The ATP: a complete and total mess
Fair warning this is a long article but it addresses a lot of the problems I have found with the ATP and some I was not aware of. I have started to see quite a few of them pop up recently. Lleyton may not have been far off the mark when he callled the ATP a circus.
Missing The Mission: The ATP Is Spinning More Than The Ball
By Mark Winters
"The ATP is a dangerous subject and I don’t want to sound critical, but it appears that they have lost their path," lamented Hall of Famer Jack Kramer, the first executive director of the ATP. "What they are doing is not what we had in mind," he said, carefully picking his words.
A well-respected coach has a harsher assessment: “The ATP has turned from being a player’s union to being the governing body of the tour. It has become what we ran away from—the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council."
The ATP Mission statement proudly boasts, “As the governing body of the men’s professional tennis circuit, the ATP is committed to creatively and professionally leading the worldwide growth of the game.” Mission statements usually are eloquent, grandiose and often exasperatingly exaggerated. Achieving stated ends is never as easy as coming up with lofty words.
“The ATP was founded to release players from the bondage of national tennis associations who, in the days of amateur tennis, treated them like serfs,” remembers John Barrett, Financial Times tennis correspondent and one of the original Board members. “Although Open tennis arrived in 1968, attitudes had still not changed. The initial goals were: to unify the players and provide a voice for them in the forum of world tennis; to eliminate guarantees and have all funds channeled into prize money and to start a pension fund for the protection of players in later life. The first and last were soon realized but guarantees have never been eliminated. Now they are even allowed under the rules for tournaments outside the Masters Series.” In addition, “other topics soon became important, like a ranking system, control of the calendar, a code of conduct, road managers, entries being handled by the ATP instead of by individuals, etc.”
A line has been crossed. According to the coach quoted earlier, “There is no longer anyone representing the interests of the players. Before the inception of the new ATP, the tour representatives were supposed to be at tournaments helping the players. They were player advocates. Now, they are policing players. That’s why the players need a union of their own.”
The ATP Board of Directors is composed of player representatives (Tomas Carbonell, Gary Muller and Harold Solomon) and tournament representatives (Patrice Dominguez, Charlie Pasarell and Graham Pearce). CEO Mark Miles has the tie-breaking vote (a vote he has yet to cast despite 12 years in office). The system should work. It is also balanced by a Player Council, headed by President Todd Martin, with representation from every level and a Tournament Council composed of five European, four international and four American tournament directors.
As democratic as this system appears to be, many players feel that instead of a “partnership between the tournament directors and players,” the balance is skewed in favor of the former. Not surprisingly, the tournament directors disagree.
Kramer remembers, "In 1975, there were 20 tournaments, including the Grand Slams, with operating experience. The idea was to get all the players to play every event. They had to play to be part of the Grand Prix and participate in the Bonus Pool. Now many of those 20 tournaments have disappeared. While it may be progress, there are now people with money involved in the game and the plan for the Super Nine (Masters Series) has knocked most of the other tournaments out of the box."
According to Barrett, “In the early days the players, still competing themselves, were actively engaged in day-to-day decisions. The change from ATP—the players’ union‚ to ATP—the commercial entity‚ was accompanied inevitably by the emergence of a strong management team of paid executives who run the show like a business and report to the players several times a year. The tournament directors are the ones who make or break the company by providing the funds that keep the roundabout spinning on its merry way. Accordingly, there is constant tension between the two groups. The ATP, like Oliver Twist, is always asking for more to justify its existence and the tournament directors resist those demands and lean ever more heavily on sponsors to provide the funds. Not surprisingly, many sponsors have collapsed."
Sponsor support, or more appropriately, the lack thereof, is high among the concerns of the ATP. A flat economy has constricted the Tennis Masters Series and their poor cousins, the 60 odd other worldwide tournaments. The situation for sponsors is even more precarious when fan reaction to escalating costs of attending tournaments is added to the equation. Last fall, the situation was of such concern that Miles hired accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to analyze the Tennis Masters Series. Its report helped form the basis for the singles prize money restructuring that was announced in October. Larry Scott, COO and president of ATP Properties, announced: “The independent review by PricewaterhouseCoopers has been conducted and is undergoing review by the ATP Board.” He sees it as part of the ATP process. “From time to time, we have reviewed prize money levels and always tried to look at whatever objective information is available."
The sponsors, players and fans do not seem to be on the same side of the net. Prior to the creation of the Masters Series, the majors were the biggest games in tennis. Win just one and a player earned a place in tennis history. Now there are the four majors and the extra special Masters Series events. “If you win the other tournaments it’s an unbelievably nice feeling, but for the public, there are only the big tournaments, the Grand Slams and the Masters that count," admitted Alex Corretja, twice a Roland Garros finalist.
