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U.S. Open

Power, Control and Greed in Professional Tennis

Jane Voigt

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Roger Federer is one of the highest paid athletes in the world. According to Forbes, he has earned $93.4m USD. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com
Leslie Billman -- TennisClix.com

Professional tennis players have a problem. They don’t make enough money.

Unlike basketball, baseball and football players who are covered by annual salaries through player unions, tennis players are independent contractors. Some make millions and others can barely break even while earning $150,000 a year. As a result, players assume every type of risk associated with their chosen career path.

If injuries sideline them, they don’t play tournaments and don’t earn prize money. If they don’t have sponsors or federation support, like the International Tennis Federation or the U.S.T.A., to cover costs for coaches, trainers, racquets, shoes, strings, clothing, food, taxes and travel, that money comes out of their pockets.

The question is: What should they do about it?

The heart of the problem circles around the most lucrative tournaments, the four Grand Slams. Neither the ATP nor the WTA can directly negotiate with the Grand Slam Boards to secure a bigger percentage of their revenue for players, even though players — qualifiers all the way to champions — are earning more in prize money.

This year the U.S.T.A., the owners of the U.S. Open, will dole out $57M in prize money. In comparison, the 2018 purse was $53M. That’s a 9% increase, which is a handsome amount. Fox Business News recently called it “the richest prize pool in tennis history.”

However, it represents a sliver of the total revenue pocketed by the U.S.T.A.

This year the Open should generate $375M in revenue, according to projections extrapolated from Forbes. That’s the richest projection of income for any one of the four Grand Slams. The percentage of these riches, though, doesn’t filter down to the players’ bank accounts, even though prize money continues to rise along with that revenue.

So when we see that the women’s and men’s singles champions will earn $3.85M for their mighty efforts, our mouths drop. What could be the problem when that’s the prize money?

No matter how you react to this massive amount of prize money for these extraordinary champions, it still represented only 14% of total revenue going to the U.S.T.A. that’s paid out to them.

“We are really blocked,” Gilles Simon, a former member of the ATP Player Council, said, according to the New York Times. “The structure works against us and the imbalance being already there between the tournaments and the players, the imbalance endures.”

The gaps between revenue for tournament owners and income for professional athletes is the same for employees in the workaday world. Yet the age-old argument, that people just want a living wage, isn’t just desired by the working population. Professional tennis players want that, too.

“The dream is to be top 100, top 10 [or] world number one,” Roger Federer said in Cincinnati, according to Football Scoop. “But to be able to make a living from what you wanted to do I think that’s the cool bit.”

The reality, though, is hundreds of players aren’t blessed with the enduring game that Federer has dazzled millions with over his career. These players play low-level events, like ATP Challengers, winning small purses and few ranking points.

“I do believe the Challenger players and also maybe qualifying and second-round losers should get more,” Roger Federer said, as reported by ESPN.

“You’d probably have to make about $125,000 total before breaking even,” Tim Mayotte, former ATP player with 12 career titles, told Tennis With an Accent.

The former top-10 American admitted that was a guess, then added, “That’s with $1,500 a week in expenses plus you’re on the road 30 weeks, plus taxes … that would probably be about a break-even point. You would have to make about $200,000 a year from prize money and whatever endorsements to make a living wage. It’s hard to tell because it depends on how much you’re investing back into your tennis.”

The ATP does provide some player benefits that are similar to the ones working people covet.

“There’s health care and there used to be disability insurance, but I’m not sure where that stands at the moment,” Mayotte added. “And then there’s a pension plan.”

When Mayotte was on tour, from 1978 through 1995, he was almost always covered for these expenses because of his ranking.

“I think the health care cutoff is 200 for singles and maybe 150 for doubles. That’s what it was back when I played.”

Player Relations at the ATP Tour and the WTA did not respond to questions, regarding issues similar to this: for example, the percentage of player income that goes to expenses.

Nonetheless, Mayotte is in tune with the inability of the ATP to do anything about negotiating with Grand Slams. He knows that issue is a hot topic.

“The big question right now is how do players effectively negotiate with the slams,” he said. “How [do] they up their percentage of revenue? I think everybody else would agree. The slams wouldn’t agree.”

The players, though, have no collective body that could sit down with the Grand Slams because of the structure of the ATP.

“The players don’t have a body that does that for them because of the structure of the ATP Tour,” Mayotte said. “Players, instead, negotiate with the ATP tournaments. They do not have direct representation as a group with the slams. So the big question is, are they going to take steps to do that?”

The ATP Board, which is comprised of three players and three non-players, such as tournament representatives and business leaders, is the dominant group in the organization. It pays players’ salaries. The ATP Player Council, which is made up of 13 players of differing rankings, can influence the board, but not when it’s in turmoil, as it has been for over six months.

Before Indian Wells began, the ATP Board “voted against extending the contract of [Chief Executive] Chris Kermode,” wrote the The New York Times. Yet even before this outcome, the Player Council had met and couldn’t come to a consensus to pass along to the Board. The rub: Some thought Kermode had not secured “more prize money gains from Grand Slams.”

“I do think the slams are not sharing the revenues with the players in a way that’s commensurate with every other sport,” Mayotte added. “I think that’s what [Novak] Djokovic is doing right now.”

Novak Djokovic leads players with the most career prize money, more than $120m USD. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com.

