As a sport, tennis finds itself in a moment of crisis – and it began long before the global pandemic. Players are becoming increasingly disenfranchised with the consistent shortcomings of their respective governing bodies that have lasted for generations.
This all came to a head last Wednesday when Canadian star Vasek Pospisil bombed out of the Miami Open 3-6, 6-4, 3-6 to young American McKenzie McDonald.
After breaking two racquets and receiving a point penalty for verbal abuse en route to losing the first set, Pospisil, a Wimbledon Doubles Champion and former #25 in singles, then blew up at chair umpire Arnaud Gabas, declaring his frustration stemmed from being berated by ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi during a players meeting the day prior.
“An hour and a half the chair of the ATP f---ing screaming at me in a player meeting for trying to unite the players” Pospisil said, before calling Gaudenzi a “f---ing a--hole" and threatening to sue the entire ATP if he was defaulted from the event.
Although Pospisil later apologised for his behaviour on Twitter, this incident speaks to growing unrest in the locker room against the powers that be.
The reason for Gaudenzi scolding Pospisil is due to the latter’s co-leading role (alongside Novak Djokovic) in launching the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) – a breakaway players association designed solely to advocate for the rights and interests of players. The PTPA is set to be a fully ledged entity by late 2021.
This is a direct challenge to, among others, Gaudenzi’s leadership.
However, not all players are keen on the PTPA – some, like Kevin Anderson believe the PTPA and ATP cannot harmoniously co-exist. While others, like Dominic Thiem don’t want their status as a major beneficiary of the current system to be disrupted or diluted.
So what is really going on here?
In short, many players feel unloved; and rightfully so. They don’t earn prize money commensurate with their talents nor the income they generate for the sport.
Despite the global prominence of players like Williams, Federer, Osaka and Nadal, tennis largely fails to capitalise on its popularity.
The lack of business success can be highlighted by the lack of players able to make a comfortable living while playing professionally. Although some call this survival of the fittest, surely Darwin envisaged more people at the top of the food chain than this.
A major factor in this lack of success is tennis’ fragmented governance structure.
The men’s tour is run by the ATP; and the women’s tour is run by the WTA – both these groups have a ‘Players Council’ that operate with varying degrees of success in representing their cohort. There is also the International Tennis Federation (ITF) which holds its own events (including the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup (formerly known as the Fed Cup)). Then, the four Grand Slams sit outside these structures and are independently owned and operated either by a private club (e.g. The All England Club) or national body (e.g. Tennis Australia). Other tournaments, such as the Laver Cup, are also privately owned – in this case, by Roger Federer's management company.
Furthermore, the ATP and WTA are structured as “partnerships” between players and tournament organisers. This essentially leads to bickering and paralysis in perpetuity. Organisers want the players to play more and earn less. Players want to play less and earn more. Increasing one party's fortunes literally requires you rob Peter to pay Paul, and the players feel like they get the raw deal more often than not.
No other sport has so many competing parties at the table – and it leads to missed opportunities.
By way of example, although tennis is the fourth most popular sport in the world it only accounts for 1.3% of the total value of global sports TV and media rights – a smaller share than golf which has less than half the global following.
Rather than one package of media rights being sold at a premium; as is the case in sports like the AFL and NBA, each of these bodies sells smaller packages, ultimately at a discount.
It’s why we see the Australian Open on Channel 9, Wimbledon on Channel 7, the US Open & Roland Garros on SBS and all of them on Kayo. These media organisations pick and choose which events (and which parts of which event) they want rather than bidding on the premium package because they are not buying from a unified vendor.
Marketing is also made more difficult. Imagine the AFL trying to maximise attendance by marketing the season in quarters, with each quarter being promoted on a discrete platform that doesn’t promote the other.
Consequently, this failure to maximise revenue leads to less prize money for players – which leaves them with less money to invest in themselves (the product of the sport); and less money for grassroots which is both the future of the product and its consumer.
And so the cycle continues. It’s a self-defeating system.
This doesn’t mean we’re in a race to the bottom, but it does mean we’re not maximising the game. It is now easy to see why players feel change is necessary.
A long touted (and often swiftly dismissed) solution has been to join the ATP and WTA into one unified governing body – with a commissioner that sits above all other parties. Ironically, this idea has grown legs since the pandemic as even the more staunch traditionalists of the sport consider change. Guadnezi himself is even a supporter.
The problem? Players have heard this all before. Being promised greener pastures is not new to these crop of professionals – and it seldom happens quickly.
It is exactly why when Gaudenzi asked Pospisil and Djokovic to wait before launching the PTPA, to allow the ATP time to showcase its plan for the future, the duo decided the time for waiting is over and they’d forge ahead regardless - further pressuring the ATP and WTA to shake things up.
One way or another change is coming in the tennis world.
It might get messy, but I can’t help but think it’ll work wonders. Imagine how good the game could be if they got this all right.
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