Novak Djokovic and a New Players Group Want Tennis to Fix Its Broken Economics
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- It was a rare sight at last year’s pandemic-interrupted U.S. Open: a crowd. One afternoon in late August, a group of about 80 male tennis players in T-shirts and masks gathered at the Grandstand stadium in Flushing Meadows, filling up rows of dark-blue seats, like schoolboys assembled for a socially distanced class picture. The only action on the court below was a practice session. The 57th-ranked female player, Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, was rallying with a partner, glancing up in bewilderment as the men applauded between points.
The group had been summoned to Grandstand by Canadian pro Vasek Pospisil and Serbian world men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Frustrated with the slow pace of change in elite tennis, Pospisil and Djokovic were aiming to form a players association—not a union, exactly, but a group that could negotiate with tournaments for prize money and threaten boycotts when necessary. The meeting, convened via WhatsApp, was the latest salvo in tennis’s never-ending war with itself.
Djokovic arrived a few minutes late, after winning a grueling match across the complex. He and Pospisil took turns speaking, straining to be heard over the sound of planes roaring above LaGuardia. Their goal wasn’t to dismantle the structure of professional tennis, they assured the group. They simply wanted the executives who run the sport to take players’ concerns more seriously.
Soon, phones started to buzz, with a message from the Association of Tennis Professionals (or ATP), the business entity that runs the men’s tour. American pro Ryan Harrison handed his phone to Djokovic, who started reading the message aloud—six paragraphs seemingly designed to discourage labor organizing. “The consequences of a separate Player Association are unknown,” it said. “The future could become very different.”
By some metrics, tennis is the world’s fourth-most-popular sport. Its global fan base numbers more than a billion, and its superstars are among the best-paid athletes anywhere. As a business, though, it’s a perennial underachiever, accounting for only 1.3% of the total value of global sports TV and media rights, a smaller share than golf, hockey, or cricket, according to a 2018 report by data company SportBusiness. Players good enough to win matches at Grand Slams struggle to support themselves on their tennis earnings, sometimes taking second jobs to make extra income.
Attempts to fix the sport tend to devolve into infighting. Players and tournament organizers joust constantly over prize money. The men have proved unwilling to collaborate with the women. “Everyone distrusts everyone else,” says Etienne de Villiers, who served as ATP chairman from 2005 to 2008. “To use a very eloquent Wordsworthian expression, it’s a ratf---.”
Even before the pandemic, tennis was facing a period of uncertainty, as perhaps its greatest generation of stars—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Djokovic on the men’s side, and Serena Williams on the women’s—neared retirement with few clear successors in sight. The coronavirus left tennis further exposed, with revenue dropping as its fractured leadership struggled to stage tournaments. But the virus has also prompted the sport’s leaders to contemplate reform. There’s been renewed discussion of a partnership between the men’s and women’s tours, a proposal that could produce a surge in revenue. Calls for shorter, more TV-friendly matches have intensified. And the simmering tensions between players and tournaments have pushed some of the sport’s stars into open revolt.
At Grandstand, the players posed for a photo to pledge support for the new Professional Tennis Players Association. As news of the initiative traveled, Djokovic and Pospisil were asked to step down from the ATP’s Player Council, an elected body that represents player interests within the pro tour. Djokovic is a polarizing figure in tennis—an 18-time Grand Slam champion with a penchant for pointed criticism of the sport’s establishment. His main rivals in the conversation about the greatest men’s player of all time, Federer and Nadal, swiftly distanced themselves from the breakaway group, saying a pandemic was the wrong time to seek a structural overhaul.
Yet another fissure was opening in a fractured sport. Novak vs. Rafa and Roger. The players vs. the ATP. One reporter compared Djokovic and Pospisil to Cassius and Brutus, the assassins of Julius Caesar.
