Tennis Boycott Looms

Several weeks ago, the NY Times carried a long article about an impending pay dispute on the tennis tour. The NYT uses the term Grand Slams to refer to the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and US Open. I prefer the older term, majors, because a grand slam means having won all four, so to refer to each one as a grand slam makes no sense to me. They are each a leg of the Grand Slam, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue.

…The top men, led by Roger Federer, remain intent on applying pressure on the Grand Slam tournaments over prize money next year, beginning with the Australian Open in January.

… The ATP World Tour players are seeking much more than another routine pay raise. They want to capitalize on the narrow window provided by their golden age and current solidarity to correct what they perceive as a long-running inequity.

Late last year the ATP Player Council, with Federer as its president, began its push for more prize money at Grand Slam tournaments, particularly for early-round losers, in an attempt to address an earning gap in a top-heavy sport. The French Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open responded with larger-than-usual increases, weighted toward early-round losers. The United States Open, for example, included a raise of at least 18 percent for the first three rounds of the singles draw.

… The players are believed to be asking for between 12 percent and 13 percent of total revenue. With the Grand Slams committed to equal prize money, that means — with the women along for the ride — the men are effectively demanding about 25 percent of total revenue for prize money. …

In the case of the United States Open, 25-percent share would mean a hike in prize money from about $25 million to more than $60 million. The United States Tennis Association’s revenue for 2010, the most recent totals available publicly, was $243 million, with an estimated 80 percent to 85 percent of that coming from the Open.

The players are offering little change of their own in return, and if they fail to reach their prize-money goal next year, they are considering a range of potential actions, according to tennis officials familiar with the possibilities. Those include staging alternative events concurrent with the Grand Slam tournaments, stripping ranking points from the Grand Slam tournaments and skipping the Grand Slam tournaments altogether. …

The true level of unity among the current player pool remains unclear, but there appears to be much more unity of purpose at the top. The leading four players — Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Murray — and the ATP Tour’s new chief executive, Brad Drewett, have met repeatedly with representatives of the Grand Slam tournaments this year. Nadal and Djokovic are no longer on the ATP Player Council, but Federer remains its president.

It is all too easy to criticize athletes for demanding more pay in an era when many people are flat out of work, but what they are seeking is actually less of a gap between the elite players and the journeymen — which is sort of progressive. And for journeywomen, although equal pay for men and women is still a sore subject. Men complain about playing three out of five sets while the women play just two out of three. Martina Navratilova has countered that the five set format is much too long anyway, probably meaning much too long for TV. INTennis notes that some of the men don’t feel that the women players are doing much off the court to earn higher pay:

…Rumors of a boycott of the Australian Open had circulated in the news as the first week began.

On top of those rumors, the issue of equal pay between men and women at the Majors was also front and center. This battle started at Wimbledon when new ATP council member Gilles Simon talked to the media about his desire to change the balance in favor the men. His interest soon received Twitter support from Sergiy Stakhovsky, another new Council member. …

“We sit down, do you know how many talks we have in the locker rooms about the Grand Slams, about pay increases? … It comes to the point where the men are willing to commit themselves and to communicate and to do some work towards the Grand Slams, towards getting more, and the women are just riding on our backs,” he said. “They didn’t even say not one ‘thank you.’ I mean, they got an increase in Paris, they got an increase at the U.S. Open, they got an increase at Wimbledon. Did any of the WTA players ever come to the ATP offices and say, ‘We’re so grateful that the guys put this all together so we could get more money?’ There was no thank-you. Now I don’t want it…. They don’t appreciate what we did and we don’t appreciate them riding on our backs.… If they would have their council, if they would do work with the Grand Slams and talk to them, it would be a different story. But we do the work for them.”

Tennis is a miasma of conflicting interests. Most of the money comes from television advertising, and much of that (resorts, investments, luxury watches, diamond tennis bracelets) is aimed at the upper middle class and wealthy. The majors make most of that money. The ATP would like their nine World Tour Masters tournaments to be just as popular as the majors, but history is against them. The WTA has their own premier series as well. The players have a strong interest in the ATP and WTA, but they need to do well at the majors to make a name for themselves. And player’s agents, like ProServ, often have stakes in particular tournaments, and in televised sports.

Add to all that the drift in financial power away from North America and Europe and towards the Middle East and Asia — the tours now feature World and Premiere events in Dubai, Istanbul, Shanghai and Beijing — and a boycott looks like a calculated blow against the traditional tennis powers.


Update: In Australian Open now the richest tournament in tennis, we see that the AO, at least, has avoided the threatened boycott by adding about 4.15 million to the total purse:

The move to increase prize money for the first tennis major of the year followed reports that some players were considering bypassing the tournament if the purse was not increased, particularly for losers in the early rounds.

We’ll see if Roland Garros and the others follow suit.




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