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Restructuring Prize Money on the ITF Tour

In the past year or so, there have been several excellent posts and letters written by lower level tennis players concerning the issue of lack of pay on the Challenger and ITF Tours. The main two that I would recommend reading as a prelude to reading this post are James McGee’s blog post entitled ‘Financing the Tour’ (available here) and Tomas Buchhass’ recent open letter to the ITF (original here or translation here). They give an enlightening account of the difficulties of financing a career on the minor tours and how the glamorous image of a professional tennis player is no more than a myth for the majority of players outside the top 50 or so players.

ITF events usually take place with almost no spectators in places
such as Antalya and Sharm El Sheikh

The biggest problem is the prize money issue at the lowest levels of the game. A brief bit of history to begin with. On the women’s side, in 1984 there were 26 low level tournaments in Europe and 14 in the USA with a total prize money of $340,000. This roughly works out at $8,500 prize money for each of the tournament assuming they were equally split. In 2014, the lowest level of ITF tournament has a total prize money of $10,000. In other words, in the past 30 years, the prize money at the lowest level of tournament has increased by $1,500 or 17.6%. At the same time, the prize money at Wimbledon has increased from £1,461,896 in 1984 to £25,000,000 – an increase of £23,538,104 or just over 1,600%. In 1984, had they decided that the prize money at tournaments would be linked to the inflation rate, that $8,500 tournament, given the rate of inflation in the UK over the past 30 years, would now be offering prize money of just over $25,000. In real terms, the prize money at that level has dropped massively in the past three decades.

Every player will have to come through the ITF and Challenger Tours at some stage during their career. The top players may only spend a brief period there, but according to the ITF website, “the WTA singles ranking list for the end of 2012, released on 31 December, showed that all but two players have, at some point during their career, competed on the ITF Pro Circuit.” Without a minor tour to ease the transition from juniors to seniors, there would arguably be no senior tour.

While the ITF is a different organisation to the WTA or ATP, they are inextricably linked. They are dependent on each other and so cooperation between the two can only be beneficial. I say this as an assumption to my proposal for changing the tennis pay structure, which requires cooperation between the three organisations.

I shall focus on the women’s tour, but the same principal could easily be applied to the men’s, albeit with the slight complication of the Challenger Tour, which means that men have three levels, rather than two.

In 2014, including Grand Slams and the Hopman Cup, there were 59 WTA senior tour events. At the same time, there were 596 ITF events during the year. The grand total of prize money that was given out in the 59 WTA senior events was just under $107.5m, while the grand total for the 596 ITF events was just over $11m.

The ITF Tour itself is broken down into various different levels of tournament, classified by the amount of prize money and ranking points available. The table below shows the different categories, the number of each tournament and the total prize money at each level.

Category
Number of Tournaments
Total Prize Money
$10k
388
$3,880,000
$15k
26
$390,000
$25k
120
$3,000,000
$50k
44
$2,200,000
$75k
7
$525,000
$100k
11
$1,100,000

The truth is that tennis can only support a limited number of professional players. Regardless of prize money, with a limited number of tournaments, there are only a set number of players that can ever hope to make a living from the sport. There are roughly 2,000 ranked players in the WTA – a number that has been roughly steady for a while and is likely to remain so in the future. However, given the real decrease in prize money at the lowest levels, many players are being priced out of the sport. Increasingly, a sponsor or rich family are becoming the main way that young players can afford to compete on the tour.

Let us take a random tournament on the WTA Tour to look at. Just as an example, let us focus on the WTA event in Pattaya City. In 2012, the total prize money was $220k. This rose to $235k in 2013 and $250k in 2014. In other words, it is increasing by $15k per year. Based on this, in 2015, the prize money will rise by 6% to $265k while the prize money on the ITF Tour will not change.

What if each of the 59 tournaments on the main WTA Tour were to donate a small percentage of the prize money that is available to a pool that is used to increase the prize money at the ITF level? This is where cooperation between the ITF, the WTA and the tournaments themselves would have to be improved. Had this happened at the start of 2014, how might this be able to change the ITF Tour?

