By KAREN HELF
Special to Tennis With An Accent
Coronavirus play stoppage has torn open a festering wound that is now a tennis crisis, with low to no wages in the lower ranks. While the press frequently highlights financial titans — Serena, Naomi, Roger, and Novak — the stories of those below are rarely told.
In recent weeks, Patrick Mouratoglou and Georgian world No. 371, Sofia Shapatava, joined a conversation championed by Vasek Pospisil. Pospisil, a player council member, aired his concerns openly back in August of 2019. The current world No. 93 spoke up as he grew increasingly concerned about peers losing money or just breaking even.
On April 7, Patrick Mouratoglou published a plea to industry peers on his Facebook page urging immediate action. Shapatava launched a petition on Change.org seeking support from the International Tennis Federation (ITF), Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). At last check the petition had more than 2,000 signatures. Americans Andy Roddick, John Isner, Noah Rubin and former No. 9, Russian Andrei Chesnokov have also been vocal.
The long-term impact may damage the sport indefinitely. Players and parents are watching. Fans are signing Shapatava’s petition, awakened to the reality that nearly 80% of these professional athletes do not make a living wage. Unlike most professional sports, tennis players do not receive a salary, contract or bonus. Players rely on prize money and endorsements to survive. Competing also requires a significant self-funded international travel budget. This sheds new light on meltdowns and smashed racquets when a young player fails to convert a break point. A point could mean financial ruin when hopes of advancing to the the next round disappear.
This story resonates in the public eye now more than ever. How the tennis world does or does not respond will not be forgotten.
Should the tours lose players beyond the top-100, events may not have enough players to operate a full draw. As the tours age, will the Halle and Queens Club tournaments be able to co-exist on the same tour dates? Currently 26% of the WTA top-100 are 29 or more years old. That number jumps to 41% for the ATP. Without a healthy dose of new blood, the future of the sport may dry up. Will the tours consist of only wealthy but not necessarily the best athletes, causing the elitist stigma to grow? My sincere hope is no.
Tournaments, tennis institutions, broadcasters and sponsors make money off the backs of players. The reality of COVID-19 has CEOs forgoing salaries to keep employees afloat. Surely tennis has the conscience and the wisdom to respond.
The typical tennis calendar allows little time for the reflection needed to facilitate a change of this magnitude. The virus-mandated break provides that opportunity. In the short term, tennis leaders may save the dreams of the current young generation. Long term, they may save their own future.
Multiple chiefs make the tennis money trail complex. That aside, there are straightforward viable options. When players are in a draw, they are “figurative” tournament employees. Should each tournament be required to pay a percentage of proceeds to a player fund? Has the crisis created a sense of urgency to change the prize money structure now? Could a nominal flat fee be added to each ticket with the proceeds going directly to a player fund? Maybe.
The industry might start by determining the baseline number of tour players needed to sustain and grow the sport. That discussion must consider how any headcount reduction would impact the lower tier (farm league) of the tennis pyramid (challenger and 250 events, etc.).
What if the industry agreed to support 900 professional players from each tour? Those ranked 100 or above would not receive supporting funds. Let’s also knock out players such as Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Andy Murray, who are currently ranked 359 and 129. With player longevity, a net worth exclusion should apply, as well as considerations when players receive funds from national programs like the Federation Francaise de Tennis (FFT).
Let’s assume a combined count of 1,800 WTA and ATP players could qualify for 50K annually. This data model requires an annual budget of $90 million. Note, my numbers are purely hypothetical.
So. Let’s do the numbers… they don’t lie.
The Tennis Industry Association (TIA) reported, “The U.S. Tennis Economy was worth $5.94 billion in 2015, up from 5.73 billion in 2014.”
This number is a broad consolidation of more than the professional tour, but it is a significant data point. What if 1% of industry-wide proceeds went directly to a player fund? Using only US 2015 numbers yields about $60 million. On an international scale, perhaps only a .5% contribution would be needed.
According to an Open Court feature, “A new tax filing by the AELTC reports that for the fiscal year ending July 31, 2018, the tournament generated £256.7 million ($336.3 million US) in revenues. It reported £39.7 million in pre-tax profit ($52 million).”
If we use a 2% contribution model for the slams, the SW19 event could contribute approximately $1 million.
The 2019 US Open total prize purse was $57,238,700. The event set an all-time attendance record of 737,872 fans. Add a nominal fee of $5.00 per ticket and you get roughly 3.7 million. USTA membership is 700,000+. Would USTA members support a $1.00 fee increase to help players?
From 2018 in Forbes Magazine:
“Sources tell Forbes that the 2018 U.S. Open… should generate at least $350 million in revenue this year, significantly more than the Australian Open ($320 in 2017), the second-highest-grossing tennis tournament.”
According to the New York Times (NYT), “The United States Tennis Association reported approximately $380 million in U.S. Open revenue for 2018.”
The USTA spent $150 million to construct a retractable roof over Ashe Stadium. Other marquee events such as the BNP Paribas Open are investing in dining, social media, gardens, data analytics, and stadium structures. There is a status race to innovate and compete with peers.
It is understandable to an extent. While these things may be “nice to have,” they are not absolute must-haves. A roof only “protects” revenue streams. Players generate revenue. Without them there are no broadcast rights.
