Wednesday, March 28, 2012

ATP catering to the few and forgetting most

It’s been a while since there was a posting here, it changes today. The subject of this isn’t very sexy, glamorous and definitely doesn’t cater to casual fans but it needs to be said. With the recent news that Rafael Nadal threw his toys out of the pram and resigned as vice president of the ATP Players Council ties in with the subject matter.

For those who follow the game closely know that the lower ranked players have been struggling financially on the tour. The frank Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov made comments about tennis players being underpaid and was slaughtered for the comments, especially from the sanctimonious Andre Agassi who told him to get him some perspective. Naturally within the tennis media for the interests of a good story it wasn’t taken out of context. What Kafelnikov actually said “tennis players are underpaid in comparison to golfers”. He wasn’t wrong then and he isn’t wrong now.

To the average person in the street or sports fan the perception that professional tennis players are highly paid, pampered primadonnas rings true to a certain extent. It only covers the top players who for the most part now get more money in personal sponsorships, commercials, appearance money than in prizemoney. Unfortunately this is not the case for the vast majority of players on the circuit while they work through the various stages of the tour battling it out on the Futures and Challenger jungles before attempting to make it on the ATP.

Income inequality

Income inequality has actually increased since the ATP started their tour in 1990. The USA Today article about Indian Wells where tournament owner Larry Ellison the man of Oracle fame in his infinite wisdom decided to increase the winner's purse from $611,000 to $1 million from the previous year an increase 64%. By contrast, first-round losers would pick up $7,709 instead of $7,115, a $594 bump equivalent to 8%. Naturally they took Ellison’s terms as the ATP has never really been about its members since the structure is meant to be a partnership between the players and tournament directors.

Larry Ellison

Indian Wells and Miami are compulsory events that go for almost a month combined, there is no need for it to be 10 days. It was marketing tools attempting with Miami to call it the “5th Slam”. Yes, I could hold a tournament in my front garden and call it a Grand Slam, it doesn’t mean it’s a Grand Slam. In fact it even has less meaning than a Justin Bieber track. The point since they are 96 player draws many of the guys who are on the edge of the Entry List would rather not play these events. For example lose 1st round in both events, pay for the flights, racquet restringing, paying the coaches or physical trainers they end up $5000 in debt, how does this situation benefit the sport?

This is not a new problem, in fact it was worse in previous generations with the distribution of prizemoney to the players. The ITF who run the Slams only gave 7% to the players. Tennis Australia, FFT (French Tennis Fed), LTA and US Open are making a lot of money but not distributing it fairly to the players who make the money for them. Fans aren’t there to see the sponsors, officials or tournament directors, this uneven distribution of the wealth was the catalyst behind a potential strike at the 2012 Australian Open.

When it comes to the ATP they give around 30% of the prizemoney to the players, but as with the ITF the biggest problem is the distribution of prizemoney in between the rounds. It’s too low for the early rounds and as Robby Ginepri stated "I have a little bit of a problem at tour events where winner gets almost double of what you make from finalist".

Challenger Tour

Where the biggest problem with the income inequality lies is the Challenger Tour. The prizemoney hasn’t increased since the 1980s when there is more money within the sport than ever before. The lowest level Challenger now is 30k up from 25k, with the increased overall costs the players relatively at the level from say 75-200 are making less money than the 1990s. The Challenger Tour is tough and it’s here where players have to fight, scrap, go to some tough environments to prepare them and develop their skills for the main tour. Yes, even big guys like Federer and Nadal played challengers before making their mark on tour, though to the mainstream tennis media, average gloryhunters and slapnuts issues like this tend not to be discussed, they’re more interested in some quotes taken out of context from some top player which have no relevance to the sport.

It’s in the interests of the ATP to have a stronger and more financially viable Challenger tour. Federer and co aren’t going to be around forever, can’t just market everything around them. The PGA looks after their lower level golfers in a manner that tennis could only dream of. A golfer in the top 150 isn’t struggling financially at all and this is a sport that is less international than tennis. As the game of tennis becomes more speed endurance based especially with slower courts due to ATP policy of surface homogenisation.

It has shown already that career breakthroughs are happening at more advanced ages as it takes time to develop speed endurance. This means more time will be spent on the Challengers before these players are ready for the main tour and difficulties of struggling when it’s not economically viable. No, this does not mean all players get stretch limousines from the airports to their hotel and courts or they get showered with everything without having earned it.