Naturally, in-fighting among player interests is not helping settle matters. In fact, often-times the players are their own worst enemies. Corretja, who once served as Player Council president, admitted with a smile, “The players are terrible. You have to be a politician because you have to defend all the positions. It’s not easy because you talk to the Spanish guys and they want more clay court tournaments. If you talk to the American guys, they would like to see everything on hard courts. You have to try to find a good balance for everybody, which is never easy because somebody’s always going to complain."
When talk turns to prize money, doubles is immediately a discussion point. It has become the sacrificial lamb when it comes to improving tournaments and their bottom line. Though both ATP officials and public pronouncements stress how much the game needs doubles, it seems that with the advent of the tie break instead of the third set, draw size reduction and, of course, the prize money for 2003, doubles is on its way to relegation as little more than exhibition.
“Save for a short honeymoon period, there has been friction between the tournament directors and players regarding the state of doubles,” said Jack Waite, a former Player Council member. “Up to that point, there were not many players who specialized in playing doubles because there wasn’t enough money. That changed in the early ’90s with increases in tournament prize money overall and with a higher percentage of the total purse going to doubles. By 2000, nearly 67 percent of the doubles entries were players who were not in the singles draw. The tournament directors asked for relief and the Player Board tried to find a way to integrate more singles players into doubles. In this newfound spirit of cooperation, both sides hammered out an agreement at the 2001 Australian Open that, in short, would allow singles players to enter the doubles with their singles rankings by 2003.
For a very short time, détente ruled. Within months of the 2001 agreement, the tour’s global sponsor, ISL went bankrupt and the world economy faltered. Then came September 11th and tournament directors insisted that financial aid should come from the doubles.” Waite’s suggestion: “As a doubles advocate, I feel that any cut in prize money should be across the board so that all parties equally feel the economic crunch."
Former Player Council President Todd Woodbridge added, “I am happy with what was attempted. I am unhappy with what the tournament directors did afterwards."
Aside from the doubles flap, both European players and tournament directors believe the ATP is too concerned with American issues. Dominguez said European tournament directors are not happy with the prize money distribution and the proposed tour schedule changes including separating the Tennis Masters Series Indian Wells from Miami by a week, thus compromising the European clay court season. The other side of the Atlantic isn’t contented either. Washington and Indianapolis were so unhappy with the “new look,” they sued the ATP over their assigned calendar dates.
Scott responds to these concerns: “Scheduling of tournaments is a routine part of our business, and obviously a sensitive one, but the lively debate is not out of the ordinary at this time. Regarding prize money, the Board asked us to review all of our tournaments to better understand their financial situations so we can determine if the current levies are appropriate.” He added, “Because the legal issues with Washington and Indianapolis are unresolved. I can’t discuss the substantive issues at this time."
The players add to the clamor. Their hot button topics include what they see as unrealistic but “required” participation in all Tennis Masters Series events. They also decry the “Race” versus “Ranking” (entry system position) issue that, along with the Masters Series and “New Balls Please” ad campaign, became the backbone of tour promotional efforts when ISL was providing the big money.
At Roland Garros, the International Tennis Writers Association, looking to increase readers’ understanding—such as a player being No. 15 in the Race, yet having to play the qualifying because his ESP was so low—recommended notifying the ATP that journalists would only refer to the ESP as the real ranking. When Scott was asked if lack of media support for the Race would alter the ATP’s steadfast adherence to the concept, he denied there is a lack of media support saying, “We continue to believe that it adds value and clarity to the game.” Despite the demise of ISL and lack of support by the tennis media, the ATP has placed the Race in an untouchable category.
Waite said, “The Race‚ and the Master Series decisions were agreed upon by both players and tournaments.” The reality, however, is that the players never really considered the ramifications of the elimination of real rankings. Moreover, decisions regarding the tournament schedule have been delegated to the CEO. Both sides have input, but Miles makes the schedule, and his decision is final unless two player Board reps and two tournament directors veto it.
Last year, Marat Safin physically broke down attempting to fulfill the requirement of playing all nine Tennis Masters Series events and thus qualify for the year-end bonus pool. “I thought it was the right thing to play all these tournaments,” he said. “If you are playing a lot of tournaments, it’s difficult to do well in all of them. The quality of your game goes down because your fitness is not good after playing three weeks in a row. It’s not good for the spectators. It’s not good for me. Basically, I spoiled my whole year."
Tiger Woods addressed a similar situation in his sport when he said in Golf World this spring: “It’s our tour? When I hear that, it makes me chuckle. If we’re so-called independent contractors, why do we have to play a certain number of tournaments? Why do we need releases to play elsewhere?"
Though ripe for harvesting, the situation with ISL has been allowed to die on the vine. How the 10-year, $1.2 billion agreement collapsed, in less than two years, deserves closer analysis to begin to make sense of what issues the ATP faces today and how everyone can learn from its mistakes for the future.
