Lobsters are clawing their way northward
Tennis team will play at Ferncroft
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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff /
March 23, 2008
The story of how Boston's professional tennis franchise moved roughly 45 minutes north to the suburbs started with a dinner conversation about six months ago. It involved Boston Lobsters owner Bahar Uttam, the former technology company mogul turned tennis junkie, and Jerry Solomon, who is president of the Lynnfield-based StarGames Inc., husband of figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, and the event manager who filled Madison Square Garden with 19,600 people to see Pete Sampras play Roger Federer.
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Over dinner at the 19th Hole restaurant at the Ferncroft Country Club in Middleton, Solomon suggested to Uttam that he leave Harvard, where the Lobsters had played since Uttam resurrected the defunct World Team Tennis team in 2005.
Solomon had about 30 years of experience in these matters. Uttam had about three.
"I've been doing it myself. I needed some adult supervision," Uttam joked
So he listened.
"He told me, 'Why do you keep going back to Harvard?' " Uttam said. "I was comfortable there. I didn't look beyond there. He opened my eyes and said to look elsewhere because that's not the most ideal situation to be in."
In their three-year stay at Harvard, the Lobsters were never completely settled.
The first season, they played at the Bright Center, converting the hockey rink to a 3,500-seat tennis facility with no air conditioning and marginal attendance. After sweating through that year, air conditioning was added in 2006, "which was very expensive," Uttam said. But things still didn't click. Last season they tried to move outdoors.
"Their outdoor courts were really not conducive to audience participation and audience viewing, so that's really one of the things that prompted us to look elsewhere," Uttam said.
So, after three seasons at Harvard, the Lobsters will move to Ferncroft to play their seven-game home schedule, opening the season July 7 against the Delaware Smash with Martina Navratilova playing for the hometown team. Venus Williams, playing for the Philadelphia Freedoms, will visit on July 10. The 14-game season will be played over three weeks.
The team will use the two of the country club's eight courts to create a site that will seat 1,500 to 2,000 people. The courts have lighting, but Uttam will upgrade the lights to meet television specifications.
"I want to reach out to a much larger audience, and I think that's where Jerry can help me," Uttam said.
Chalk it up to what Uttam calls the team's rebranding: new site in Middleton, new leaders like Solomon, and new coach in Springfield native Tim Mayotte.
A big part of the reason for the move was because much of the team's fan base comes from the North Shore. Solomon convinced him that it only makes sense to take the game to where the game is played.
"In the summertime, [north of Boston] is an area where there are a lot of people who are vacationing, they're coming out here for the weekend, they're looking for things to do."
They are also, as Ferncroft tennis pro Cory Tusler pointed out, playing tennis.
"You've got so many different country clubs in the area," Tusler said. "It's just a really great population of tennis enthusiasts . . . I think we're going to have good attendance."
That said, Uttam is moving his team to a club known more for its golf than its tennis, having hosted LPGA events and charity tournaments for years.
"When Bahar called, the first reaction was one of ignorance," said Damon DeVito, managing director of Affinity Golf Management, which owns Ferncroft. "Ignorance of not knowing all the details about the league and the team and what he's been doing with it. As we learned more and we heard names like Martina Navratilova and Venus Williams, and we heard about on the other nights how fan-oriented it is, those are the things that got us excited."
The key is making sure that excitement resonates on nights when the superstars are in town and on nights when they're not, which means reaching out to the fans, holding clinics, and putting on a solid show every night. That's why, Uttam said, he is glad he had that dinner meeting with Solomon.
"I'm doing this totally out of passion," said Uttam, who picked up the sport years ago when his son, Jason, asked him about a sport they could both play.
Losing the location in the heart of Boston, with MBTA accessibility and the Harvard campus, he said, isn't as big a loss as it might seem.
"We've built a nice fan base in Boston and the surrounding cities and towns," Uttam said, noting that the Lobsters are not the only WTT team to play on the outskirts of their city. "Those people will come back. We haven't lost them."
Solomon still sees the organization's untapped potential.
"My impression of the Lobsters is that they have not taken advantage of all the things that World Team Tennis has to offer," he said.
"I needed the experience of someone who lived and breathed running large events. I wish our paths had crossed two years ago."