Michael Ruseell gives thoughts on ATP management

If it was only about economics then there wouldn’t be a Challenger tour at all, if the ATP want to have a successful second tier then they have to improve the prizemoney to a level that has parity with the increased costs. Michael Russell says, "You need other guys to make up a whole tour just like in golf and other sports. It would be nice if it were spread around a little more. We need the top guys to stand up and help everyone else out a little bit more." ATP tournaments are obliged by ATP regulations to guarantee the players five days of free lodging and one meal per day, this doesn’t happen on the Challengers and should be extended to this level.

Guillermo Cañas summed it up perfectly. "Is the ATP discriminatory?" It’s discrimination from an economic standpoint, like any multinational corporation. It’s just another of millions that there are in the world. Point being that I accept it, but I'm not buying into it that it is a group of players that decide (players union) because it isn't like that.

Willy Cañas

Difficulties of making it on tour

Unless players come from a powerful tennis federation USA, France, UK, or with Spain and Italy where there numerous Futures and Challengers where to earn your points, then it’s very difficult to making a living on tour when expenses are included with low prizemoney at these levels. Many of the hyped youngsters like Harrison, Tomic and friends have the benefits of powerful management groups like IMG, Octagon or Lagardére Unlimited behind them who have too much influence within the game as they will give their players favourable treatment with wildcards.

Goran Ivanisevic

Goran Ivanisevic when he was an emerging player said “I had to sleep in the streets somewhere in France and wash myself in public restrooms because a sponsor failed to pay for my accommodation, he barely spoke the language, did not know anyone, and his parents did not have the money to support him (it was war at that time); eating 3 burgers once a day in McDonalds for an entire week.”

Ivan Dodig

Ivan Dodig: Didn't have any money due to the war at the time. He slept under a bridge and it was very difficult for him. “If I won some matches, I would have a chance to play more tournaments. Sometimes it was good, sometimes [it was] not so good. I was taking care of every Euro. I had many tough situations in tournaments having to play without money and many times without anywhere to sleep."

Even in Spain where there are many tournaments it’s not immune for their players to struggle financially. Albert Montañes before he cracked the top 50 wasn’t doing very well and his mate “The King” Oscar Hernandez. “For players like me, in the Top 500, you don’t have money. I didn’t want to say to my parents, ‘Please pay my hotels and the tickets and everything to play tennis,’ because I was feeling like I was losing my money and I would have been losing the money of my parents. I said, ‘Okay, that’s not my life. I cannot be a good player.’”

Oscar Hernandez

Then there are the problems with distance that the South Americans and the Australians suffer from since all the major tournaments are in Europe and North America, so they need a base in either continent. Unlike the Australians who now have a rich federation to help them financially, the South Americans apart from the Colombians who are very fortunate that they have a company Colsanitas who look after their expenses, have a sponsorship with Babolat. It helps them for sure especially in the initial phases when it's needed the most.

Gaston Gaudio had to take a loan from Hernan Gumy when he went on tour after his parents business fell on hard times, so he turned professional as a way to help them. Once he was able to make the 100 for a couple of years, then he could earn a living. Agustin Calleri couldn’t afford the travel and had to work in his parents shop to get the funds so he can travel.

Peter Luczak

Peter Luczak on when he started playing. “24 hour Greyhound bus rides, as I was not a rich kid at all. There were a group of 7 of us in a basement of a house, 2 beds, 1 couch, and the rest slept on the floor. Before the tournament we would play games of cards or chess to decide who would get a bed, once you lost your singles match, and then you were on the floor. I got the nickname of “Lucky Looch” and “Diablo” because I was always winning these games and getting the bed.

One of the guys travelled with a stringer, so he was able to do all of our racquets. When it came to food, there were the 29c McDonalds burgers, I would have 5 of them in one sitting, eating 2 minute noodles and the free player lunch.

Dustin Brown

Dustin Brown: "To be able to continue my career, my parents bought me a camper in April 2004 in order to travel through Europe and play as many games as possible."

"I would eat and sleep in my camper and I was travelling all over Europe, up and down for seven years to make it in professional tennis, holding the Jamaican flag high week by week, while my parents struggled to pay for the camper.

"I made a name for myself in Europe with my camper, my only chance to make it in tennis.”

Mariano Zabaleta, Gaston Gaudio and Luis Horna

Mariano Zabaleta on whether tennis is an elitist sport. “I don't believe it is. However there are certain problems, to play tennis there is a large expense for racquets, strings, shoes, t-shirts, you have to be a member of a club, paying for the court and not forgetting the travel. Therefore I believe that there were many very talented players that did not come through. They didn't have the support in their moment of need and they fell through and begged the AAT to give them some financial possibilities.” All of the above examples highlight the problems of making it on the tennis tour without having the right help or management company.

