Old Team Tuesday: The Toronto-Buffalo Royals

Old Team Tuesday is a weekly feature taking a look at former teams that have gone by the wayside. This week’s edition rewinds to the earliest days of organized team tennis.

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For every Jackie Robinson, there is a Kenny Washington. For every Colin Kaepernick, there is a Curt Flood. And for every Lamar Hunt, there is a Leonard Bloom, Larry King, and Dennis Murphy.

Bloom, King, and Murphy were very familiar business partners and sports enthusiasts, having co-founded the American Basketball Association together in 1967 and the World Hockey Association in 1971. King and Murphy also set out to create Roller Hockey International later on in 1991. While the ABA and WHA both left lasting impacts on their respective sports, it can be argued that their efforts with tennis have been the greatest and most lasting pieces of their legacy.

--- Hoarders and borders ---

Formed in 1973, World Team Tennis was designed to attract the world’s top tennis talents – both male and female – to play a 44-game schedule between May and July to avoid conflicts with the already-established World Championship Tennis, one of the many professional sports entities founded and operated by Lamar Hunt. During their initial meetings in April, the league sat down with representatives of 27 cities all vying for the chance to scoop up one of the available franchises that WTT was offering.

Three weeks later, in Chicago, WTT’s 16 inaugural teams were introduced by Murphy, who had since been elected league president. The cities represented included Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, St. Louis, St. Paul, and Toronto.

The man who landed a franchise for Toronto was John Bassett, a 34-year-old Ontarian who was a four-sport athlete at the University of Western Ontario, a former member of Canada’s national tennis squad, and a movie producer. Bassett had recently been involved in a takeover of the WHA’s Ottawa Nationals that saw them relocate from the Canadian capital to the Ontario capital. He had also made headlines pumping up the newly-announced World Football League, along with his intent to put a WFL club in Toronto. Additionally, his father was the longtime owner of the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts, had previously been served as a member of the “Silver Seven” for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and was named president of Maple Leaf Gardens Limited in 1969.

Needless to say, sports ran deep in Bassett’s blood, and his personal love of tennis, his sudden hunger and ability to acquire teams, and the WTT’s formation came together to make for a perfectly-timed opportunity.

--- Building a league ---

In an effort to draw in new fans to the sport, traditional scoring was abolished. Competitions consisted of men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles. Each set produced a certain number of games won that would then be combined and tabulated at the end of the fifth set to determine a winner. This strayed from the way the sport was usually scored, which simply calculated the amount of sets won to name a winner.

In addition to updating scoring, other major adjustments were made to pique the curiosity of prospective fans. The traditional court layout was usually a monochromatic brown or green with broad white lines illustrating boundaries. In WTT, courts were colorized with blue and green service boxes, orange doubles alleys, and brown No Man’s Land with no white lines separating the sections. Noise, chants, and applause were also encouraged at any time, a major stray from the usually-refined crowds tennis had cultivated.

Each team was to fill their roster with three male and three female players in order to play.

--- Building a team ---

On August 3, 1973, WTT held its first-ever player draft in New York City. By that point, two franchises had uprooted themselves and relocated. St. Louis had bolted for Miami, while the Cincinnati club was sold and moved to the opposite corner Ohio to become the Cleveland Nets.

The then-unnamed Miami franchise held the first overall pick in the draft, and used it to select 18-year old phenom Chris Evert. Evert had burst onto the scene just two years prior, when she made a shocking run to the semifinals of the U.S. Open before Billie Jean King ended her charge. In 1973, however, Evert placed second at both the French Open and Wimbledon.

The first round boasted loads of talent for the upstart league to claim. Jimmy Connors went fourth overall to Phoenix. John Newcombe was selected seventh by Houston. Margaret Court was the next pick, going to San Francisco. Björn Borg became the Nets’ first-ever pick at 13 overall. And international superstar Billie Jean King – wife of WTT co-founder Larry King – was taken with the 12th pick of the opening round by Philadelphia.

The lottery selection left Toronto with the second-to-last pick of the first round, but they used it to select Tom Okker. Dutch by birth, Okker had represented the Netherlands at the Davis Cup every year since 1964. In 1973, he reached the quarterfinals of the French Open in singles play, and won seven singles and 12 doubles tournaments to finish the year as the fourth-ranked tennis player in the world.

The draft used a snake format, meaning the picking orders would reverse at the completion of each round. In the second round, Buffalo had the second selection (18th overall) and used it on 17-year-old Marita Redondo. Redondo was a promising homegrown talent from San Diego. At the time of the draft, she was competing in the Atlantic City Open on the WTA Tour. She wound up losing in the finals of the women’s singles tournament to Evert, but won the women’s doubles with Evert as her teammate.

The remainder of Toronto’s selections included Pierre Barthès, Lesley Hunt, Karl Meiler, Raúl Ramírez, Helga Masthoff, Laurie Tenney, Guillermo Vilas, and Mike Belkin.

--- Musical chairs ---

By May of 1974, two more teams had found new homes. Phoenix opted to head east to become the Baltimore Banners. The San Diego Swingers ventured west, eventually setting up as the Hawaii Leis. Toronto, meanwhile, decided that half of the team’s home games would remain at CNE Coliseum in Toronto like originally planned, but the other half would be shifted 100 miles south to Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo, New York. They adopted the name of the Toronto-Buffalo Royals.

