Underpaid and overplayed: tennis is ripe for disruption Streamlining the sport’s bloated calendar would be a good place to start


 Professional tennis presents an alluring path to wealth for its top performers, with winners of major tournaments raking in substantial prize money. However, as one descends the rankings, the financial rewards diminish drastically. Tennis players operate as independent contractors, responsible for covering their own expenses such as travel, training, and coaching. According to the International Tennis Federation, fewer than 5% of professional players manage to break even. The relentless pursuit of ranking points to qualify for lucrative tournaments often keeps players on the road for 11 months per year, leading to physical and mental strain. In addition, injuries can further disrupt players' careers, forcing many to persist through pain to secure earnings.

The structure of the professional tennis landscape exacerbates the financial challenges. Several stakeholders, including the ATP, WTA, and the organizers of the four grand slam tournaments, create a complex web of events that complicates revenue generation from broadcasters and sponsors. The existing system has resulted in tennis accounting for a mere 1.3% of global sports-broadcasting revenue, and fans are required to subscribe separately to multiple tournaments throughout the year.

Despite these challenges, hopes for change are emerging. The WTA's partnership with a private equity firm and the potential involvement of outside investors, such as rumors of Saudi Arabia's interest in the sport, could potentially shake up the current landscape. Additionally, efforts are being made by tennis governing bodies to address the earnings gap, such as the ATP's Baseline program and the WTA's plans to use private-equity funding to work towards equalizing prize money for female players.

One transformative idea under consideration is the establishment of a more consolidated and streamlined tennis calendar, including the grand slams and a select number of smaller tournaments, aiming to enhance fan and broadcaster appeal. Although the proposed "premier tour" has the potential to address challenges, there are concerns about further entrenching the elite while leaving others financially vulnerable. Nevertheless, with support from players, including the formation of the Professional Tennis Players Association in 2020, and with the anticipation of change sparked by potential outside influences, the tennis landscape could be on the cusp of substantial transformation.  

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