The above guys were fortunate that they were able to make it, but there are plenty of others who haven't due to not being from the right country, couldn't get a sponsor so they could travel to events like Chilean Jorge Aguilar and Diego Hartfield when the Argentine economy collapsed he only made $500 for the season.

Nadal resigns from of ATP Players Council

Another possible barrier hindering the lower ranked players has been removed with Rafael Nadal resigning from the role of vice president of the ATP Players Council. Allegedly the main reasons that he has thrown the toys out of the pram are that Roger Federer the president of the ATP Players Council refused to back the ludicrous idea of a 2 year ranking system.

To any sane fan who isn’t a slapnuts or a gloryhunter the 2 year ranking system idea is in poor taste, all it would do is making it even harder to breakthrough to the top echelons and the same players will be there even if they haven’t been performing. As the graph shows were the 2 year ranking implemented at the start of 2012 then Nadal would still be number one in spite of Novak Djokovic winning 3 Grand Slams, a semi final at Roland Garros, winning 5 TMS events in 2011, yes that’s really fair.

Two Year Ranking System at Jan 1 2012

There was an argument that allegedly helps injured players, but that’s a myth as well. The current situation with the protected ranking for long term injuries works well enough currently.

Nadal facing defeat on the 2 year ranking system

While Nadal has a legitimate claim about the season length, the off season is too short to recover from the grind of the previous season and to do a proper fitness base leading into the next season. The counterargument is that the lower ranked players want more tournaments so they have the opportunity to earn income. It’s a difficult situation though if the prizemoney was increased at the lower levels like it should be, then this might not be such a problem. It’s not just the top players that play too many events during the year, but since they are top players more notice is taken of their concerns.

What Nadal has shown that he wasn't suitable for this role at all. When elected to a position like this, there are different agendas where negotiation is needed and your personal interests are put to the side for the game. Instead he chose to promote his interests where he benefits to the detriment of the sport.

It’s always easier to highlight problems than to find solutions, at the same time the Players Council with Roger Federer who already has decided while he is around the odious 2 year ranking system is dead to push for better distribution of income to the lower ranked players. Of course the top players earn their money nobody can deny that, they bring in the sponsors, TV rights, ticket sales and make the Grand Slams profitable but the reality is that the ATP and ITF have shown they care nowt about the majority of players and it’ll take something drastic which hurts their profits for any tangible change to happen in the new future.

Shout out to Machi for helping me with some info that contributed to the article thanks man.


michelle said...

Well researched and written, a few grammar/syntax edits and it would be an excellent reader op-ed to submit to the major tennis rags - I would seriously consider that option, this is some good stuff indeed!

Sammy Lee said...

A monster read! I enjoyed it a lot. It's the type of subject where, if you could get a direct interview with players in this position currently, you could definitely get this on something like the Guardian sport blog. I know you might not like the idea, but if you could do it and throw it up a week before Wimbledon then it'd be really well received I think.

Anonymous said...

In comparing prize money between golf and tennis, please do it justice by also comparing golf TV rights, sponsorship monies and attendance to tennis. Golf operates with a very different economic model. The premise of better distribution of prize money in tennis is well founded, but to imply the No. 100 tennis player should be earning as much as the No. 100 golfer (as I take you to be implying) is categorically not fair and tarnishes the rest of your argument.

Denys said...

It's an interesting subject matter but one that won't find a resolution at any point soon unless either a strike happens or the Players Council are able to convince the ATP to change it.

As for golf, they have organised their respective tours and tiers in a way that tennis hasn't been able to do or willing to. With the extra finances coming into the PGA they are able to distribute their prizemoney in a more egalitarian manner that you don't see situations like that are common in tennis.

Sigurd Sigurdsson said...

There was no implication that the 100th best in tennis should be earning the same as the equivalent in golf. The comment that Kafelnikov made saying that tennis players were underpaid compared to golfers, this does not mean they deserve to be paid the same when there are more golf tournaments. As a consequence of that through greater revenue streams with TV rights, sponsorship the PGA can offer more.

The difference is the money generated within tennis is poorly distributed among their members unlike the PGA which Denys has spoken about.

Top tennis players who already are favoured with the free accommodation, appearance fees at the lower events, byes at these events so while their name sells the tickets they only need to play 4 matches to win these titles.

There is enough money around in the game at the moment for more of it to filter down to the lower level and even the Futures. The vast majority of players shouldn't be struggling to make a living which is the case currently.

fast_clay said...

maybe your best ever article...

rocketassist said...

