The Hunt family is known in select circles in American sports. If you follow the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer, you know that Lamar Hunt founded the club and helped give MLS the financial muscle it needed to get off the ground in the United States.
If you follow the National Football League, America’s most popular television sport, you know that Lamar Hunt founded the Kansas City Chiefs. The AFC Championship Game determines one of the two teams which play in the Super Bowl every year. The winner of the AFC Championship Game receives the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
Lamar Hunt was one of the original owners of the American Football League, a rival league which challenged the National Football League in the 1960s. He founded the Dallas Texans in 1959, and the Texans’ first season was in 1960.
However, another football team in Dallas was getting started at that same point in time. You might have heard about this specific team even if you know very little about American football: the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys were part of the National Football League, which had already established roughly 40 years of history in the United States. The American Football League didn’t have the same foothold.
Dallas wasn’t big enough to have both the Texans and the Cowboys. The Texans and Lamar Hunt moved out of town to become the Kansas City Chiefs in 1963. The Chiefs played in the first Super Bowl game in January of 1967. They won their first Super Bowl in 1970 after winning the championship of the American Football League.
The AFL had proved, in those first four Super Bowl games from 1967 through 1970, that it could compete with the rival NFL. The AFL and NFL decided to merge their teams to form the modern National Football League, with the AFC (American Football Conference) and NFC (National Football Conference) champions meeting in the Super Bowl.
On Sunday, the Chiefs — owned by the Hunt family since their beginning over half a century ago — returned to the Super Bowl for the first time since January of 1970. A 50-year wait ended, and the Hunt family once again returned to the American sports spotlight.
Okay, what does this have to do with tennis?
Very simply, the story of tennis can’t be written without Lamar Hunt and, by extension, the Hunt family.
How so? You have to go back to 1971 and the early years of professional tennis in the Open Era.
The 1970s were a time when the tennis tours were unregulated, and they were also a time when the sport was trying to increase its national television profile in the United States.
The two biggest matches which increased the television exposure of tennis in the United States both took place in the state of Texas, where Hunt grew up and established his name and reputation. One match — which enabled women’s tennis to take off — was the Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973 in the Houston Astrodome.
The other match — which propelled men’s tennis as a TV property in the United States — was the World Championship Tennis circuit, whose featured event was the eight-player tournament in Hunt’s home base of Dallas.
The 1972 WCT championship match in which Ken Rosewall defeated Rod Laver in five sets remains one of the great matches in tennis history. It is one of the most important wins of Rosewall’s career and one of Laver’s (by his own admission) tougher losses.
That 1972 WCT final was watched by an (estimated) 21.3 million people on NBC TV in the United States, a huge number. When considering the tennis boom which swept through the United States in the latter half of the 1970s, the rise of Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors certainly played big roles, but that 1972 match laid the groundwork.
Lamar Hunt, as the creator of the WCT circuit, was immensely important in the development of tennis as an attractive, viable commercial property and television attraction. He died in 2006 at age 74, so he didn’t get to see his beloved Chiefs win the Lamar Hunt Trophy this past Sunday. (His son Clark runs the team and was part of that championship ceremony.)
Lamar Hunt wrote about the early years of the WCT championship tournament in Dallas in 1986, when the event marked its 15th anniversary. The WCT ended in 1989, but its legacy and its part in developing professional tennis will remain central in the sport’s history as long as the evolution of tennis is discussed.
Did you not know who Lamar Hunt was before the Kansas City Chiefs returned to the Super Bowl on Sunday for the first time in 50 years? You know now… and you also know Lamar Hunt was a huge helper to the sport of tennis.
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