Pro tennis is less a single enterprise than a sprawling and divided empire, composed of fiefdoms and sub-fiefdoms, factions within sub-fiefdoms, and sub-factions within factions. Before the pandemic, the sport generated roughly $2.3 billion in annual revenue. About 60% comes from the U.S. Open and the three other Slams, each of which operates independently, under the auspices of a private club or national tennis federation. Much of the rest comes from tournament circuits supervised by the ATP and its counterpart, the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association). A third governing body, the ITF (International Tennis Federation), holds its own events, including head-to-head team competitions among countries.
The ATP and WTA are structured as partnerships between players and tournament organizers—labor and management at the same table. The arrangement has led to political paralysis, especially at the ATP. The organization’s board consists of an equal number of player and tournament representatives, overseen by a chairman who can cast tie-breaking votes. The structure isn’t the result of careful long-term planning among tennis’s factions; it’s an historical oddity that emerged from a power struggle in the late 1980s.
Rather than exploring initiatives to generate revenue, the ATP board has often spent its time adjudicating disagreements over prize money and calendar commitments. The players want to play less and earn more; the tournaments want players to play more and earn less. “It’s like watching a soap opera,” says Charlie Pasarell, who spent two decades on the ATP board as a tournament representative. “You can stay away from it for a year or two. And then you turn it on again and start watching it, and the plot is still the same.”
Last year the chairman of the ATP, Andrea Gaudenzi, circulated a report warning that tennis could “drift towards obsolescence” unless competing factions started working together. But Pospisil, a wiry 30-year-old with a toothy grin, says he joined forces with Djokovic after growing distrustful of the sport’s executives. “You see these guys walk around in their suits, and they’re all smiley,” he says. “Most players are breaking even or losing money. It shouldn’t be like that.” (Djokovic declined to be interviewed.)
Players often complain that the ATP and WTA partnerships favor the tournament owners, who have the time, money, and business expertise to advance their interests. Historically the players’ power has hinged largely on whether top stars have been willing to advocate for their colleagues. “The game is always at the mercy of what type of persons you have at the top,” says Richard Evans, a historian of the sport. “We got a period with [Björn] Borg and [Guillermo] Vilas and that gang—very nice guys, great friends of mine. But they really didn’t give a s--- about anyone else.” In the early weeks of the pandemic, Dominic Thiem, an Austrian who won last year’s U.S. Open and has earned almost $30 million in prize money, expressed reluctance to contribute to a fund for lower-ranked players struggling with unemployment. “Many of them are quite unprofessional,” he said at the time. “I don’t see why I should give them money.”
For the most part, though, the current generation of stars has been generous. In 2012 a group of top players led by Federer negotiated with the Slams to secure prize-money increases for the early rounds, an initiative that Williams also supported. And then there’s Djokovic. Although his many detractors have dismissed the players association as a ploy to increase his influence in the sport, he frames his activism as a moral responsibility. “When we talk about politics in tennis, we mostly talk about the first 50 to 100,” he said at a news conference in November. “Little attention is paid to those who are the largest group, from 100th to 500th place. They have big problems.”
In 2017, as a senior at the University of Virginia, Thai-Son Kwiatkowski won the NCAA men’s singles championship, earning a slot at that year’s U.S. Open. After college, however, he suffered from a knee injury and had to pay for his own rehab as he worked through the setback. In 2019 he tweeted a breakdown of his taxes, showing a loss of $63,000. “Basically all I’m saying,” he wrote, “is put your kids in team sports.”
Tennis’s top players make their money largely from endorsements. Naomi Osaka, the No. 2 ranked woman, earned $37.4 million in 2020, almost all of it from sponsors, making her the world’s highest-paid female athlete, according to Forbes. The top earner in men’s tennis, Federer, made $106 million, with $100 million from endorsements. But the vast majority of players depend entirely on prize money, which sometimes barely covers travel expenses. “It’s not glamorous,” says Noah Rubin, whose popular Instagram page, Behind the Racquet, aims to raise awareness about the struggles of lower-ranked players. “You’re losing on your own. There’s not a lot of help for you. It becomes a very dark place for a lot of players.”
