to grow into what it is today.”
What it is today is not only a commercial success of such magnitude that it generates more then $300 million for the South Florida community, but it is also equally appreciated by the players, winning ATP Tournament of the Year nine of the past 11 years, and the top event on the WTA Tour in 1995 and 2004. This year more than 300,000 fans came through the turnstiles; and, few tennis tournaments in the world engage their patrons with more entertainment. The atmosphere at the grounds of the Sony Ericsson Open serves as a template for how sports and entertainment have merged, with fine dining, music, fashion, and celebrities like Dwayne Wade, Jimmy Buffet, and Kim Kardashian all partaking in the action.
With his legacy cemented Butch knows his timing to pass the torch is ideal. “It’s time for me to go. The tournament is in great hands, Tournament Director Adam Barrett and his staff do an excellent job. I feel at peace.”
He saw this chapter of his career come to a fitting close when American Andy Roddick lifted the Butch Buchholz Championship Trophy – renamed this year as a lasting tribute to the Sony Ericsson Open founder. Upon receiving the trophy, Roddick paid homage to the man who granted him a wild card 10 years earlier. “It’s nice that it’s now come full circle,” Roddick said.
Butch might be content, but he certainly isn’t done. “I am not retiring,” he says, “I am just entering a new part of my life. I have other projects I want to work on.” Butch and his company Altennis were instrumental in the revitalization of tennis in South America with a string of large ATP Challenger events, which helped lead to the development of some of the best players of this generation. Butch will continue to be the chairman for the Copa Telmex, an ATP World Tour event in Buenos Aires, and Pilot Pen Tennis, a combined men’s and women’s tournament in New Haven.
However the bulk of Butch’s time will be spent on his remaining passions: family, golf, and his quest to help re-energise the Davis Cup, which he considers to be one of the greatest traditions in the game. “There has been a debate for some time about Davis Cup and how it fits into today’s sports world, and I’d like to be part of the solution.”
Butch Buchholz was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005 for his contributions to tennis. He has set a very high bar for future candidates.
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