What if each tournament pledged to donate 4.75% of their prize money to a newly created ITF pool? This would raise just over $5.1m, which combined with the current $11.1m that is already on offer, would give us a prize money pool for the ITF Tour of $16.2m.

James McGee wrote an excellent piece about the struggles on the minor tours

How would this affect the WTA tournaments though? Returning to our earlier example of Pattaya City, the total prize money for the tournament in 2014 would drop from $250k to $238k – still a prize money increase from the 2013 level, albeit only a small increase. Assuming the 4.75% was deducted equally from each round, the winner would now receive a cheque for just under $41,000 rather than $43,000, while a player losing in the first round would receive $2,095 rather than $2,200. Obviously, it would be up to individual tournaments to determine how they restructured their prize money. A tournament may rather deduct more from the winner’s cheque to reduce the deduction for the first round losers, although it is up to them. Either way, we are not looking at huge reductions in prize money.

How would this affect the ITF though? Using the increased pool of prize money, we could convert the $10k events to $15k events. While this is still well below what they would be had they been linked to inflation, it immediately brings about a 50% increase in prize money for each event. Similarly, the $15k events could be increased to $25k events and so forth. The table below shows the changes that could be made:

Previous Category
New Category
New Total Prize Money
Prize Money Increase
$10k
$15k
$5,820,000
50.0%
$15k
$25k
$650,000
66.7%
$25k
$40k
$4,800,000
60.0%
$50k
$75k
$3,300,000
50.0%
$75k
$75k
$525,000
0.0%
$100k
$100k
$1,100,000
0.0%

The new total prize money for our new events is $16,195,000, which leaves us just over $4k spare from our new prize money pool. While there may be an argument for looking to increase the $75k and $100k events as well, this is not the priority at the current time.

Let us look in slightly more detail at what this would mean for a former $10k event. The table below shows the prize money changes for each round, assuming the extra prize money was distributed equally across rounds:

Round
Old Prize Money (Singles)
New Prize Money (Singles)
Old Prize Money (Doubles)
New Prize Money (Doubles)
Winner
$1,568
$2,352
$637
$955.50
Finalist
$980
$1,470
$343
$514.50
SF
$490
$735
$196
$294
QF
$245
$367.50
$98
$147
R16
$196
$294
$49
$73.50
R32
$98
$147
-


The winner of a former ITF $10k event would now receive $2,352 rather than $1,568 – an increase of $784. Obviously only one player can win, but a player that lost in the second round would now receive almost $100 more than they would have previously. While this does not necessarily sound like a huge amount of money, it could make a huge difference to players at that level. If you played 30 tournaments in a year and reached the second round of every tournament, that would equate to an extra $2,940 over the course of the year.

The table below shows the same calculations for one of the 120 former $25k events:

Round
Old Prize Money (Singles)
New Prize Money (Singles)
Old Prize Money (Doubles)
New Prize Money (Doubles)
Winner
$3,919
$6,270.40
$1,437
$2,299.20
Finalist
$2,091
$3,345.60
$719
$1,150.40
SF
$1,144
$1,830.40
$359
$574.40
QF
$654
$1,046.40
$196
$313.60
R16
$392
$627.20
$131
$209.60
R32
$228
$364.80



A player that reached the QF of a former $25k event and also lost in the QF of the doubles would now receive a cheque for $1,360 for their week’s work, rather than the $850 that they would previously. Given that James McGee estimated that an average weekly expenditure with no coach for him was roughly around €1,200 or $1,500, we are beginning to get toward the point where players can start to break even at a slightly lower level.

This might start to mean that players rise up the rankings based on their natural ability and hard work rather than their ability to afford a coach, whether that be through coming from a well-off federation, a rich benefactor or wildcards into bigger events.

Will this happen? Almost certainly not. There has been no interest in changing the prize money structure at the ITF level for many years, so it is tough to see this changing in the near future. Would the WTA, ATP and ITF be able to come to an agreement to see this prize money pooling happen? Probably not.