In 2018, Rubin reached No. 125 in the world and competed in two Grand Slams. That year he made about $225,000 in prize money, roughly $600,000 less than the equivalently ranked golfer on the PGA Tour over a similar period. But he walked away with only $15,000 of his earnings, he says, after accounting for travel, food, equipment, lodging, and the salaries of his support staff.
On the women’s tour, player finances are even more precarious. Jamie Loeb, a 26-year-old American ranked in the top 300, says she’s either broken even or lost money every year she’s played professional tennis. During the pandemic she took a part-time sales job with a company that makes green clay courts. “We all find our own ways to stay afloat,” she says.
The pandemic hit lower-ranked players especially hard. Despite Thiem’s objections, the ATP, WTA, ITF, and the Slams ultimately allocated more than $6 million to help a group of about 800 male and female players. But that spirit of generosity had its limits. Last spring, Tara Moore, a Brit who’s been ranked as high as No. 145 in the world, learned that the WTA was presenting details about its rejiggered tournament calendar at virtual meetings she couldn’t attend because her ranking had slipped below a certain threshold—a restriction that was in place even though the meetings included updates about lower-level ITF tourneys. “It’s already hard enough,” Moore says. (A WTA spokeswoman says the organization limited attendance because the “primary focus” was on WTA events.) When Moore eventually got a copy of the calendar and circulated it on Twitter, some higher-ranked women reacted indignantly, claiming she was spreading confidential information.
Moore is working with Pospisil to persuade players on the women’s tour to join the breakaway association, but so far she hasn’t had much luck. “Women are a lot more cautious than men,” she says. They want to know exactly how the group will be structured before they sign up. Pospisil says he and Djokovic are still crafting bylaws and recruiting executives from outside tennis, with an unveiling planned for some time in the next few months.
Privately, some current and former tennis executives argue that lower-ranked players’ struggles are simply a function of capitalism—that tennis is a star-driven sport in which the top 30 or so players generate the bulk of the economic output. Others call that view a failure of imagination: Shouldn’t a multibillion-dollar sport allow more than 30 athletes to become stars and others to make a comfortable living?
Many players describe investing in a tennis career as essentially a gamble—a bet that traveling to a far-off tournament or hiring an expensive coach will produce prize-money gains to offset the initial costs. Some would like to see initiatives to reduce the risk, such as a minimum salary modeled on the relief payments supplied during the pandemic, or tournaments with experimental scoring systems that might create new opportunities for lower-ranked players. “There are steps that can be taken to make tennis more popular and expand the fan base instead of having all these tournament formats where Roger, Rafa, and Novak go deep,” says Peter Polansky, a Canadian journeyman who’s played at all four Grand Slams. Rubin has been raising money from sponsors for a new circuit of tournaments that would have a cumulative scoring format and operate outside the ATP and WTA, with the first event scheduled for September.
Strengthening tennis’s lower ranks would also help protect the sport’s future. “As much as we want Federer and Nadal and Djokovic to be playing until 2054, that’s not going to happen,” Moore says. “There needs to be a next generation. There needs to be a pool of people that are keeping the competition alive.”
At one point in his tenure as ATP chairman, Etienne de Villiers got a call from an old friend: Bernie Ecclestone, the British billionaire who’d built Formula One into a European sports power. As the two men commiserated over the state of professional tennis, the conversation turned to a remote hypothetical: What if Ecclestone ran the show?
The conversation was simply “idle conjecture,” de Villiers says, not a serious discussion of possible investment. But Ecclestone acknowledges mulling the possibility over the years, saying he’s batted around ideas on how to “take over the tennis” with contacts in the sport. If he were to invest, however, he’d want to own all the major properties and make the decisions himself. “I’m not anyone to support democracy too well,” he says. “You need a dictator of sorts.”
The prospect of a unified tennis ecosystem, in which a single owner or commissioner controls the Grand Slams, the ATP, the WTA, and the ITF, is often invoked as the sport’s best hope for reform. It would, among other things, allow media and sponsorship deals to be negotiated jointly, creating a more marketable product and increasing revenue. At the moment, the three governing bodies and each of the Slams negotiate TV rights separately, resulting in a random-seeming set of tournaments. “Tennis needs to reduce the amount of fragmentation,” says Mark Webster, chief executive officer of the ATP’s media rights arm. “You can sell the story of the season all the way through. That would be nirvana.”
