Barcelona defender Gerard Pique takes a selfie with a fan while watching Serbia's Novak Djokovic play Austria's Dominic Thiem during their round robin stage men's singles match on day one of the ATP World Tour Finals tennis tournament in London on November 13, 2016. (Photo by GLYN KIRK / AFP)
Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué is looking beyond football for his future business interests © AFP

When Croatia beat France in the final of last year’s Davis Cup, the flagship team event in men’s tennis, the victory marked the end of an era. 

From this year, the 119-year-old tournament comes under the financial control of a Spanish investment group run by footballer Gerard Piqué, whose radical plans have triggered a battle in the sport as intense as any match on court. 

The International Tennis Federation, the body that runs the Davis Cup, sold the competition’s commercial rights in a deal worth $3bn over 25 years. 

The buyer was Kosmos, a sports investment vehicle founded by Mr Piqué, the FC Barcelona defender, and Hiroshi Mikitani, billionaire chairman and chief executive of Japanese internet retailer Rakuten, which has secured investors such as venture capital groups China Media Capital and Sequoia. 

“I just want to bring one of the most important tennis competitions to the top again,” Mr Piqué told the Financial Times.

Kosmos is making big changes to the competition. Instead of ties being played home and away between nations over the course of the year, the final stages will be concentrated into a week-long event in Madrid this November, with 18 nations competing. 

Javier Alonso, chief executive of Kosmos Tennis, said the revamped format meant “[spectators] will continue to follow as you do for the World Cup of football . . . Without that change I don’t think Davis Cup would have survived.” 

Kosmos says that many top players, such as Spain’s Rafa Nadal, are enthusiastic. Others have been sharply critical. Switzerland’s Roger Federer has said “the Davis Cup should not become the Piqué Cup”. 

The company’s efforts also face opposition from leading tennis bodies, such as the ATP, which runs the men’s tennis world tour and is launching a rival team event that takes place just after the Davis Cup. 

Under the terms of its deal, Kosmos will pay $40m a year to the ITF, while covering other operational costs, such as the $18m prize pot for players. These financial commitments are worth $3bn over 25 years, said Mr Alonso. 

The group said early expenditure meant the competition would be lossmaking for up to three years. But it is quickly moving to recoup its outlay with a string of commercial deals in recent months. 

Madrid’s authorities are paying €11m a year to host the Davis Cup finals for the next two years. Rakuten became the Davis Cup’s title sponsor in June, with Mr Alonso saying the Japanese company would pay broadly the same amount as its previous main corporate partner, the French bank BNP Paribas. 

So far, Kosmos has secured 10 sponsors for the competition, up from just four last year. According to its annual report, the ITF made roughly $20m in 2018 from sponsorship deals related to its events, of which the Davis Cup is the biggest. 

Kosmos must retain a seven-year global television deal with beIN Sports signed in 2015, but has secured an agreement that it can sell screening rights for the competition in countries where the Qatari broadcaster has not agreed packages for the Davis Cup. 

To that end, Kosmos announced a TV deal with Movistar in Spain last month. It is in talks in other territories, such as with Amazon for UK screening rights, and the Sinclair Broadcast-owned Tennis Channel in the US. 

“Davis Cup is the only tennis event where fans support countries instead of players,” said Mr Piqué. “From a financial perspective, this new format is more attractive for sponsors as the event will be broadcast worldwide with 18 countries competing.”

Success depends on the best players taking part. Mr Alonso suggested “95 per cent” of top men’s players had signed up. But among the holdouts are the biggest names in tennis. 

The world’s top ranked player, Novak Djokovic, has not yet agreed to play. “I just feel like the date of the Davis Cup is really bad, especially for the top players,” the Serbian said last year, adding he intended to prioritise the ATP’s World Team Cup, a 24-nation tournament taking place in Australia in January. 

While Federer has signalled his disapproval, he is not eligible to play this year as Switzerland have not qualified for the finals. 

Chris Kermode, the outgoing chief executive of the ATP, has said that scheduling the expanded Davis Cup so close to his organisation’s new team event was “insane”, in effect pitting the two tournaments against each other in a battle for fans, players, broadcasters and commercial partners. 

Kosmos, ITF, ATP and organisers of other tennis competitions, such as the four Grand Slam tournaments, have been in talks for months to resolve problems around the congested calendar. 

So far, there is no resolution in sight. Yet Mr Alonso insisted a transformation was necessary to gain a greater global following for the competition. 

“Davis Cup was shrinking . . . because it was disconnected in the year,” he said. “So, last year: France against Croatia. In Spain, nobody knows who was at the final. Nobody cares, because we lost in September and you disconnect.” 

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