October 1, 2020
A Covid-Era Refresh

Weeks into the pandemic, with the entirety of the entertainment and sporting worlds quiet, a curiosity appeared in my morning paper: sports scores. With no games to report, the editors at some big city dailies engaged in a little history lesson, publishing results of games played on that day years ago. Sports fans are nostalgic, I suppose.

Perhaps saying the “entirety” of amateur and professional athletics being felled by quarantine is a bit of an exaggeration as some sports, notably Australian Rules Football and the Belarusian Premier League held matches, and ESPN aired cherry-spitting and ax throwing contests. I suppose, too, sports fans will watch anything.

Still, though, sports as we know it — crowded stadiums, Monday-morning quarterbacking — came to a halt. While fans lamented the loss, players and league officials, not to mention countless attendant workers, engaged in months of hand wringing about how, or if, some semblance of a season could be scraped together.

Athletes, however, faced a singular crisis. Sure, they could practice and train physically, but that’s just not the same as adrenaline-fueled competition that tests physical and mental acuity. Their existence is shaped by competition.

Enter Topnotch Management to offer a solution.

Kyle Ross, Public Relations Director for Topnotch

Consider What You Do Best

Topnotch Management, based in Cleveland, is a boutique talent agency representing top athletes in tennis, among them John Isner, Caroline Garcia and Reilly Opelka. The firm also offers luxury sports tourism opportunities. “When sports shut down in March we asked ourselves, ‘Now what,’” explained Kyle Ross, public relations director for Topnotch.  

Topnotch works with Grand Slam Tennis Tours, and the team was at Indian Wells on March 8 when the BNP Paribas Open was cancelled. “We had hundreds of guests there … and suddenly everything stopped,” Kyle said, describing the onset of lockdown. Everything stopped on the agency side, too, but the firm still had players that needed to train … and compete. Indeed, Topnotch needed to find its new, albeit temporary, reason for being.

As March wore on, Kyle said, Topnotch leadership looked to what the company does best: running professional and exhibition events around the country. “We thought we’d do a single weekend event, and began putting pieces together for broadcast and sponsors. In the end it was a big lift and too chaotic a time for most businesses to consider partnering with us,” Kyle said.

Topnotch took another approach, connecting with a data partner. Kyle explained that video and scoring data are valuable despite sports betting going dark at that time. “We recognized with some funding we could get a tennis tournament up and running,” he said. But, the landscape changed in terms of finding event sponsors, the traditional firms whose financial commitments support these events: apparel and equipment manufacturers, and travel companies, among others. Instead, Topnotch found a partner, Genius Sports, to back its idea economically, as well as technically.

The event, MatchPlay 120, was a 10-week tennis exhibition series played throughout the summer at multiple locations across the country and streamed globally. Seventy-five players, including those represented by Topnotch, competed, and many of whom used the tournament as preparation for the U.S. Open. Players, said Kyle, appreciated an off-season tournament and an arena in which to compete. “Clearly, practice is practice, but players needed the matches to really stay in top shape,” he said.

Tennis fans were grateful, too, as more than 50,000 viewers watched for the duration of play.

And that exhibition matches are part of the sport’s DNA meant an event like MatchPlay 120 made sense. “Something like [MatchPlay 120] would be a challenging pivot for another league” like the NBA or NFL, Kyle explained.

“MatchPlay was an ambitious project,” said Kyle, adding, “It was the longest-running, continuous new sporting event during the pandemic.”

Find A Complementary Player

The challenge in planning, Kyle said, was in coordination, what with securing multiple locations, finding and scheduling players, “it was nonstop and there were lots of fires to put out” but the team was beyond pleased.

Thanks to MatchPlay, he added, “we slept a little better … otherwise a lot of people would have been idle. This helped us with payroll, and gave us a reason to come together as a team at an uncertain time … gave us purpose.”

And thanks to Genius Sports, the event — on the courts and from a technical standpoint  — ran smoothly. Genius Sports tracked and collected all of the scoring data, and provided camera technology to live stream the matches worldwide. “That’s a piece we couldn’t do ourselves,” Kyle said. “Ours was a complementary partnership.”

As for what’s next for MatchPlay 120, Kyle didn’t want to predict it would be annual. “Topnotch is getting busier now with other events,” he offered, but admitted as the landscape continues to shift everyone — leagues, players, managers — will need to work with greater agility.

Edward Nakfoor is a Birmingham, Michigan-based freelance writer and marketer for small businesses. Has your business performed a Covid-era refresh? Contact Ed at edwardnakfoor@gmail.com.

Connect with Kyle at @ kyle@topnotchmanagement.com.

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