IMG Founder and Chairman Mark McCormack candidly discussed the ATP’s involvement with ISL in SportsBusiness Journal. “They are useless. A bunch of people afraid to lose their jobs. I don’t know if Mark Miles and Larry Scott signed the ISL deal to increase their salaries or for the good of tennis, but I really think it was the first option. I don’t think the players know how much of a disaster the ISL deal was and will be for the tour."
The idea that “there is no free lunch” proved true through the failure of the ATP’s partnership with ISL. It isn’t necessary to be a math major to understand that no dollar commitment will be realized by a company that, once the introductory bravado is out of the way, doesn’t have the goods to market men’s pro tennis. “I was a bit on the sidelines, but I feel there were a few key problems not recognized going in,” said Tom O’Neal, who was working with sponsors at Butch Buchholtz’s Key Biscayne tournament when ISL came into the picture.
“Number one, ISL personnel had little knowledge of the Byzantine workings of the tennis industry; very little knowledge of how tournaments are run to make money and how tough tennis sponsor sales are. They thought it would be like soccer. Number two, there was no economic justification for the basic concept that the whole tour was worth more than the sum of its parts. It did make sense for Mercedes to have a year-round schedule and the main locations fit with their car sales. [Note: Mercedes pays more per tournament than it would if it contracted with each event on its own because the ATP keeps a significant portion of the Mercedes-Benz overall tour sponsorship before turning over below-market car category fees to individual tournaments.] Few other major global companies have that sort of fit and so it just was not worth the money that ISL was trying to get. Number three, [the ATP and ISL] eliminated the title sponsor at each of the Masters Series events, except for [the Nasdaq-100] which Butch kept thanks to having already signed the contract. The title sponsor pays the prize money and the title is the biggest single exposure value at any event. A tournament without a title sponsor is not economically viable. By eliminating the key revenue generator for tournaments, ISL pulled the rug out from under itself. The so-called branding of the Masters Series is a helpful consumer idea, but generates no funds [for the tournaments themselves]."
O’Neal continued, “On the Nasdaq, the effect is not much because Buchholtz kept most of the sponsors he had. It hurt Pasarell’s tournament in California until he was able to get Pacific Life as a title sponsor."
Asked if the ISL fallout can ever be fully measured, Scott said, “While it’s difficult to quantify the tangible and intangible effects, we’re pleased with the transition over the last 12 months and some of the recent agreements with Mercedes-Benz, Houston, Lotto and various tournament agreements arranged during this difficult economic time suggest a very bright future."
Scott rationalized the reduction in status of the “non-nine” with near-convincing spin. “By positioning the elite status of the Masters Series, it makes sense for the sport—and that includes all ATP tournaments. The bigger the Masters Series and Grand Slams for that matter, the better for everyone involved in tennis."
Individual players are more cautious when discussing the ATP. Should a player be openly critical (which falls under ATP rules discussing “conduct contrary to the integrity of the game”), he can be fined up to $100,000 or stripped of his ATP membership. The result is a looking over-the-shoulder, safe response campaign to journalists’ more probing questions. “The whole thing about fines to punish speaking out just goes to show how the ATP is trying to control and manipulate the tour and players,” one anonymity-requesting insider offered.
In the thirteen years of the ATP’s administration of the men’s tour, a dozen facelifts have been applied to make the men’s game more appealing to fans. Whether replacing “Ranking” with “Race”, upgrading nine Masters Series events (at the expense of other tournaments) or unfolding an ad campaign featuring young stars are bold enough initiatives to overcome all the challenges is a nagging question. While some see this as rudderless stewardship, the ATP Board claims that its rule by consensus—no tie votes from a board which is balanced between groups with at least occasionally antagonistic goals—has resulted in substantial growth in spectator attendance over the past five years.
Manufacturers are among those who disagree with that rosy assessment. They point to flat participation and falling revenues. In a highly unusual move, industry leaders Wilson, Prince and Head are taking the extraordinary step of putting aside their own competition and issuing a joint response to what they see as threats to the industry.
An insurgency may even be internal. Many hope Todd Martin, the new Player Council president, will help move the men’s game into the 21st century. As someone with a reputation for honesty and candor, they count on him to make sure the wide range of challenges presently sequestered in the ATP’s closet sees the light of day and face open critique.
But whether internal or external, change had better come soon or ATP may not spell the future of men’s tennis much longer. In a piece entitled “Welcome to the Dog Day of Men’s Tennis” that appeared this summer, Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre, himself an avid recreational player and true tennis fan, assessed the men’s game with brutal honesty. “If Gertrude Stein were a tennis fan, she would sum up the state of the men’s game quite easily: There’s no there there…It is currently a sport of baseline bangers, devoid of drama and purged of personality. It is a tour of young, nice-looking athletes who mostly handle their nomadic existence like robots and exude the same kind of charisma. If R2D2 would take up the game, he’d fit right in. Plus, he might be a better interview."