By Robbie Salaman, 3L at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law
In their sure-to-be Hall of Fame careers, Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal have faced each other twenty seven times with Rafa edging Roger 18 times. Their latest chapter was another instant classic as Nadal pulled out a grueling four-set victory in the 2012 Australian Open semifinals. But the Federer-Nadal rivalry could soon go from the tennis court to an actual courtroom as labor strife is growing among professional tennis players. Nadal recently blasted Federer –- the ATP Players Council President — for failing to speak out against pro tennis management.
Nadal is not alone in his view. Player anger has been brewing for years over a number of hot-button issues, including the length and overcrowding of the tennis schedule and the low percentage of prize money awarded to players. The problem reached its apex when players threatened to boycott the 2012 Australian Open. In fact, reports surfaced that a majority of players voted in favor of a strike — perhaps a sign of trouble to come for the pro tour.
Before delving into the areas of concern for players, a breakdown of the complex tennis industry is necessary. In the simplest terms, tennis at the professional level consists of four organizations: (1) International Tennis Federation (ITF), (2) ATP World Tour (Association of Tennis Professionals), (3) WTA Tour (Women’s Tennis Association) and the (4) Grand Slam Committee.
Each of the four institutions yields varying amounts of power. Up until 1970, power was concentrated solely in the ITF. However, with the influence of the ATP, tournament directors, agents and promoters rising in recent decades, the ITF’s power has diminished. Today, the ITF governs national team tennis competitions, namely the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, and in conjunction with the Grand Slam Committee run the four annual Grand Slam events. Meanwhile, the ATP World Tour owns and runs all of the events outside of the four Grand Slam tournaments.
Historically and compared to the four main North American professional sports leagues, tennis players have had little power to influence change to their sport. Prior to 1972, the players had no power at all. The players made their first stand in 1973 with a boycott of Wimbledon in response to the Niki Pilic suspension. Pilic, a Croatian tennis player was suspended for six months by the ITF for refusing to represent Yugoslavia in the Davis Cup. In response, eighty-one players skipped the Championships, including Stan Smith, reigning Wimbledon Champion. Sixteen years later in 1988, players staged an impromptu press conference in the parking lot at the US Open to gain more power. The ATP Player Council then formed, which consists of ten players (now headed by Federer) who deliver suggestions to the ATP Board of Directors. The Board has the option of whether to accept or reject the Council’s proposals. Presently, the ATP is not a union, but rather a hybrid organization consisting of tournament directors and players. Indeed, “unlike salaried professional sports team athletes, professional tennis players are ‘self-employed.’” Similar to professional golf and boxing, the sheer number of athletes makes forming a union practically difficult. Still, the actions taken by players in 1972 and 1988 gave the players a voice (even if it is a minority) in the decision-making of the sport.
With the convoluted tennis industry as a backdrop, why do tennis players want to strike? Let’s start with the scheduling issues. The ATP tennis season lasts from the first week of January until the first week of November. Yes, ten full months. Top players receive only eight weeks off between the end of one season and the start of the next. In comparison, the NFL has a five-month break between seasons while the NBA has four months. Not only is the length of the tennis season problematic, but the amount of tournaments players are mandated to participate in also raises concerns. With the potential for fines and being docked ranking points, players are required to be in the field for the Four Grand Slam tournaments (eight weeks), nine ATP Masters (nine weeks) and the ATP Finals (one week). Given that players often appear in Davis Cup matches and other tournaments during the year, players rarely get more than one week per month off.
Sure, some players will lose in the first round of a tournament and rest until the next event begins. Yet, top players like Federer and Nadal who consistently advance deep into tournaments get little rest during the course of the season. While players are rightly concerned about issues surrounding the schedule, the share of prize money awarded to players also raises their ire. On average, Grand Slams have made $200 million in recent years with players only receiving ten to twelve percent of the money. By way of example, the total prize money pool for the 2012 Australian Open is just $26.6 million out of total revenue expected north of $250 million.
The new NBA collective bargaining agreement resulted in a total revenue split of fifty one to forty nine percent in favor of the players. Given the amount of money Grand Slams are making from television contracts, along with ticket and merchandise sales, Grand Slam tournaments are under-compensating players. Take Wimbledon as an example. In July of 2011, ESPN paid $480 million over twelve years for full exclusive television rights to the Grand Slam. Shouldn’t the overall purse for players be greater than $23.8 million?
While the new head of the ATP, Brad Drewett, has acknowledged the players’ complaints, there has only been tinkering around the edges seen so far. Some of the slight improvements for the players include a thirty percent increase in total prize money for the eight qualifying players at the ATP World Tour Finals and the addition of two extra weeks to the offseason. Still, stark challenges remain.
The time has arrived for the ATP players to rise up, show some backbone, remain united, and strike. While there will always be divisions between the top players and those ranked outside of the top-100, it is in the best interest of all players to make the sport as healthy and prosperous as possible. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are known for their performances on the court, most recently seen in their classic four-set Australian Open semifinal, but both could add to their legacies even further by off the court action strengthening the position of players for generations to come.