Tennis lacks a unilateral governing body. This void creates roadblocks to enterprise and wide-ranging decision making. Establishing industry-wide governance may be the most challenging task. A United Nations-like council could be formed with representatives from the big players: the ITF, ATP, WTA, USTA, LTA, and FFT, along with player representation.
To establish equity, there would need to be a way to balance the player vote with the heavy weight of the institutions. John McEnroe has raised the need for a Commissioner of Tennis. The Laver Cup captain has stated that a partnership between players and the slams would be a good start.
Humble Beginnings & Realities
Early in their careers, current No. 1 Novak Djokovic was ranked 679 in 2004; Rafael Nadal began 2003 ranked 198; Andy Murray stood at 411 in 2005; and Roger Federer was ranked 302 at the start of 1999. It took the Big-4 a few years to break into the top-100.
What if, due to financial hardship, they quit in their first or second year on tour? WTA headline maker Coco Gauff checked in at No. 686 not long ago. Serena Williams’ hitting partner, Jarmere Jenkins, reached the 2006 US Open boys’ doubles final and the 2008 Orange Bowl singles final, but he failed to convert those achievements into an extended career on tour.
Only days ago the New York Times reported on a stopgap fund championed by the arts community, Artist Relief. Industry leaders recognized the urgent need to support artists and to assure theaters and stages would not remain empty once “normal” returns.
An NYT Excerpt:
“The newly launched Artist Relief, which has a seed fund of $10 million and is actively fund-raising for more, is a joint initiative organized by the Academy of American Poets, Artadia, Creative Capital, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the MAP Fund, the National YoungArts Foundation and United States Artists to provide emergency grants to creators of all disciplines, art community launch.”
According to the website, “Artist Relief will distribute $5,000 grants to artists facing dire financial emergencies due to COVID-19; serve as an ongoing informational resource; and co-launch the COVID-19 Impact Survey for Artists and Creative Workers, designed by Americans for the Arts, to better identify and address the needs of artists.”
This industry initiative born of a diverse leadership team speaks to the value of solidarity in finding solutions now.
While my hypothesis is “trite” and it only scratches the surface, it builds a case that the money is there. The conversation has reached a tipping point and everyone has skin in this game. Social media conversations have erupted with tennis parents voicing concerns such as, “Tennis is great sport, but it should be relegated to hobby status not a profession. Why would I encourage my child to forgo educational opportunities and job experience for this life?”
No parent wants to steer their child into financial instability. Tennis often discusses the intangibles in the player head-to-head. In the current scenario, respect and trust rise to the top of my list. A failure of the tennis community to act may break relationships among players, governing institutions, sponsors and tournaments.
But wait, a silver lining is forming. The LTA has created a fund to loan money to players. There appear to be interest-free loans in their offer. The WTA is offering to refund some fees, and the FFT has announced a $38 million support plan for struggling players. This is positive momentum but it is still very piecemeal.
How do we address the needs of players from smaller countries such as South Africa, Argentina, Belgium, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Greece? Figuratively, they are the Kevin Anderson, Diego Schwartzman, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov, Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitispas of the ATP.
My business world persona wondered if a private group that understands the value of investing in tennis would step up. Sure enough April 12, the Indian Express reported the WTA and ATP emailed players with a warning about a company called Atton & Price. The newly minted Parisian sports management company has offered a proposal to players to establish a ‘Tennis Solidarity Fund.’
How curious! I met with Atton & Price CEO Eric Brimberg and Legal Counsel Olivier Roumelian earlier this week; I reviewed their legal documentation. Here is what I learned.
I confirmed the following: The proposal is open to WTA and ATP players ranked between 50-500. When I asked for confirmation Eric stated, “There is no financial obligation on behalf of the players.”
They are asking players to authorize them to negotiate on their behalf to obtain fund resources. The fund will be managed by an industry leading bank.
Eric Brimberg is an experienced private banker and wealth manager. He has worked primarily with football (soccer) professionals. About a year ago, Brimberg connected with tennis when the Elite Tennis Center in Cannes sought his financial counsel. At that time, he had no idea that he would become a player in a tennis industry financial crisis. Their stated goal is simply “to put financial help in one pot.”
Brimberg confirmed that near 150 players have signed on with them and about two-thirds are women. So what do they stand to gain?
The venture is a non-profit organization. They incorporated out of the need to respond and help concerned clients. When professional sports return to normal, perhaps they will be remembered as the ones who cared and took action. They acknowledged by doing the right thing now, they may be rewarded with future business.
While the results are not yet tangible, Atton & Price may be the genesis of a solution. This is not an endorsement. It is information. Due diligence always makes sense.
The call to act has come from voices who LOVE tennis, myself included. If the industry fails to invest in the core product, the future may look very different. When play resumes, can tours thrive with only 200 ranked players? At that time, will the bottom 100 have funds to travel? While the core problem is not new — and not news — to some, this cat is universally out of the bag.
The good news: A financial solution need not rest on any one entity rather, a collective. Now more than ever the tennis industry needs a team mentality to break down “individual” walls. Like the Coronavirus, we are all in this together, stronger together, and solutions can be found. Great things come from struggle.
When the pandemic settles, I believe all industry leaders will face the question, “Where were you?” The question on the table now is which side of history do you want to be on?
A classic Federer expression is “It’s going to be good, I tell you.”
For the greater good, I hope certainly so. Stay tuned.