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Tennis, everyone?

Boston’s WTT Lobsters find a home in suburban Middleton, where they hope crowds come to love their family-friendly game

A 1,700-seat stadium keeps fans close to the Boston Lobsters. A 1,700-seat stadium keeps fans close to the Boston Lobsters. (Jim Davis/Globe staff)
By Bob Duffy
Globe Correspondent / July 29, 2010

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MIDDLETON — Bahar Uttam is, well, there’s no getting around it — a nut. And not just an ordinary nut. The man is certified. In 2001, the US Tennis Association officially designated him the Tennis Nut of New England.

Organizers noticed his presence at every US Davis Cup match around the world. They also couldn’t avoid the sight of his attire, however jolting: “I think I own every tennis tie ever made,’’ said Uttam.

Some might say Uttam’s nuttiest stunt was resurrecting the Boston Lobsters, who had gone defunct in 1978 after four fruitless years in the fledgling World TeamTennis. But that’s what he did six years ago, and now Uttam believes it’s the skeptics who are crazy.

He acknowledged they did have a point. Once. Three years ago, Uttam, a 66-year-old Brit, was questioning his own sanity. In their reexistence, the Lobsters had endured three unsatisfying years at Harvard, where the facilities were prestigious but wholly unsuited for WTT needs.

Uttam had plenty of disposable income after selling Wakefield-based Synetics, the engineering company he cofounded and operated as chief executive. But he didn’t intend to dispose of all of it.

“I bought the team to have fun,’’ he said, “but not to lose money. I was ready to give it up.’’

Instead, he retrenched with a vengeance, if not apparent logic. His biggest step, more a leap of faith, was seemingly suicidal. He abandoned the Hub and the hubbub, along with its abundance of commercial opportunities and ventured into deepest suburbia in this bedroom community 19 miles north of Boston. Forget the Metropolitan team name; the Lobsters became Middleton’s own, billing themselves as the North Shore’s only pro sports team, and turning that dubious boast into a distinction.

“I did all sorts of research,’’ said Uttam. “I looked south. I looked west. The North Shore is a huge tennis area. It has easy access to the highway, and we found a place that wanted us.’’

That place is Ferncroft Country Club and its 1,700-seat court in the shadow of a far better-known golf course, an unlikely paradise for the Lobsters. Fewer than two grand on the premises would cause the Lobsters’ neighbors (if in name only), the Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots, and Celtics, to raze their facilities, but modest attendance targets have been no deterrent. Now Uttam is basking in solvency, or at least its proximity.

“This has been my best season from a business point of view,’’ said Uttam, who estimates his total attendance at 8,000 to 9,000, a healthy bump from last year’s 7,200 to 7,300. “We’re very close to turning a profit’’ — he held his thumb and forefinger almost imperceptibly apart. “We’re still in negative numbers, but not by much.’’

At $15 to $60, tickets are not the ticket to success. But Uttam did the math, WTT style. He consulted tennis maven Butch Buccholz, who told him, “The business model for this to succeed is 75 percent sponsors, 25 percent tickets.’’

So Uttam pursued backers like a love-struck schoolboy and now has more than he can count. Every inch of the cozy court and its environs is smothered in signs, and hospitality tents abound. Each of the seven home matches this season, which concluded Friday, featured a different presenting sponsor, with $25,000 buying corporate exclusivity.

“That’s the bottom figure,’’ said Uttam. “Some pay much more than that.’’

Sponsors range from Acura to Amica, from Polar to Reebok, from Beverly Hospital to New Balance. As a group, they constitute the Lobsters’ near-profit margin. Individually, they have unique needs. Amica is in it for name branding. Polar wants its product sampled. William A. Berry construction’s zeal is for schmoozing clients, as evidenced last week when it held an outing at the Lobsters’ next-to-last — and centerpiece — home match.

That match was the WTT blueprint in microcosm. Billie Jean King’s baby is now a healthy 35-year-old, and it has reached its prime by promoting the strange notion that this most individual of sports can be conducted on a team basis. It’s counterintuitive, but it works, though it is a team sport only in a helter-skelter sense. Each of the 10 franchises fields a core of journeymen and up-and-comers, but the big attractions are the marquee players who show up for a match or two, like Vegas headliners, then vamoose. Owners pay appearance money for their own shooting stars and visiting attractions. The idea is that the names will bring you in, giving the other guys and gals a chance to grow on you.

The Lobsters’ home favorites this year were Harvard alum and former world number-four James Blake and exhausted John Isner, survivor of the longest match in tennis history, at Wimbledon this year. Uttam also underwrote visits from Martina Hingis and the New York Buzz and, last week, Anna Kournikova and the St. Louis Aces. For his buck, Uttam drew attendances ranging from a disappointing 900 for Hingis to a delirious sellout for Kournikova.

Beyond that, the WTT’s appeal rests with its approach to the game and the patrons. Everything about it is condensed, starting with its regular season, which lasts three hectic weeks in July, and including its matches, a much faster-paced enterprise than the traditional sport. There are five sets — men’s and women’s singles and doubles and mixed doubles — an entire night’s equivalent to one Grand Slam match. First player to five games wins a set, with nine-point tiebreakers if they arrive at a 4-4 juncture. Four points win a game, with no deuces. And let-ball serves are played. Total games decide the overall winner.

“It’s a great format,’’ said Kournikova. “You play much shorter and have to fight for every point.’’

But there’s much more than that.

WTT is decidedly fan-oriented, a cacophonous counterpoint to the icy silence of the game played by independent contractors.

As founding mother King put it, “Please be quiet — after the match.’’

Lobsters fans are encouraged — no, exhorted — to yell their hearts and lungs out for the home team by PA announcer Steve Calechman.

Cowbells clang between points, and music rocks throughout the joint.

In general, “the fans can go wild,’’ said Kournikova.

Autograph sessions — featuring every player, stars and understudies alike — follow each match; Kournikova signed for 15 minutes last week, until every 16-and-under idolater had been satisfied. And at one of the rare Lobsters matches that didn’t boast a big name, the team staged Family Day, “for the community more than the draw,’’ said Uttam.

“You should have seen 200 kids hitting with the pros, learning how to hit the ball,’’ he said. “That gave me great pleasure.’’

With his struggles apparently in the past and his team entrenched in a rewarding niche market, Uttam can tell you that pleasure equals profit. Or it’s about to, anyway.

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