Jim McIngvale, the crazy former Masters promoter

Nov 8, 2013, 12:00:00 AM

Jim McIngvale, the crazy former Masters promoter
If the ATP World Tour Finals started in London on Monday, they weren’t always held in the British capital. Ten years ago, they were held in Houston, by Jim McIngvale, bedding tycoon, and friend of Chuck Norris. Portrait.

The Barclays ATP World Tour Finals or London Masters have started on Monday. This year also marks the 10-year anniversary of the 2003 edition, which was held in Houston, United States. A tournament hosted by the ephemeral tennis promoter Jim McIngvale, also known as « Mattress Mack », American bedding tycoon, champion of modern capitalism, a friend of Chuck Norris and alleged former cocaine dealer. Portrait.


Pictures of George Bush senior and his wife Barbara decorate the hallways. Above each court, there's an American flag and soft drinks are served to the players directly on their chair. At the Westside Club in Houston, everything is in the image of the owner: Jim McIngvale. A fervent Yankee patriot best known by the nickname "Mattress Mac". This avid collector of Ferrari, producer of the film Sidekicks with Chuck Norris is one of the most famous Texan entrepreneur of his generation. How? He made ​​his fortune in bedding and cheap furniture in the mid 80s before acquiring in 1995 the only tennis complex in the world with the four Grand Slam surfaces. There, the clay is French and the Queens’ gardener himself planted the grass. In 2001, Jim decided to go one step further and convinced the ATP to give him a tournament. Cost? Several million dollars in promotional campaign, "with 17 ads in newspapers, 8523 TV ads and 135 billboards all over the city," according to the French sports daily L'Equipe. Two years later, it's the recognition. After being held for ten years in Germany, then in Lisbon, Sydney and Shanghai, the 2003 and 2004 editions of the Masters call at the Westside Club. 27 million dollars invested, including ten in the construction of a new 9000 seats stadium, seven to afford the rights of the tournament, and ten to "Fund another massive promotional campaign, three super expensive commercials during the Super Bowl" according to L'Equipe. And to quote the principal party: "This is Texas. And everything is bigger in Texas».


« 5000 dollars and a dream»


This taste for excess and this marketing talent, McIngvale has worked on it throughout his wild career. Founder in 1981 of Gallery Furniture, with "5000 dollars and a dream", he’s now industry leader in Texas. Its one and only store shows 200 million dollars in revenue. A project imagined while he was on parole, after being arrested for trafficking cocaine two years earlier. His debut in entrepreneurship was difficult. One day, he decided to invest his last savings, about 10,000 dollars, in a commercial broadcasted on two major national channels. Cap on the head, a bunch of greenbacks in his left hand and a vest in the colours of the flag, he proposed innovative services: offering home delivery the day of purchase. He took advantage of the video to criticize the negative impact of immigration on the local economy and tout the free market against "the socialist parasites that will kill future generations." Before prophesying: "I fear for my grandchildren, who certainly prefer to spend their days slumped in front of the TV as a good little obese rather than getting up early to work». Result: This crazy commercial, messy but effective, has the effect of a bomb in the industry. The sales in store explode. The kinds of success story that Americans love. Especially since Jim started with nothing. Former breakdown mechanic born in Mississippi, he spent a good part of his youth in the temporary shelters of an independent community of Harris County, Texas. The concept? Members fund their own school, produce their own electricity and pay - in exchange - no local tax. "I was already the star of the community," he said in his autobiography. At the end, he went to a big University of Dallas and graduated: "I owe my high school success to my fantastic sight and the good grades of my classmates."


Turkeys, homeless and Steffi Graf


In the early 90s, Gallery Furniture engaged in a number of charitable projects. If the best known remains the "Christmas Tradition" as he says, providing at the end of each year a fully furnished house to a needy family, or this memorable 1992 New Year's Eve when he offered a hot meal to 20,000 homeless in the city. But it was during a dinner organized for children suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder that he first came across tennis. Or rather Steffi Graf. The German champion was sponsoring the event. The opportunity for her to play a match, barefoot and in her evening gown, with some kids in the parking lot of a Houston hotel. The image was unusual. For McIngvale, it was full joy and emotion: "To see her play like that, with tears in her eyes whenever the kids were speaking to her in German, made ​​me crazy about tennis for the first time." It must be said that the issue is particularly sensitive for the McIngvales. Liz, the eldest daughter, suffers from serious OCD. Everyday, the girl washes her hands seven times a day, turns off the kitchen tap or turns off the stove with her feet in order to never get her hands dirty.


Roger Federer and heart attack


Little by little, this mammoth character became friend with the husband of his new pal, Andre Agassi. The two fellows are both Texans, love excess, and quickly become as thick as thieves. So it’s for the Kid of Las Vegas, and for him alone that Jim decided to host two successive editions of the Masters in his club. In 2003, he was applauding and screaming in joy at every winner point of André. Lectured by the ATP, claiming a duty of neutrality for the organizers, the mogul explained: "I'm sorry, but I'm very emotional. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have spend this much money in the damn game, but from the point of view of the promote,  do you know how much is worth the presence of Agassi in the semi-finals? A million dollars at least!" Even crazier: upset by Roger Federer's comments on the average quality of the courts, "Jim decided to go lecture the Swiss in his dressing room before his first match against Agassi, saying he wished him to lose, revealed L'Equipe that year (...) The Swiss won the first victory of his career against the American, flew over the tournament and won against Agassi in the final five days later. Alone on top of the stands in the hope of not being noticed, Mattress Mac punctuated the defeat of his darling by a big kick in the garden chairs that served as seats, triggering an avalanche.» Despite a less eventful second edition, the Masters left Houston for Shanghai in 2005. A “worthless" tournament according to Jim. Since then, the Westside Club has stopped hosting ATP tournaments. The health of the owner doesn't allow it anymore. Hospitalized in early September for a heart attack, he's now stable. "I might be working too much, but I don’t know any other way" he posted from his hospital bed on his Facebook in August. Just got a call from President George H.W. Bush wishing me well. He's the greatest, couldn't be more blessed to know him. Thank you for all of your support. Proud to be an American."


By Victor Le Grand