Professional tennis players are up in arms again about prize money, and a large group of them, including Novak Djokovic and Sloane Stephens, are attempting to push the four Grand Slam tournaments to commit a greater percentage of their revenue to the players.
The group, led by the veteran Vasek Pospisil of Canada but lacking the support of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, wants more transparency from the major tournaments about how they determine prize money. The group wants a regular seat at the negotiating tables very soon, and above all, it wants not just another pay raise, but a significantly larger slice of the pie.
The players’ main goal, the 248th-ranked Pospisil said, is not to further enrich the game’s biggest stars, but to increase the number of players able to earn a good living.
For now, the Grand Slam tournaments, the most successful events in tennis, are not engaging with the new group. Wimbledon and the United States Open rejected overtures in recent weeks.
Grand Slam leaders maintain that it is unfair to single out their tournaments and that regular tour events should be carrying a greater share of the prize-money load.
“To say only the Grand Slams should be targeted is just not right,” Richard Lewis, the chief executive of Wimbledon, said in a recent interview.
Most Grand Slam revenue numbers are not made public, but the United States Tennis Association reported just over $380 million in U.S. Open revenue in 2018 and paid out $53 million in player compensation, which amounts to 13.94 percent of the total, with men and women receiving equal prize money.
“I just can’t believe this is the number,” Pospisil said in an interview from China this week. “It’s not fair. They have to figure out how to do their business another way, but they have to compensate the product fairly.”
This is not a new struggle. Leaders of the men’s tour, brandishing the threat of a boycott, won significant prize-money increases from the Grand Slam tournaments as recently as 2012.
Since then, U.S. Open prize money has more than doubled — to $57.24 million from $25.5 million, increasing from approximately 11 percent of total revenue to about 14 percent, if the U.S.T.A.’s reported revenue figures are accurate.
First-round losers in singles earned $58,000 in 2019, up from $23,000 in 2012.
“We have listened to the players and significantly increased prize money in early rounds,” said Gordon Smith, chief executive of the U.S.T.A.
But as Grand Slam revenue continues to rise substantially, many players feel the percentage dedicated to prize money remains far too low compared with compensation in other professional sports. While recognizing that the pro tennis circuit has fundamentally differences from the N.B.A. or N.F.L., many players are frustrated with the pace and scope of change.
Pospisil said “between 70 and 80” of the top 100 men and “75 percent of the top 20” had signed a letter of engagement with the global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright to represent them in negotiations with the Grand Slam tournaments.
According to Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open women’s champion, “a majority of the top 100 WTA players and top-10 players” had also signed the letter of engagement.
“Regardless of the number, the bottom line is that we players just want to make sure there is a fair distribution of revenue,” Stephens said in an email. “That debate is never-ending, but with more information and understanding on both sides, the players and the tournaments can be well taken care of.”
What distinguishes this latest campaign is that it is a joint effort by men and women. In 2012, the women stayed on the sidelines.
“In order to have the most productive conversations, it needs to be a collaborative effort,” Stephens said.
This is also a rare attempt to bypass the traditional structures of the ATP and WTA tours and negotiate directly with the Grand Slam events, which operate independently of the tours and have long been resistant to sharing many financial details.
Pospisil, 29, is on the ATP Player council and has grown increasingly exasperated with players’ inability to make meaningful change within the ATP, which is a partnership between the players and the tournaments. He said that inherent internal conflict had pushed him to create a negotiating vehicle outside the system.
That could eventually mean unionization, an idea that Djokovic has explored. But for now, the main objective is pressuring the Grand Slam tournaments — the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Walied Soliman, the global chairman of Norton Rose Fulbright, wrote to all of the Grand Slam leaders on Aug. 20. In his letter, Soliman stated that prize money at the Grand Slam events was “approximately 12 to 17 percent of the total revenue received.” He called that figure “underwhelming” compared with those of professional leagues like the N.H.L., N.F.L., N.B.A. and Major League Baseball. Players in those leagues, Soliman maintained, receive approximately half of total revenue.
Grand Slam officials have long rejected such comparisons. Their organizations are responsible for supporting the development of tennis in their countries and for capital improvements to their tournaments. They note that players in major pro leagues give up many of their commercial rights as part of the collective-bargaining agreements.
As of Wednesday, only leaders of the U.S. Open and Wimbledon had responded, rejecting direct negotiations.
Craig Tiley, the Australian Open’s tournament director, said on Wednesday that Tennis Australia intended to respond to Norton Rose Fulbright but was also not eager to negotiate piecemeal with various player groups. Tiley has said the long-term goal is to increase prize money to $100 million Australian ($67.5 million) but has not given a timetable. Total prize money this year was $62.5 million Australian, and though a big increase is likely for 2020, Tiley said that Tennis Australia was also investing $60 million Australian in the new ATP Cup team event.
Pospisil, convinced the business model is skewed, said his group intended to push hard ahead of the Australian Open, which starts on Jan. 20.
“If the Aussie Open comes around and there have been no discussions,” Pospisil said, “that’s their risk to take in terms of having a very upset player group.”
The players’ primary leverage is the prospect of a boycott.
“Nobody wants to be going in guns blazing,” Pospisil said. “But at some point we won’t have much choice if they don’t even have the respect for the players to begin negotiations.”
Maintaining player solidarity in such circumstances has proved very difficult. The last significant boycott of a major tournament was at Wimbledon in 1973, when 81 men, including Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe, chose not to play as a show of support for Niki Pilic, a Yugoslavian player who had been barred from Wimbledon after declining to play Davis Cup for his country.
Pospisil and his group are a long way from such a bold move. They lack support from two of the game’s most influential figures, Federer and Nadal, neither of whom has signed the letter of engagement. Both of them recently rejoined the ATP Player Council.
The top-ranked Djokovic, the president of the council, has played a vital role in the new movement, according to Pospisil and others. Djokovic did not respond to a series of interview requests for this article.
“I might still be naïve to think it can succeed, but honestly it’s reached a point where this thing has some legs right now,” Pospisil said.
Federer played a big role in the 2012 negotiations, but he now has closer ties with Tennis Australia and the U.S.T.A., which are investors in the Laver Cup, the new team event he helped conceive.
Federer has expressed support for the idea of generating more compensation for lower-ranked players and those in tennis’s minor leagues.
Pospisil said that in signing the letter of engagement, players committed to earmarking an unspecified percentage of any future compensation gains the law firm secures to raising prize money on the lower tours.
“There would be a vote on how much it is,” he said. “The idea is to get what players deserve and to grow the sport and to turn it from having 100 players able to make a living to suddenly 300.”
Christopher Clarey has covered global sports for The Times and the International Herald Tribune for more than 25 years from bases in France, Spain and the United States. His specialties are tennis, soccer, the Olympic Games and sailing. @christophclarey
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