There’s no realistic prospect that the sport’s current powers would allow someone to buy them out, though. Several times over the past 20 years, the ATP and WTA have discussed the more achievable transformation of merging their tours, an idea Billie Jean King originally championed in the 1970s. But those discussions ran into a stubborn obstacle: the pervasive locker-room machismo of men’s tennis.
In the mid-2000s, WTA Chairman Larry Scott was the leading candidate to replace his longtime counterpart at the ATP. An outside recruitment company scored Scott—a vocal proponent of combined tours and equal prize money for women—higher than any other candidate. But he never got an offer. “The players said, ‘Even though he’s clearly the most qualified individual, we won’t do it,’ ” recalls Pasarell, the former board member. “ ‘He’s an American, and he wants to do this stuff with the women.’ Nixed.”
In 2008, Scott, still WTA chairman, presented the ATP board with a merger proposal that projected revenue gains of more than $1 billion within six years. Once again the male players rejected the idea. “It was almost a nonstarter,” Pasarell says. The ATP generates more than three times as much revenue as the WTA, and male players have long believed that a merger would benefit women more than men. “If they have to alter their practice schedule because the WTA is playing at the same venue that week, if they can’t get a courtesy car at the time that they wish because all of those transportation resources are being diverted to the WTA players’ hotel—those are things which are obstacles,” says Weller Evans, who served as a player representative on the ATP board in 2019. “They look at sharing a venue with their WTA brethren as a drain on the tournament resources that would normally be available solely for them.”
Two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray described a similar mindset last year when he went on CNN to discuss gender inequality in tennis. “Let’s say the first-round loser’s check for the men went from $8,000 to $10,000 and the women went from $6,000 to $10,000,” Murray said. “I spoke to some of the male players about that who were unhappy because the prize money was equal. And I said, ‘Well, would you rather there was no increase at all?’ And they said to me, ‘Yeah, actually.’ ”
Similarly self-defeating politics have doomed one of the sport’s other major initiatives, the establishment of a Tennis World Cup. For decades the men’s tennis calendar has featured an international team tournament, the Davis Cup, that the ITF oversees. By 2016 it was growing clear that the competition’s structure, in which matches were spaced out over months, had made it unappealing to players and confusing for fans. The ATP and ITF both hoped to create a new international team tournament that might eventually develop the commercial appeal of a Slam.
The ITF’s president, David Haggerty, considered a series of reforms, including a proposal to combine the Davis Cup with its counterpart on the women’s tour, then called the Fed Cup. “Anytime you bring men and women together, it’s the highlight of the year,” Haggerty says. “Just look at the Grand Slams, and you can see the benefits.” A joint World Cup, however, would have required the ITF, ATP, and WTA to find a slot in the crowded tennis calendar. And a combined event was a bigger change than many of the ITF’s member nations were likely to support.
Around the same time, the sports investment company Kosmos, founded by soccer star Gerard Piqué and billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani, started discussing a deal to finance a team tournament with the ATP. Piqué presented his plans to members of the Player Council, which voted in October 2016 to move forward, according to people familiar with the discussions. It took only a few months for the deal to collapse, partly over scheduling disputes. Instead, Kosmos announced a partnership with the ITF, pledging to invest $3 billion over 25 years in grassroots tennis development and in a revamped Davis Cup tournament that would take place over one week and continue to involve only the men. The ATP brokered a separate agreement with the Australian tennis federation to start the ATP Cup, a team tournament with a similar structure.
Rather than create a single showpiece, the ATP and the ITF had ended up with two almost identical men’s tournaments that would be played within six weeks of each other. The negotiations were “very, very counterproductive,” says Bruno Soares, a Brazilian doubles champion who serves on the Player Council. “It was just impossible—politics and money and personal interest. Everyone is pulling the strings for their side.”
