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Bob Larson :)

Good Money and Bad Money
Earlier this year, we reported on the state of the WTA calendar for 2003. It wasn't pretty, with the number of tournaments declining substantially.

At first glance, the ATP did better: It actually added events. How many depends on how you look at it, but it's at least one and arguably two new tournaments: Metz takes over for Toulouse, which has been scheduled for two years but not played; and with Houston taking over the Masters Cup, that lets Shanghai add a regular ATP event.

It's a good thing they added, because just about everything else went downhill. Prize money is way down.

The ATP is very good at hiding this -- it appears to be a clear case of making the numbers look as good as possible by smothering the bad news under blankets, though of course it's also possible that the ATP simply looks at the world through rose-colored glasses. Every tournament, as of now, has two prize money figures: The actual amount paid to the players on-site, and the nominal prize money (typically about 10% higher). Add to this the fact that some prizes are now listed in euros and some in dollars, and the ATP Currency Adjustment Rule (a good idea, really, but not very helpful to those whose task is to reckon up the money), and it becomes literally impossible to compare prize money from year to year.

But some facts still stand out:

* The Masters Series have finally been allowed to lower their prize money to a more reasonable figure. From a nominal not-quite-three-million, they're now down to a nominal not-quite-two-and-a-half million, with the actual total being 2,200,000 (dollars or euros). Miami of course pays more than this, but it's the only one.

* The minimum amount for an ATP event has gone from a nominal $400,000 to a nominal $380,000. Most of the higher-level events have taken equivalent hits.

* Four events have dropped back a tier: Indianapolis, Washington, Salvador (now Costa do Sauipe), and Buenos Aires have all shed $200,000 in prize money, more than offsetting the gain made by adding two events, even if you ignore the cuts at all the other events. There are a few small increases (e.g. at Rotterdam and Halle), but that's about it.

Overall, based on the nominal figures, we show a total last year of a bit over $57 million (excluding the Slams and the Masters Cup), and this year the total is a bit under $52 million. It's a drop of about 10% -- and that's in the nominal totals. Our guess is, with cancellations and further reductions and other changes, the drop will be more like 15% (though exact comparison will not be possible, because all prizes were paid in dollars last year, and again, this year it's dollars and euros, and how do you fix the exchange rate? Right now, payment in euros is actually increasing the prize money, but the economic reports we read -- penned by Americans, we admit -- don't expect that to last).

That ten percent drop is actually a worse hit than the WTA took. And while the WTA lost more slots for players, the ATP lost some as well -- Indianapolis, Washington, and Tokyo, for instance, are falling back from 56-draws to 48-draws.

No matter how relentlessly the ATP spins the numbers, this looks like trouble. Admittedly there is a recession on -- but this is a continuation of a trend which began last year, when the ATP first had to start cheating on points awards because tournaments could no longer scrape up as much cash as they were supposed to pay.

We should note that this doesn't really affect singles prize money much. The guys taking the hit will be doubles specialists. The ATP has decided to shift a higher percentage of the total tournament purse to singles, meaning that, in effect, the whole cut is coming out of doubles. Translation: The top singles players aren't even going to notice this.

The problems come for the lower-level players (we suspect it will hit those ranked #100-#250 hard). Many of these guys rely on doubles as well as singles to survive, and they also don't usually earn the big payoffs for going deep into tournaments. It's true that few people care about their results. But if the middle level weakens, that could affect the competitive balance of the sport.

Is there an answer for this? We've no idea. The ATP doesn't suffer the WTA's problem of lack of variety and lack of international balance. (Though it has an even worse imbalance of hardcourts versus everything else.) It has charismatic young players from all over the place -- Roddick and Blake from the U. S., Haas from Germany, Safin and Youzhny from Russia, Grosjean and Mathieu from France, Hewitt from Australia, Ferrero from Spain, and more Argentines than you can shake a stick at. Plus Andre Agassi and Gustavo Kuerten. Admittedly the ATP has a bad problem with doubles. And the Masters Series/Required-and-Optional format continues to be a thorn in the sides of the fifty or so optional events. And the only good thing you can say about the ATP Race is that they're now occasionally admitting that entry rankings exist. The Tennis Channel may help -- but the very fact that it's getting its hands on events even before it goes on the air is actually a sign of trouble: No one else with real money wants to broadcast the events. It's a picture of a sport in crisis.

There are some small suggestions, offered simply as that: First, if you're going to advertise your web site, be sure it loads quickly. The author spends so much time waiting for the ATP site that he's developed hacker-like shortcuts for getting information without waiting to wade through the four or five levels it takes to get the actual information.

And don't forget that your audience is not all American teenagers. Rock and roll advertisements may bring in the kids -- while driving off the established clientele with the money. Never threaten your base to try to attract an uncertain set of new fans.

And there is the old standby: Advertise the game, not the players. Germany is suffering badly with Boris Becker and Steffi Graf gone. Roddick and Blake are good players, but they can't possibly replace the soon-to-retire Agassi and Sampras.

More surface balance would help, too. The ATP hasn't seen all its serve-and-volleyers disappear, but they are less common. And the replacement of grass and indoor events with hardcourts is surely a big reason.

Also, stop sitting on your hands with scores. The quotes from the players are nice, but journalists have deadlines; we'd rather have the results now than wait for you to see which player can make the most inane comment about his match. If there is time before deadline, we can add the quotes. But we can't publish as score we don't have.

Finally, promote the Challengers well as the Tour events. There is a limit to how many Tour events there can be in a given week. If you expect half the players in every ATP event to be Top 100, and expect players to play about 23-26 events per year, then that's three 32-draw events per week. Which means that most cities will never be able to have an ATP event. But live tennis is not the same as TV tennis. Let people know that live pro tennis probably is played in their area. In the long run, it will help the TV audience, and probably even the ATP events.

You the reader may have other ideas. Frankly, we spent so much time doing the math that we didn't have time to think up controversial suggestions. But maybe it's time for a whispering campaign. The ATP may not want to hear you -- but it probably needs to hear you.

We'll have a follow-up, looking at how this might affect the players, in a few days

psychotic banana
15,731 Posts
With the senior tour dying down I wouldn't be surprised the main tour going down south in some years too.
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