With the ATP’s announcement on 12 December that prize money would increase by up to 14% for ATP main tour events from 2015 onwards, the ATP has potentially created problems for itself. Prize money has never been more unequal between the main tour and second tier Challenger tour. If the ATP wishes to nurture the next generation and combat the risk of corruption from match-fixing, there is a limit to the extent that it can prioritise main tour prize money over the Challenger tour. And although the ATP has yet to announce its plans for Challenger level prize money, many may think that limit has been reached.
On Friday, the ATP announced increases in prize money for ATP events through to 2018. The largest events, the Masters 1000s, will have their prize money increased annually by 14%; smaller ATP 250 events will see increases of 3.5%. Prize money for ATP 500 events will grow by 10% a year, an announcement that was made at the end of the 2013 season.
No question, this shows the overall financial health of men’s tennis (despite some tournaments rumoured to be facing financial difficulties, eg Valencia). Equally, a robust argument can be made that the stars of the game who draw in the fans should share in the game’s financial success, an argument made by, among others, Joey Hanf of The Tennis Nerds.
But this announcement comes at a time when prize money inequality between the main tour and the Challenger tour (the second tier of men’s professional tennis) is not just a statistical reality, it is also exercising the minds of administrators, former players and journalists alike.
Let’s look at the statistical reality: between 1978 and 2014 the average prize money for an ATP tour level tournament, adjusting for inflation, increased by over 200%; Challenger level prize money DECREASED by 29%. The effect of the ATP’s announcement on 12 December 2014 is to further widen the gap. I have not been able to plot the exact incline of the dotted line below as precise details of tournament prize money have not yet been confirmed by the ATP. However, I have calculated the increased ATP 250, ATP 500, and Masters 1000 prize money levels up to 2018 based on the limited information in the press release.
Comparison of percentage change in prize money for ATP main tour level and ATP Challenger level tournaments since 1978 (adjusted for inflation; source: atpworldtour.com)
What’s important to emphasise is that improving Challenger tour prize money is a relatively simple exercise. To make Challenger tour prize money in 2014 equal to what it was in 1978 (adjusted for inflation) would cost only USD 3.4 million. An extra USD 15 million would result in the doubling of Challenger tour prize money since 1978. That may be a stretch in one go, but the ATP’s recently announced investment in the man tour is over USD35m annually by 2018. Below, the first chart up to 2014, showing what could be achieved with different cash injections.
So why is this a big deal?
Some readers may consider that prize money inequality is simply a reflection of the market value of the top events; and may also act as an incentive for players to play in those events. Not everyone shares this view: Patrick McEnroe on twitter this week said it was a “big problem” that the top 10 took 48% of the prize money won by the top 100 in 2014 (research by French newspaper L’Equipe here). But whatever your view, the point finally is not about trying to calculate an acceptable level of inequality, but what the consequences are of that inequality.
Accordingly, there are at least two reasons to be cautious about the ATP’s prize money announcement:
ONE) Prize money inequality makes it more difficult for younger players, starting out on the Challenger tour, to break through. The ATP Top 50 is older than ever before, average age of 28, and less likely to change than ever before: 28 players who were in the Top 50 in 2008 were also in the Top 50 at the end of 2013, a record. (Research on this website here.)
It is widely recognised that players are better conditioned and therefore can play at a top level for longer in their careers, something that prize money inequality perpetuates. For it is the players in the top 50 with greater prize money that can afford the nutritionists, fitness trainers and coaches that can make the difference over the course of a season. As Patrick Mouratoglou, coach to Serena Williams among others, has said, winning requires more than just technical ability: “Talent [alone] does not always allow people to win.” Many players at Challenger level cannot afford to have even thier coach travel with them.
The breakthroughs of Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric this year are anomalous compared to recent years. The ATP will want to be able to nurture the next generation rather than hope that kids beat unpromising odds.
TWO) Low pay on the Challenger Tour gives rise to the risk of corruption, specifically match-fixing. What’s consistent about many of the alleged or proven cases of match-fixing is the low ATP ranking of those involved. David Savic, banned for life by the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU, the anti-corruption unit of professional tennis) in 2011 was ranked in the 600s; other allegations involve those playing at Challenger (or lower) level.
To be clear: I am not advocating that the ATP should simply seek to buy off the problem of match-fixing. Defeating corruption in tennis starts with a tone at the top of the organisation of zero tolerance, includes training and education of players, and requires the players themselves to be responsible for their own compliance, no matter the level of pay. However, greater prize money is part of the toolkit to avoid creating conditions where some players are attempted to engage in match-fixing to supplement prize money.
The ATP’s position on prize money and the Challenger tour
To be fair to the ATP, this is its stance on Challenger tour prize money. Chris Kermode, chairman of the ATP, has said:
- That players ranked in the ATP Top 200-250 should be able to make a living from tennis;
- That the answer at Challenger level is not necessarily just prize money but to align events geographically so that if a player fails to qualify for an ATP event, they can play a Challenger event nearby;
- That the review of ATP tournaments and prize money (including Challengers) will start with the ATP events and move on to the Challenger events.
So, to give the ATP the benefit of the doubt, judgment on the December prize money increase should be tempered until its plans for the Challenger Tour have been made public (a five man working party has been created to study the issue). However, what the recent announcement has done is to increase the scrutiny given to any future Challenger tour plans.