No King-sized crowd on Billie Jean King Night

IRVINE — On Billie Jean King Night, the first one 100 fans received a free bobblehead of the tennis icon.

That meant about half of everyone who came to watch the Orange County Breakers play on Wednesday night got a bobblehead.

The turnout at the Bren Events Center on the UC Irvine campus looked small. The number of tickets sold was 932, but inside an arena that sits 5,000, around 200 fans showed up.

The fanfare for the local World Team Tennis appears to have dropped since the Breakers left Newport Beach last year, much of it because of the larger size of the new venue.

While the team is in contention in the Western Conference standings, the change from playing outdoors to indoors has not been much of a success at the ticket gate.

King, the owner of the Breakers, noticed the low numbers firsthand, on her night.

There has been talk of King moving the WTT-run franchise again, this time out of Orange County. King said she could have the team any place she wants, but she wants a Southern California presence because of her roots in Long Beach.

"This is our challenge team. Every other team is doing well. Challenges," King sighed. "We just moved into this arena, so I'm going to have to make some changes.

"We knew it was going to be tough because we took over the team really late. In all fairness to our [general manager Kerry Schneider], who's a league person, we sent her out here. I told her, 'Just run the team this year. We'll worry about next year.'"

The Daily Pilot sat down with King, 68, and talked about the state of the Breakers and World Team Tennis.

Question: Do you like the arena's layout?

Answer: We have to cover up some stuff and start over. I don't know. It's too big right now. We have Smash Hits here twice, which we do for Elton (John's) AIDS Foundation. We pretty much pack this place, but that's because it's for a charity.

Q: Are you happy that you relocated the team?

A: I think long term, or, I don't know. We'll figure it out. I just think it's a neutral site. That's why I like it. You got a lot of clubs in the area. One year it was really cold and damp (in Newport Beach), it was like 50. Everybody had to bring their blankets out. I was thinking, 'Oh, my gosh!'

Q: Is there any talk of maybe of going elsewhere?

A: We'll just reevaluate. It's fine. Our other cities do really well. They pack them.

Q: What cities do well?

A: Washington is the best. [The Kastles are] sold out every night. It doesn't matter who plays. They think about the team. Once they get hooked into it, the team concept is fun. Also, that owner [Mark Ein] does it right. Sacramento's done a great job. We got an old owner back this year for the first time, Ramey Osborne, but he's got a partner, Deepal [Wannakuwatte]. Philadelphia does a great job.

Q: What do the Breakers need to do to attract more fans?

A: I think we need to tap into the Asian and Hispanic market in Orange County. We changed it from Newport Beach to Orange County, because it's a whole new restart.

I want [tennis] to look like America. America's got every culture possible now.

Q: Do you think sometimes when a team relocates it takes a step back?

A: Sometimes it's the short-term loss for a long-term gain. We have to evaluate. But we got strategic partners that we're talking to for quite awhile.

Q: Andre Agassi was here on Monday, when 1,440 fans attended. The crowd has been the largest of the season for the Breakers so far. How did you get him out?

A: He and I are good friends. We help each other out. I did the commencement speech at his [school in Las Vegas] last year. He just comes in for me and I go and do stuff for him. It's kind of like the old days. We don't charge money.

Q: When you're watching a match, do you get real competitive and do you want your team to win?

A: Deep down, from a league point of view, I would always want every home team to win, because then the fans are happy. But that just ain't going to happen.

Q: Is it hard sometimes to watch when you can't really control what's going on out there on the court?

A: When I used to coach, I used to have the same [feeling], too.

Q: Are you like the other WTT owners?

A: Some of the owners like to sit on the bench. I don't like to do that. I thought about doing it, though. You can tell which ones need to be out there. They sit on the bench with the team, which I wanted to vote against it as a group, but they voted for it. I knew they would. They don't coach. They just like to be part of the [team].

Q: What direction is World Team Tennis headed?

A: People are going to be very pleased what we're going to do in the future. We just won't be in the United States. We'll probably be overseas. Put the 'World' in World Team Tennis. That's always been one of our goals.

Twitter: @DCPenaloza

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