The reason for the split schedule shared similar goals with the failed WTT franchise bid from Tampa-St. Petersburg. By appearing in two markets in the same geographic region, the team hoped to double its following and increase its revenue in a way that would be nearly impossible by remaining loyal to one city. To reflect the multinational nature of the club, the team adopted a logo featuring a royal crown placed above a bison (north of the buffalo).


After the movement ceased, the Royals were designated as members of the Eastern Division’s Central Section. Joining Toronto-Buffalo in the Central were the Cleveland Nets, Detroit Loves, and Pittsburgh Triangles.

--- Coming together ---

Prior to the start of the season, the Royals named Tom Okker as the team’s player-coach in lieu of hiring a full-time head coach. However, this came with a catch. Okker worked out a contract that would allow him to miss WTT matches if they conflicted with major tournaments or ATP events.

Another wrinkle Royals management dealt with in the offseason was the issue of signing their draft picks. Okker had been the only one to ink a deal with the club. The other nine did not, and as such, the team had to look elsewhere to fill its roster. Other players that eventually signed on with the Royals included South African Laura Rossouw, Australians Ian Fletcher and Jan O’Neill, and Americans Mike Estep and Wendy Overton.

--- Showtime ---

The Royals opened their season in Toronto on May 7 against the Cleveland Nets. A sizeable crowd of 5,550 showered Cleveland in heckles while cheering the home team on – a likeable change the WTT had been able to curate. Strong efforts from Okker, Estep, and Overton carried the Royals to a 32-21 victory at CNE Coliseum.

Two nights later, Cobo Hall was the scene of the team’s first road test. As had been the case in Toronto, the traveling team walked away with the loss, as the Detroit Loves won their inaugural match over Toronto-Buffalo 28-19. The night was noteworthy in that the league had been in play less than a week before Okker became the first player to protest a ruling from an umpire.

In their third game of the season, Okker opted not to play, and was instead replaced in the men’s singles by Fletcher. The Royals were in Baltimore to take on the Banners at the Civic Center, which featured a meager crowd of 761. Despite the small number of fans, Banners’ mainstay Jimmy Connors found himself irate at one spectator in particular, and twice attempted to drill him with a tennis ball from the court.

Back-to-back throttlings of Hawaii and New York pushed the Royals to a 4-1 start. Successive stumbles to Boston and Chicago were quickly forgotten after wins over Pittsburgh and Houston moved the team into a tie for first in the Central Section with Detroit, who both stood at 6-3 after May 22’s matches concluded.

Overton was disgusted after missing a shot during a Royals' victory in Pittsburgh.

On May 23, Philadelphia traveled to Buffalo for the first meeting of the season between the two clubs. The Freedoms came in as the league’s hottest team, riding a nine-game winning streak that had them undefeated in the circuit’s first month. Player-coach Billie Jean King helped lead the visitors past the Royals and their hefty crowd of 8,339 – the second-largest in the history of the young league – by winning her opening singles set 6-2 and combining with Tory Fretz to blast O’Neil and Overton in the women’s doubles. By the end of the night, Philadelphia stood at 10-0 after a 23-20 victory.

Another tight game between the Royals and Aces saw Toronto-Buffalo squeak past Chicago with a 25-24 final. In their next outing, the one-set difference fell the other way, as the Los Angeles Strings topped the Royals 24-23.

--- Falling apart ---

By the end of the month, the bi-national squad had collected a 7-5 record. The drop in scoring was a byproduct of WTT retooling their format midway through May. The six sets (two each of men’s singles, women’s singles, and mixed doubles) were dropped to five, and practice nets were installed to speed up substitutions and quicken the pace of the events.

By the middle of June, the promising fortunes of Toronto-Buffalo had all but disappeared. They were slogging through a nine-game losing streak and had fallen to 7-14 with a 26-23 loss to the Florida Flamingos in Miami.

The Royals managed to go winless in June, and had a 7-18 record when they faced Boston on July 14. After 48 days that saw 13 losses pile up and push Toronto-Buffalo to the lowest point in the sectional standings, they managed to top the Lobsters by a 28-24 count.

Unfortunately, the poor play of the team had shrunk interest in both home cities. Attendance dwindled and smaller crowds continued to be the norm at CNE Coliseum and Memorial Auditorium.

--- One and done ---

After their win over Boston, July couldn’t go any worse than June. Unfortunately, it also wasn’t as good as May. They closed out the second half of the month by adding four wins to their count, but they stood at 11-23, a record that was only better than the Hawaii Leis.

Play remain consistently poor, and the Royals concluded the 1974 season with a 13-31 mark. Hawaii managed to catch them in the final stretch and surpass their win total, ensuring the Royals finished dead-last in the 16-team WTT.

Less than two months after their season ended, an announcement was made that John Bassett had sold the franchise and would be relocated to Hartford, Connecticut ahead of the 1975 season.

The Philadelphia Freedoms finished the season at 39-5, collecting nine more wins than the second-seeded Detroit Loves. In the playoffs, Philadelphia found their way to the WTT Finals, where they were upset by the Denver Racquets. The franchise folded and moved to Boston after the inaugural season, but was the inspiration for Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom," which eventually reached the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and finished the year in third position.



Fletcher, O’Neill, and Rossouw all lasted one year each in WTT. Overton remained until the end of the 1976 season. Estep played five years, the entire duration of the league before it was shuddered. Okker played another three seasons, and was awarded WTT’s Male MVP in 1975 as a member of the Golden Gaters.

The league returned after a brief hiatus, and despite several name changes, the modern-day World TeamTennis still owes its existence to the original founders and their unique vision for the future of the sport.

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