By Steen Kirby, TennisEastCoast.com
I thought I would do something a bit different and break from our usual coverage here at TEC to talk about an issue in pro tennis that deserves a lot more attention. My friend Nathii over at her great site, Tennis Alternative, wrote a column yesterday highlighting the issue of financial hardships being incurred by players at the lower levels of the pro game and how it is creating a host of problems in terms of basic quality of life for players, the cleanness and legitimacy of the sport, and the ability for talented but financially struggling players to continue on with their careers and make it to higher levels of the sport.
The column can be read here and is very revealing about how the lower levels of the game , mainly futures events and challengers, especially those outside of the most well-organized countries like the US operate.
There was also a recent article which had a feature on mid level challenger player John Millman pointing out many of the same issues at the lower rungs of the sport. These financial issues at the lower level of the sport have been ongoing for years, and thankfully have started to get more attention but really need to be talked about more. More so than other issues like the US Open moving to a Monday final, because this issue is a bigger deal for the long-term health and growth of the pro game.
Maybe it is just a bit of my progressive compassion but reading about the situation for promising and hard-working players at the lower level irks me into pointing out something needs to be done about it. So what is the best way to go about doing something about it? How do you make “minor league” tennis financially viable to the point where players can be reasonably compensated for their play and tournaments can function with a certain basic level of expectations? It will take a dual approach, but the start needs to be with a baseline minimum compensation for professional tennis players.
The idea of a minimum wage for professional tennis players is a bit of a new idea, because tennis is a performance and basically commission based sport, where those who win big will be richly compensated and those who trudge along and don’t will find it a tough go. Most sports are that way, but there is a key difference in that tennis is basically a solo sport, in which every player is a free agent and chooses and makes their own way in the sport while other sports are usually franchise or team based where players are employees of a team or club. At best, players might have national associations or private sponsors supporting them.
Sports leagues like the NBA and NFL have a minimum wage even for reserve players and even then it is quite high, especially compared to other professions. In the NBA, a 3 year league veteran would have a minimum salary of just under a million dollars, while a rookie would have a minimum salary of just under half a million dollars. Even a journeyman in the NBA could trudge along in the sport, and with proper money management be able to make a living doing it, and possibly even break through all the sudden and become a key player or a star. At the same time though, the best players in the NBA, NFL and elsewhere are still getting compensated with millions of dollars from teams in addition to sponsorship and other types of income.
In tennis, it isn’t that way at all. A guy in the 200-300 world range is making income in the range of 20k-60k a year on average, and when factored in for their out-of-pocket expenses (something that again differs from leagues like the NFL and NBA in which teams shoulder many of the transportation, coaching and other types of costs), that is hardly anything. In short, because prize money at tournaments hasn’t kept up with inflation and the cost of living, it is getting even harder to make it as a minor league tennis pro unless you: 1) are financially well off or have backers, 2) get a lot of wild cards for bigger events, or 3) win a lot of matches and get on a hot streak. Things are even worse the lower you go down the rankings.
The way tennis is being conducted at the lowest pro level is not good for the growth and health of the sport in that the current system seems to encourage illegality and discourage long-term hard work. My suggestion would be to institute a minimum wage of $15,000(USD) for every player between 250-1000 in the rankings, or a similar range.
That baseline wage would be paid out in some sort of a weekly stipend to players. At the end of 52 weeks it would add up to $15,000 assuming the player stayed in the 250-1000 ranking range the entire time, though it could be dropped if they rise above that ranking to the point of financial self-sufficiency on their own tournament play or drop below that. Exceptions could be made. For example, if a player was previously high earning and highly ranked but got injured and lost ranking points or the player is still a quasi-amateur and doesn’t play enough futures and challenger events. But in short, this baseline wage would encourage a basic quality of life and dignity for players and give them a safety net if they hit a bump in the road with their careers of some sort. This sounds like a political idea, but that is the field of thinking I come from.
This $15,000 minimum wage would be the baseline, and any additional prize money a player earns would be added to that total, based off of their own tournament play and performance. In short, you would be boosting the average income for players by $15,000, so some would still earn more, and some would still earn less but at least they wouldn’t be forced to go without basic necessities for life and for their sport. They would still likely be penny-pinching. This would have no effect on the higher ranked players of course, and they would still continue under the same prize money and earning structure they always have, with sponsorship deals and so forth. This would help players that range from young guys who are just coming out of college or junior tennis and trying to make their way into the system to older journeyman types that keep trudging along hoping to get better and get lucky.
So the real question is: How do you pay for this idea, in that supporting about 600 players on the men’s side of the game would be around 9 million dollars, and assumingly the same for the women’s tour? This plan would require the ATP and WTA to come up with about 20 million dollars combined to make it work.
How you do that is a mix of ways, but the most obvious way would be a small ticket surcharge of around 2 to 4 dollars onto the cost of every ATP or WTA tour event ticket purchased. This type of fee is not uncommon in other sports and could simply be called a “development of the game” surcharge.
Compared to the cost of most ATP and WTA event tickets, it is not very much, and even then could be means tested. Events that have good attendance and a high ticket cost might have a slightly higher surcharge, and events that struggle to get attendance and already offer low-cost tickets might have a smaller (or no) surcharge attached. Meanwhile, because challenger events already need all the attendance they can get. They wouldn’t have such a surcharge and would be able to operate as usual. The surcharge would only affect the top level of the tour, and even then just those events who would be most unbothered by it.