However, something does need to be done. It is madness that there has been virtually no change in absolute prize money in almost three decades and a huge fall in prize money in real terms. Maybe this idea is not the way forward, but the debate needs to be had. Otherwise, we may well just see more and more talented players giving up on the game too early simply because they cannot afford to keep playing.

2 comments:

  1. Restructuring prize money in this way won't resolve anything. The underlying cause is that there are as you say 2000 players. Playing professional sport is a privilege not a right. If you put more money there, then more established players will continue to stay instead of giving up and making way for younger players who will shortly be better then and you continue the vicious cycle that does nothing to improve the game. People won't give up on a dream unless they are forced to.

    At the top you say there was $340,000 in prizemoney in 1984, then $11100000 in 2014, but contend that there has been no change in absolute prizemoney in 3 decades at the bottom. On your figures there has been a 32 times increase in the ABSOLUTE prizemoney at the lowest level of the game, it is simply being split across an increased number of people. In absolute terms Wimbeldon has only increased at HALF the rate, it's just that it hasn't been diluted because there is only 1 Wimbeldon so stands to be able enrich those good enough to make it. The reality is that professional tennis only needs enough players to fill a grand slam draw and the next best YOUNG talent in the pipeline, that's where the profit is and that's where the money is. Outside of this interest and profitability disappear very quickly.

    Additionally the ITF isn't a homogenous body putting on the tournaments, it is the national tennis bodies (and luxury RESORTS as you pictured who profit from this by having players stay in their resort) who put on tournaments for their own individual vested interests. Tennis Australia ONLY hosts $15000 and up tournaments which are only about a third of the tournaments on your list. Different organisations are making their own choices.

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    Replies
    1. CONT...
      In order to steal from the rich and give to the poor there needs to be a compelling reason. If the sport should profitably support for example 100 then you need to be able to support this plus a pool of talent building to the top level. The research says it takes about 4 years on average to hit the top 100 with a 5 year career which would indicate a 25 player a year turnover of top 100 players. In this case 4 years of players waiting for the top 100 is an extra 100 players that should be financially supported, even doubling it for a 50% failure rate from the best talent is only 325 players to support not 2000. Even 500 players sharing the existing 11 million is twice as good per player for the extraordinarily talented players who can make it to the tournaments people care about seeing then the extra 5 million you propose shared between 2000. The problem with professional tennis is that it is open for anyone to complete and it is players such James McGee and Tomas Buchhass who would reasonably be cut if it was a logical question of relative performance for money (nothing personal, James seems like the kind of guy you would actually want around but he will likely never generate enough prizemoney to cover the cost of his development and a professional lifestyle and Tomas is further behind).

      The sport needs actual innovation not money shuffling. Rookie lists (eg, "Pre Rookie" for younger players only playing a few tournaments, 1st, 2nd, 3rd year etc. which actually take into account average points per tournament to give guys who can't afford to play as much a chance) which can promote talent (win win for tennis and for players who can go to a sponsor and say they are to 10 in their peer group) and give the 100th best player in their group a clear signal where they are so they can get out before they continue to invest their families savings (or take subsidised winnings from players who have earned it) and a cut system (with some intelligence to handle injuries) to eliminate for example anyone outside the top 150 of their peers the first year, 100 the second and so on. Then, limits to how many ITF level tournaments anyone outside the rookie system is playing, eg. Anyone who has been full time for a couple of years post rookie should be competing almost exclusively the top (commercially viable) level, coming back from injury or being pushed out of the game NBA style (base salary increases per year to force teams to fire the old guy and bring in a younger guy who may not be as good now but will be soon).

      There's also one thing better then prizemoney for guys at this level, expense control. Housing, meals, free restringing etc puts untaxed money back in the pockets of players.

      I love tennis and would love to see the best (and hopefully more varied talent instead of ground down percentage baseliners who survive the system) players make it to the top. While I admit the system fails them, it annoys me when people keep saying to just throw money at broken systems. Spreading money thin only means that LESS players will be able to afford coaching and other services in order to improve themselves and our entertainment.

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