Novak Djokovic leads players with the most career prize money, more than $120M USD. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com.

Novak Djokovic is the head of the ATP Player Council. After its meeting before Wimbledon, Weller Evans was elected to fill a vacancy as a player representative.

Djokovic knows, as does every player on tour, that “the governing is structured in such a way that does not allow us to make any significant changes at our will,” wrote Matt Fitzgerald for Tennis Magazine online.

Djokovic, along with Federer and Rafael Nadal, who joined the Player Council this month, want to grow the sport and take care of struggling lower-ranked players. More prize money would solve some of their problems.

“I think if there should be increases, it shouldn’t be at the top anymore,” Federer said, again to ESPN. “I feel like we have reached a pretty good level there.”

But who has the power to bring about those changes? And how can a group of disparate players find common ground to then approach the daunting reality of negotiations with entities unwilling to reveal their revenues while having no incentive to do so?

The idea of collective bargaining, which could change the balance of power and control in tennis, is riddled with obstacles. To transform that process within the tennis industry would cost millions of dollars in attorney fees and, probably, hundreds of hours of time from players before, during and after any agreement is reached. Time, expenses, and who reaps the rewards would all be up for discussion in contentious, prolonged interactions.

Exactly what would be controlled by a player union, one that would negotiate with the ATP and WTA tournaments and, most importantly, the Grand Slams, is an open question.

How many hours would be set aside for player obligations with sponsors? How would endorsements be calculated and would they depend on rankings? Would players control contracts with sponsors, or would the union?

What about player benefits? Appearance fees would come under question. What about taxes? Would players have to pay the union to take care of these tax payments?

Lorenzo Sonego lost in the second round of the US Open this year. He earned $100,000, which equals 10% of his total career earning: $1,032,073. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com.

Lorenzo Sonego lost in the second round of the US Open this year. He earned $100,000, which equals 10% of his total career earning: $1,032,073. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com.

The inadequate wages, though, for professional tennis players are real, especially for those ranked outside the top 100. That’s the bottom-line incentive which could spur and unite players to then break through and arrive at the key: What this really boils down to is a core tension between players currently being treated as property versus players being served by the sport they fund.

Let’s shift the focus here:

What players do with their increases in income is yet another question for tennis and pro tennis players to consider.

Years ago a reporter asked Federer after a match what he did with his money. The normally smooth nature of Federer’s public relations experience seemed to collapse on queue. He was ruffled by the notion of the question and its personal nature.

What do you mean what do I do with my money? I’m Swiss, I put it in the bank, he said in so many words.

Yet if a players union was up and running, that type of question could become pertinent. Would all the funds go to the players, even those ranked outside, let’s say, 500? Or would some funds be allocated to increasing the rewards handed out at those low-level tournaments?

“A good portion of the money that would come with increases from the slams should go into these entry-level tournaments,” said Mayotte, who now runs The Tim Mayotte Tennis Academy, “so people [ranked] 200-250 could make some money, enough to make the transition. Right now entry-level ITF tournaments and Futures are $15,000 for the whole tournament. Players who win [earn] $2,000, which is barely enough. That’s where the players’ union should say we want more money for the 100-200 but also from 200-600.”

Federer agrees, according to the ESPN story.

“I do believe the Challenger players and also maybe qualifying and second-round losers should get more,” he said.

Before and since the ATP Tour was formed in the fall of 1972, players threatened and actually boycotted to get attention for their grievances. At Wimbledon in 1973, players refused to play if Niki Pilic wasn’t allowed to compete. The Yugoslavian had decided to play a professional doubles tournament instead of playing Davis Cup, when both fell on the same weekend. Because of his decision, the head of the country’s tennis federation suspended Niki for nine months.

That move didn’t sit well with his tennis compadres, who were all (at the time) moving away from non-paying amateur tennis to the professional tennis of the ATP Tour, which stood by Pilic.

Neither Wimbledon nor the ATP Tour stood down, so the players walked. They were labeled as greedy, which really wasn’t the point of the boycott; “freedom and control were.”

Maybe today’s players should awaken again to reclaim their real leverage: themselves. Results, or at least reactions, would come quickly and certainly cost less than forming a union and reorganizing the ATP Tour. But, then again, players would have to be of one mind, which doesn’t seem to be on the court quite yet.

Jane knew beyond a doubt her life was about tennis: Playing it and writing about it. She packed up her life in Chicago and headed for the east coast where better tennis weather and opportunities awaited. When the U.S. Open Series took off, 2007, Jane pitched a traveling road-show of coverage to several editors, yet it was TennisServer.com that opened its doors. Five years later she developed her own website, DownTheTee.com, while continuing to write for TheTennisIsland.com, TennisGrandstand.com, WorldTennisMagazine.com, and, at times, tennis.com. The landscape broadened for Jane as she covered pro tennis as a member of the accredited media on site at the BNP Paribas Open (2009, 2015), The Miami Open (2008, 2009, 2012-14), Volvo Car Open (2009-2018), Rogers Cup (2009), Citi Open (2009-10, 2012-2018) and The International Tennis Hall of Fame Tournament (2014-15). To stay extra sharp in all things tennis, Jane worked for 18 years as the merchandise buyer for tennis specialty at Washington Golf and Country Club, Arlington, Virginia.

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