The Business of Professional Tennis is Failing: Here’s How it Can be Saved.

From an outside perspective it may be difficult to tell that the sport of tennis is in dire condition right now. People just aren’t showing up like they used to. Outside of major events such as the Majors attendance is bleak. When the WTA decided to hold the WTA Finals in Fort Worth Texas this is what it looked like on the opening night. A fan who attended the event said they thought about 300 people were there. It’s hard to imagine this event was at all profitable…

wta finals crowd

To remedy the situation scalpers sold tickets for $6 which helped, but they still couldn’t even sell the place out. It also had a weird bachelorette themed vibe to it. I’m not trying to be too judgy, but why does this event even exist? The Majors aren’t enough? There’s more than a few things that need fixed for professional tennis. Let’s dive into some of those things…

The WTA Finals, the elite season-ending women’s tennis tournament, was supposed to take place in Shenzhen, China, for 10 years and fill the WTA’s coffers. It has not worked out as planned. After the controversial disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai following her accusations of sexual assault from someone in the Chinese community party.

Equal Pay for Equal Work

The total in prize payouts on the men’s tour is 75% higher overall than the women’s.

wta vs atp prize money

Yet the ATP also generates more than three times as much revenue as the WTA.

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about how there’s a discrepancy in tournament pay between the men and women in several tournaments. While some tournaments like the Grand Slams have matched it up, there’s still work that needs to be done. One thing I’ve seen brought up is the idea that men must play best of 5 sets where women only play best of 3. Hasn’t the attention span of everyone shrunk over the years? People don’t go to the movies anymore they’d rather be entertained by 15 second clips on TikTok. They prefer sitting at home and watching YouTube. Perhaps if they even things out more between the men’s and women’s league everyone would be happier. The women’s league could be just as popular if it were given more focus and promotion.

Tennis is the largest sport globally but they own a very small percentage of the broadcasting rights for television.

Is that such a big deal? Don’t most people stream services now? Well yes, but the people who control the rights control the money. As a result the amount of money that trickles down to tennis players is less compared to other sports that have a larger percentage of the broadcasting rights like the NFL where players generally earn more. That’s not to say you can’t make a lot of money in Tennis. But, let’s not forget this is an expensive sport to play. Players must travel all over the world and support a staff to help them train and maintain their schedule. If you want to remain competitive in the top 25 it would be difficult to achieve on less than one million per year. Agencies make up for a players “league pay” (if we can call it that) by bringing the players sponsorships. The only downside is that these sponsorship deals typically require appearances.

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For professional tennis athletes, being an influencer is part of the job, it also gives them more opportunities to reach new fans outside the sport.

It’s not like the world stops because you need to play tennis. We’re effectively asking players to be players and models or brand ambassadors. And we need to do this because tennis itself is not trickling enough money down to the players. In addition, because players aren’t given multiyear contracts, they’re often open to taking whatever they can get while it’s available.

If someone offers you fifty thousand dollars to make one social media post are you going to turn it down?

tennis is dying

Something I find rather ironic is how much grief tennis players get for promoting sponsors when without them they literally wouldn’t even be able to afford their expenses. In today’s world tennis players are their own brand and like any business obtaining capital is the best way to ensure their long term survival in the sport. Sponsorships are essential for players on the tour today. One thing I’d like to see is more of the league or event sponsorship money to make it to the players. For example Rolex has made deals with Wimbledon first and later the tours to prominently place their logo on the clocks which are seen by fans watching their favorite players matches. Some of that money should be going to the players, if it’s not, I would ask why not? As a whole event sponsorship seems to be fairly light. The Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart Germany is a fantastic example of great product placement. I would hope the athlete’s playing in the tournament are given part of the Porsche sponsorship money as part of their match play.

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How do we fix the problem?

Recently the WTA sold 20% of their commercial rights to a private equity firm for $150 million in July of 2022. I find this strange given the combined earnings of the top three paid women on the WTA tour was $100 million last year alone. However at least it gives us a baseline for coming up with a valuation for the current worth of the WTA league: $150 Million for 20% = $750 Million.

young tennis starIt’s important to note the WTA states the investment is in their “commercial operations” and not a direct investment in the company. They still claim to be a “not for profit” publicly held company. However, given commercial value is how you come up with a company’s valuation it’s hard to see the difference. There were also rumors that the same private equity firm was interested in investing $600 Million in the ATP for 20%. A $3 Billion dollar valuation. That deal fell through however diminishing any current hopes of combining the two leagues. If anything selling 20% of the WTA’s “commercial interest” to another company is likely to cause more division between the two professional leagues.

By the way, I think what they’re saying is that CVC won’t own a 20% interest in the company. Instead they’re purchasing rights to 20% of the WTA’s bottom line indefinitely or until their vested interest is eventually acquired or bought out by another company.

Making these leagues private effectively makes the athletes employees of the company. 

In sports like Basketball, Football and Baseball where private firms run the teams and the league the players are given contracts… Are we going to see contracts for players in Tennis? Are we going to see a push for player rights like equal pay, mandatory recovery time, health / medical attention and support? Will we still see players outside the top 100 struggling to make it on tour?

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I doubt it. At least not in the near future, it was more like an emergency infusion of cash without any plans for where the money should go…

I’m not saying the leagues won’t fix some of these issues and improve the sport of tennis over time, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow or any time soon. The nice thing about an infusion of capital like the WTA just received is it buys them time to figure out a plan for how their going to get more fans involved in their support, boost attendance at their events, increase revenue, and most importantly improve athlete pay for the top 500 instead of just the top 100 players. That’s a goal Billy Jean King has said she’d like to see happen and I think it’s possible. Even if we can get to a point where the top 250 men and 250 women on the pro tours are making enough to support a good coach, proper trainers, good physios etc we’ll be in a much better place overall.

Where do we go from here?

It’s difficult to tell a kid who looks up to an athlete that they should go to college and work instead of spending their time training and practicing tennis because professional tennis players can’t make enough to go on tour without having a second job. The sad thing is that’s where many players outside of the top 100 are right now and it needs to change, not only for them, but for the good of the sport. Only time will tell how it all plays out. In the meantime we encourage players to continue to work with a tennis agency who’s looking out for their best interests.

The only way I see it changing is if we boost the athletes from the ground up and get them the recognition and fan following they deserve. Instead of criticizing young athletes for achieving success and riches we should be celebrating their achievements and using them as examples to inspire the youth who identify with them now because they’ll eventually be the stars of tomorrow.

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