Agree the lower ranked players deserve more help. It's not profitable to start a tennis career now unless you're as rich as Gulbis or have the style of play/tools that will take you all the way in the modern game.

Nadal spat his dummy out. He's a phony, a media image and his negatives are always overlooked. He already has enough catered for them with the surface homogenization and other things to demand more go his way.

Glenn C said...

Excellent article. Well researched, well written.
Even managed to find a quote from Robby Ginepri that made sense (a wicked feat in itself!)
I'm not sure a strike (which looks inevitable) is actually going to help anything but the lower-ranked players need to have a larger voice in issues like this.
Without them, tennis dies a slow and painful death.

Foot Soldiers of Tennis said...

A nice analysis I have fancied doing for a while.

The one thing I would say on the Challenger Tour is at least there are more events now than 10 years ago, albeit prize money levels are the same, so there is some expansion.

Robbie Fields said...

Lots of different issues here, G.W..

There's the issue of the players themselves operating without unified leadership. The players do not operate as an independent force : the top players and the emerging ones are hand in glove with the agents who, in turn, are effectively running the tournaments. It's the journeymen, even ones who are Top 50 who are playing left out here. A player like Jonas Bjorkman, ranked as high as 4 in the world, would have fared badly under the current system.

If ever the players and agents had the opportunity for a principled stand, it was over Ellison's offer to increase the prize money for the winner greatly but only marginally for the field.

Key Biscayne has had the hybrid 10-12 day schedule for decades. For many players, it was not such a hardship as they had homes or accommodation available to them locally and they could combine it with the earlier Delray Beach tournament. Indian Wells was a 7 day tournament that followed on from Scottsdale (now vanquished). 20 years ago, the founding tournament directors Charlie Pasarell and Ray Moore showed their support for the journeymen by hosting a $50K Challenger the week before with the winner earning a WC into the main event. Some years, they even hosted a $25K Challenger off site the prior week. Any player needing accommodation would be placed with a local family for as long as they wished.

Now players, instead of having 3 or 4 bites at the cherry for the month, have just the 2 tournaments to play and there's still transcontinental travel involved!

You mention 5 days' hospitality provided by the tournaments. I'm not up to date, previously it was 4 nights for early round losers and even for the standard 7 day tournament, that left 3 nights for the player to fend for themselves.

Once again, the food situation is a problem. The bigger the tournament the more they seem to charge in their player cafeterias! Yes, the players receive a per diem on a charge card to allow him rations in these cafeterias but for the journeyman, he's counting what's left on his card. At not quite so big tournaments, like Marseille or Johannesburg an all day buffet is set up, open to all with a laminate. Challengers are tricky.

Whilst the Grand Slams are committed to the 2 week tennis festival model and having larger crowds during the first week than the second, the rest of the tennis universe secretly wishes to emulate the Golf tour and have 4 day or shorter tournaments. That's what their contemptuous actions towards the players ranked outside the Top 20 signals to me.

Once again consider Indian Wells. You can be Top 50 doubles in the world and you won't get in. Or Top 50 singles will get you in the singles draw but you won't be able to add to it by playing doubs.

If you're not Yves Allegro and have buddy Roger signing in with you, or lil' bro Andy partnering you, you're not making the cut.

Remember how the tournament directors moaned how they could not afford doubles any more? Larry Ellison sure put the lie to that this year!

Rosie said...

Great article. I enjoyed it much more than Huntington's 'The Clash of civilizations'. Hahaha! ;) I wish the casual fans would get some perspective in regards to the life of a tennis player. It's not all fancy hotels and parties...the lower level guys struggle hard to make a living. It's amazing they continue playing tennis when they could do something much easier and earn a decent living - that takes a lot of determination. Sometimes I look at the amount of prize money earnt by a tennis player and wonder how they survive. Amir Weintraub's blog is a good example of the struggles of a low ranked tennis player. Nice analysis, Nils! :)

rhinooooo said...

Terrific article, and a lot of great stuff in the comments too.

Marc said...

Excellent article plenty of research has gone into this and I agree with most of the sentiments in there that the players at the lower end of the rankings need more prizemoney. At the same time the conclusion of the blog is what will be more than likely, nothing will change unless there is something drastic but that would need a unifying force which tennis unfortunately has never been able to provide.

Choupi said...

Thanks for that article. Top quality for sure. I knew about the tough conditions for lower ranked players but I was far from imagining it to so tough. Would be great if more fans of the game had their eyes open on that regard.

getta said...

excellent article that digs into the biggest reasons most tennis players' pro life is a long arduous struggle.