The outcome of the negotiations enraged Djokovic, who felt the ATP’s leadership had cut the players out of the discussions. “We are constantly under pressure to be pawns for someone else’s game of chess,” he wrote in a stinging 1,400-word email to council members in July 2018, a few months before the ATP Cup was officially unveiled. “They know that as the time passes, we will slowly forget about what happened, and people in power can keep on manipulating.” (He signed off on a mellower note: “Peace and Friendship … Novak.”)
A year later, Kosmos approached the ATP about merging the ATP Cup and the Davis Cup, according to people familiar with the matter, but the negotiations went nowhere. The women’s tournament, meanwhile, was rebranded as the Billie Jean King Cup and adopted a new format. The prospect of a combined men’s and women’s event seems as remote as ever. A joint World Cup remains “one of my dreams,” Haggerty says. “I may not live long enough to see it.”
In some ways the pandemic has been good for tennis. Cooped-up Americans have crowded public courts for socially distanced workouts. And at the pro level, the virus has forced even staunch traditionalists to consider structural reform. In late April, Federer announced on Twitter that he would support merging the tours. “Maybe now is really the time,” he wrote. Gaudenzi, the current ATP chairman, says he, too, supports the effort. “Crisis inevitably requires collaboration,” he says. “Once we are somehow all in trouble, we tend to stick together.”
An Italian ex-player once ranked No. 18 in the world, Gaudenzi, 47, took over the ATP at the worst possible time. “Not to forget,” he says with a wry smile. “Before the pandemic we had the bush fires.” In January 2020, his first month on the job, wildfires ravaged southeastern Australia, interrupting an ATP event that takes place in Canberra in the runup to the Australian Open.
That same month he presented players with his vision for the ATP, an ambitious set of plans he later articulated in a 67-page document complete with a pie chart showing tennis’s tiny share of the global media market. He proposed instituting a formula tying prize-money increases to tournaments’ profit growth—a potential solution to the cycle of contentious negotiations over player earnings. He also called for expanding ATP tournaments to create more slots for players. And he floated some longer-term ideas, such as aggregating media rights with the Grand Slams.
But a political struggle loomed. Early last year, Pospisil and Djokovic told Gaudenzi about their intentions. “Guys, can you wait?” he asked them. “This is our plan. We want to change.”
The players association moved forward; the pandemic delayed Gaudenzi’s reforms. “We are dealing with crisis and big decisions on a week-to-week basis,” he says. The complexities of international public-health restrictions meant that the first leg of the 2021 calendar was finalized only in December. But the problems the pandemic has caused have also reinforced Gaudenzi’s core argument: The fractured governance of professional tennis is hurting players and reducing the sport’s growth.
After Federer endorsed an ATP-WTA merger, Nadal chimed in as well, saying he hoped to see a “union of men’s and women’s tennis.” It’s the first time in the sport’s history that the major men’s players and the leadership of the ATP have publicly supported a merger. But sorting out the details will be complicated. “I don’t have a timeline,” says Steve Simon, CEO and chairman of the WTA. “I don’t know when it will happen.”
Last year, Gaudenzi, Simon, and the leaders of the Grand Slams formed a working group to discuss pooling TV rights and other strategies to unite the sport. The mere existence of the group counts as an accomplishment, Gaudenzi says: In the past, the leaders of the major governing bodies sometimes met only a few times a year. Now meetings take place every two weeks.
The ATP board is set to vote on Gaudenzi’s proposal in June. It’s not clear whether it will pass. Players broadly support it, but some tournament organizers oppose an element of the plan that requires events to open more of their books to the athletes, according to a senior tennis executive involved in the discussions.
Gaudenzi has no shortage of metaphors to explain the challenge facing his sport. Should tennis fail to evolve into a more sophisticated and profitable media operation, he says, it could experience the financial devastation that Napster wreaked on the music industry in the 2000s. And if reforming the ATP is a marathon, the hardest stretch of the race is still ahead of him. “You either get it over the line,” he says, “or everything explodes.”
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