If the surcharge raised more than enough money to pay the minimum salaries out, then the extra money could be put into developing futures and challengers tournaments. If it happened to raise slightly less, then maybe some sort of a luxury or tennis association tax could be imposed upon the wealthiest tennis federations or tennis tournaments, though I’m not sure that would be needed. The ATP, WTA, tennis associations and tournaments generally turn a profit, and most that are not solvent end up being shut down or sold elsewhere anyway (Belgrade was cancelled for this year because of financial issues). This also shows the further need for subsidization of tournaments that are useful for the growth of the game but financially struggling.
The second part of this is how you grow support, interest, and respect for the minor league level of the game to the point where it is as popular as other minor league sports leagues like minor league baseball, 2nd tier division soccer (football) or minor league hockey. Tennis is great in that is such a global game, and probably in terms of global support is second only to soccer (football) in that regard. It draws fans from all over and of all backgrounds and cultures in terms of interest. That’s mostly because the players on both the men’s and women’s tours are remarkably diverse. There is not another sport in the world in which players from North America, Europe, Asia, and South America can be top 20 in the world at the same time and come from diverse backgrounds. Tennis still has much room to grow if it was simply marketed better and with more boldness without outside the box thinking.
An aggressive marketing campaign that moved beyond the top 5 or 10 guys and gals in the game and highlighted the stories of the more “average joe” players would endear them and the sport much more to fans, in that they would have somebody to root for beyond just the amazing, almost superhuman likes of Azarenka and Djokovic or players just from their home country. For example, the new clothing brand Athletic DNA has done something similar to this, with a lot of the kind of lower level players that they have started sponsoring and shows like ESPN’s E:60 basically try and do the same thing, highlighting various athletes and many of their inspiring and interesting stories.
Tennis in general, especially regular ATP and WTA events, could also stand improved marketing towards a general sporting audience rather than just a tennis audience, and the sport would make more money and be more popular for it.
I was struck by a conversation I had one time with a service employee who happened to be working at an ATP tournament site and was just watching a bit of the tennis on his break. It appeared he had never really watched tennis before and certainly didn’t seem familiar with the game, but he found the skill and action intriguing and asked me who was playing and about the rules of the game. When I mentioned to him that the world number 30 was playing the world number 56, he reacted with a bit of surprise and seemed excited that the “world’s 30th best tennis player” was playing in front of him in his city. To a tennis fan, this would seem like a normal occurrence, but to the average sports fan, the idea of a guy who is 30th best at any sport playing is pretty exciting. The 30thbest football player in the NFL would still be a household name, but outside of their home countries, the 30th best tennis player is not. That type of branding, mixed with marketing that appeals to nationality, action, skill, the up close and personal style of the game and the interaction between players and fans would work.
Fit athletes whacking a small ball back and forth at each other at 100 mph or more, sometimes with angle or spin while moving their feet is pretty exciting in the same way as the roar of NASCAR stock cars racing around a track at high speeds. An ace down the middle can be just as exciting as a slam dunk on a fast break in basketball, and a break of serve can be as critical as a key interception in a football game. You just have to explain the game that way, not always in ways that appeal only to tennis fans and those familiar with the sport.
Lastly, and probably more controversially, if pro tennis more openly embraced the cleanest, most organized types of sports betting and rooted out and shunned the more shady and nefarious types, the sport would be better off and cleaner. Sports betting has always been and will always be popular, and like it or not, it does draw interest to the sport and encourages people to watch (see horse racing), but it has its downsides if it isn’t managed and regulated correctly. By taking the bull by the horns, the ATP and WTA could much better manage the situation in regards to that and put a lot less pressure on individual tournaments and tournament organizers.
A lot of guys who operate at the minor league level are very talented. They might lack consistency or mental toughness or shot selection or some other thing that holds them back from being top 200 or top 100, or even top 50 and beyond, and the futures and challenger level helps them work on that stuff against similar competition, so that they can get better results. The minor leagues prepares tomorrow’s stars and consistent pros today. If talented players, especially those from poorer countries and backgrounds, are having to walk away from the game because of financial viability, we as fans are being deprived of seeing a lot of great talent on display. It is time we talk about this issue and discuss solutions, because no player should have to walk away from the game because they can’t afford basic equipment or even a roof over their heads.
I am admittedly a bit biased on this issue, in that I really grew to like and appreciate tennis, not by watching the big events like the US Open or Wimbledon, but by watching challenger and even futures when their wasn’t much else on to watch and learning to appreciate the skill and effort and intensity and emotion of the game at that level. I certainly watch plenty of ATP and Grand Slams and the rest, but I still take time out to watch a lot of challenger tennis and attend it when I can, because it is simply more raw and more open. Less scripted and less predictable.
Some of my favorite tennis matches and memories come from challengers, not just ATP and Grand Slams, and I tend to admire most all the players, from world number 1 to world number 834, generally for the same reasons: dedication, skill, effort, sportsmanship, friendliness, and respect. A double bagel first round ATP match is generally much less entertaining than a 3 set battle in the qualifying rounds of 50k challengers, regardless of who the players are. Yet the best part of challengers, as Nathii pointed out in her column, is that all the best players still had to start somewhere. That’s why I encourage all tennis fans to attend their local futures and or challenger events just as they would the US Open, and tell their friends to do the same in order to support that level of the sport just as much.