Javier Alonso, CEO of Gerard Pique’s sport investment company Kosmos, on working with the Barcelona star and potentially bringing the Davis Cup to the Gulf.
A professional footballer, a moto GP expert and a Japanese tech CEO walk into a room. They walk out with the Davis Cup. Okay, it might not be exactly how Kosmos won the rights to revamping one of tennis’ oldest tournaments – but it isn’t far off.
In 2018, Barcelona defender Gerard Pique was the architect of one of the most surprising sports business stories in recent memory as he convinced the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to put the future of the Davis Cup in the hands of his embryonic venture.
Pique had only founded Kosmos a few months previous but after packing his board of directors with considerable experience – including Rakuten Founder and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani and ex-Dorna Sports CEO Javier Alonso – he pulled off a major coup by persuading the ITP to give Kosmos the opportunity to modernise the Davis Cup.
In approving the Kosmos bid, then-ITF president David Haggerty said he expected the new format to have a “transformative effect on the development of tennis in all nations”.
The first incarnation of Kosmos’ new-look tournament in 2019 culminated with Spain winning the historic trophy for a sixth time, in front of a home crowd in Madrid. It was widely considered a success as an 18-team ‘finals’ replaced the traditional glut of two-legged ties throughout the year.
Pique was happy and so was his CEO, Javier Alonso. After a long spell at the helm of Moto GP specialists Dorna Sports, Alonso joined up with Pique ahead of the bid for the Davis Cup.
“When Gerard won the football World Cup with Spain in South Africa in 2010, it had a big effect on him,” Alonso explains to Sport Industry Insider. “He won the cup, met his wife and saw how much impact a successful World Cup could have. He is a big tennis fan and started thinking then about how he could create a tennis World Cup that could be a similar celebration of the sport.
“He thinks a lot and doesn’t sleep too much so creating Kosmos made a lot of sense as a vehicle for these ideas he had about tennis and other sports. Of course it helps having his name, everyone knows Barcelona and everyone knows Gerard Pique. Working for Kosmos is like going to a school disco and all the girls want to dance with you; that’s never happened to me before and it’s because of Gerard.”
Despite having only four employees at the time, Kosmos presented their bid for the Davis Cup to the ITF’s Board of Directors in February 2018 and Pique’s passion piqued their interest; in August the proposals were ratified at the ITF’s AGM in Orlando. Quite remarkably in the current climate, the two parties agreed a 25-year, $3 billion partnership.
“I personally think the reason we won it is because we were a small company,” Alonso says. “If IMG would have gone there and bid for the rights, ITF would have never given those rights because they would have put a lot of conditions on the deal. “
“We wanted to partner with the ITF and it is a great relationship. They deliver the rights, they know tennis – but we are very good in connections with the sponsors and the media. It is a collaborative partnership.
“The beauty of the Davis Cup project is that it brings money to the world’s tennis federations and they, in one way or another, are funding the development of young players. Without young players, you will not have any more tennis. Improving the profitability of the Davis Cup is vital for the health of the sport.”
That spirit of collaboration went into the Davis Cup design process, with a number of former and current players consulted when the plans were put together.
“The Davis Cup had a lot of problems – fans knew it and players knew it. It was too complicated and required players to put aside up to four weeks a year. In sport now you need to be player-friendly and it was important for us to understand what that meant.
“I interviewed Albert Costa, the former Davis Cup winning captain and player, for a position with us and he said that players had been complaining about the format for years. We had many discussions with players as it was something I learnt in my previous life in MotoGP – we spoke a lot with the riders. Gerard is a professional sportsman and so of course he wants to understand the concerns of the players.
“I’ve just been in Australia and our guys are still meeting with players, asking how they are feeling about the first year of the new Davis Cup, what they might want to change.”
The new format has enabled more high-profile players to participate at the same time, which has helped make the Davis Cup a significantly more attractive proposition to sponsors.
“There was a bit of a disconnect before between the tournament and its sponsors and media,” Alonso says. “The final year of the old format had France vs Croatia in the final. But who else is watching that outside of France and Croatia? You can’t sell rights, you can’t activate sponsorship.
“Now we have Rakuten as our title sponsor, plus others like Mastercard and immediately there is a footprint for the company in 18 countries of the world for the Davis Cup finals.”
With a football club in Japan, a baseball club in Japan, title sponsorship of the Japan Open tennis in Tokyo, shirt sponsorship of FC Barcelona and Golden State Warriors, Rakuten’s sporting footprint is already significant. And once again, it was the Pique connection that helped Kosmos.
👋 Hello @rakutenarena— Davis Cup by Rakuten Madrid Finals (@DavisCupFinals) June 4, 2019
Rakuten to become New Global Partner for Davis Cup 🏆 pic.twitter.com/wM6qF3TzEX
“Obviously [Rakuten CEO] Mikitani is an investor in Kosmos so he excused himself from the presentation we made to the Rakuten Board of Directors. But they saw the value. Connections are so important in the sponsorship world and Gerard’s are incredible. He helped us get AirAsia on board too as he knows Tony Fernandes, the owner, very well.
“He opens doors and we run behind him, trying to close some of them. It’s really amazing, the network that he has. Of course, you also have to forge great relationships with the people at these companies beyond the owner – the marketing teams for example – in order to make the partnership successful.
“We are lucky right now because Kosmos is new in the world of sport and a lot of people are talking about us and what we are doing.”
Recent discussions about the new Davis Cup format have inevitably also made reference to the ATP Cup, the new, season-opening tournament launched in Australia this January. Like the Davis Cup, the format sees nations face each other and though crowds were encouraging, some players, including Rafa Nadal, criticised the decision to play another international team event so soon after the Davis Cup. There have been some suggestions the two tournaments could merge in the future but right now nothing has been decided, according to Alonso.
“The ATP Cup is something different but it is never going to replace the Davis Cup because the Davis Cup is 120 years old. We are having discussions with ATP and with Tennis Australia as to whether it’s sustainable to have two team events in the world of tennis a year or not. Some of the players have voiced that there should be only one and we have the obligation to try to find a solution.
“There’s a new ATP chairman in Andrea Gaudenzi, who is a former Davis Cup player himself. We are talking right now because if there is a possibility to merge in one way or another and it’s better for the world of tennis, let’s try it. Discussions are being held.”
“The Davis Cup has to go everywhere in the world and I’m sure the Middle East will be one place… it would be a huge success.”
Madrid was named the host city for the first two Davis Cup finals of the new era but the idea going forward is to have a bid process to host ‘the World Cup of Tennis’. And with the UAE successfully hosting ATP and WTA events at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, as well as the popular off-season Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, Alonso believes the emirates would be a perfect future host of the Davis Cup.
“We believe that the Davis Cup has to go everywhere in the world and I’m sure the Middle East will have to be one place. I don’t know when but we really want to bring the Davis Cup here because it’s the World Cup of tennis.
“Right now, we’re starting to analyse places where we can go next. We have two or three options right now, but yes, we’ll have to come to the UAE. We’ll have to come to the Middle East. The knowledge of tennis is growing in the region and if you compare now to even 10 years ago, people understand tennis a lot more. The connectivity to Europe here is great too. I’m sure it would be a huge success.”