Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Money, labor issues are spilling over into tennis


Spring majors are target for possible walkout

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

PHOTO GALLERY

Photos of Monday's play
MASON - Professional tennis is composed of players from six continents speaking umpteen languages, and its governance is an alphabet soup of organizations: ITF, ATP, WTA, GSC, USTA, etc. It's a figurative Tower of Babel.

Yet when it comes to money, enough alliances have been formed and fingers pointed lately to bring the sport to the brink of civil war.

A disagreement about the dispensation of revenue from the four Grand Slams has led the men's ATP Tour to talk of boycotts of those four premier events: Wimbledon and the U.S., French and Australian opens. A sport that could claim labor peace throughout the 1990s is now showing the strain of its splintered setup.

"The politics in tennis are cockeyed, and maybe they always will be," NBC analyst Bud Collins said. "It's a mass of conflicts of interest.

"(But) I hope cooler heads prevail. You don't just say, 'We're going to walk out of the next Slam.' That's suicidal. For everybody."

Mark Miles, the ATP's CEO, met with players Sunday at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters to brief them on recent negotiations.

The ATP wants a $50 million increase in its annual payout from the Grand Slams to fund various ATP interests, including an increase in prize money, contribution to the pension fund and more financing for sport's worldwide promotion.

The ATP would like the Slams to be more in line with the revenue-sharing approach of major North American sports. Detractors, however, will say it's to bail out the men's circuit from the bankruptcy of ISL, the ATP's former sponsor.

The Slams have seen growth during the past decade as facilities have been improved - most notably with the U.S. Open's $300 million Arthur Ashe Stadium. Slam revenues are at an all-time high.

Their prize money hasn't grown at the same rate during that time. Though the Slams plow their profits back into grass-roots efforts in their respective countries, the ATP insists the players should maintain a fair percentage of proceeds.

"We're not in any way meaning to demean what they do for amateur tennis," Miles said. "We just think the balance in terms of all the money available from the U.S. Open, for instance, ought to be adjusted so that more of it helps professional tennis."

The U.S. Open paid just less than 9 percent of its revenues to prize money last year. Wimbledon and the French Open historically award about 15 percent of their revenues to players. The Australian Open is an exception, awarding about 25 percent.

The nine Master Series tournaments, including this one, put approximately 30 percent of their revenues into prize money. Many smaller tournaments find themselves in excess of 50 percent after they have doled out guarantees to top players.

Miles presented his proposal to the Grand Slam Committee (GSC) at the French Open in June, and was rebuffed.

At Wimbledon, more than 80 male pros agreed to play in alternative charity events - at the same time as the Slams - should the issues not be resolved. The ATP reportedly wants 84 of the top 100 players to commit.

When Miles went public with the boycott plan, the fact he did so on Wimbledon's hallowed ground further strained relations with the GSC. He has since emphasized that the boycott is a last resort.

A letter from GSC Administrator Bill Babcock to Miles, obtained by Tennis Week, expresses hope that the ATP will "abandon these offensive tactics" while the Slams try "to overcome our loss of trust."

If progress can't be made, the breaking point would likely be next spring, meaning a walkout at the French Open or Wimbledon.

ATP Players Council president Todd Martin fears a scenario in which tennis is perceived the same way baseball or basketball were during their labor troubles.

"It's a difficult argument to make," he said. "Nobody wants to open the newspaper and read about millionaires asking for more millions."

Miles has been under fire for the ISL deal and for the declining TV ratings for men's tennis in the United States. Miles had a million-dollar salary in 2001, though he has reportedly taken a voluntary pay cut in his new two-year deal, running through 2005, and has refused some bonuses.

Some players are so upset at his leadership, they formed a splinter group called the International Men's Tennis Association, led by its president, Wayne Ferreira.

Prize money at ATP events decreased 10 percent over the past three years to just over $55 million in 2003, with the largest drop in payment for doubles. The men's prize money at the Slams rose 13 percent during that time, to a total of $22.4 million last year.

This year, the U.S. Open increased its prize money 6.2 percent to a record $17.07 million - the largest purse of any annual sporting event. The singles champions will get $1 million each.

The USTA, which operates the U.S. Open, gets about 90 percent of its annual income from the U.S. Open. The Open's 2002 profit was $90 million. Wimbledon's 2002 profits were $42.5 million.

The ATP doesn't deny that its most successful members earn a good living. But many mid-level pros aren't wealthy, careers are short, and the pension fund has been frozen since the ISL collapse.

"Right now our program would ensure that a player that has made a living for five years on the circuit, when he's of retirement age, would have a couple thousand dollars a month in retirement," Miles said. "But that's not rich."

Men's tennis has changed greatly since the Open Era began in 1968.

The Association of Tennis Professionals was founded in September 1972 as a players' union. It showed its strength with a boycott at Wimbledon in 1973, when the International Tennis Federation wouldn't allow Nikki Pilic - suspended by the Yugoslavian Lawn Tennis Association - to play.

In 1990, the players partnered with tournament directors - all but the four Grand Slams - to become the ATP Tour. Yet the fact they struck off on their own without the Slams has made for an uneasy relationship ever since.

"I don't think it's good for the game that this (dispute) has gotten out there in the papers," Western & Southern tournament director Bruce Flory said. "But it's important to remember that these are just negotiations.

"There could be a long way to go. I'm sure they'll work something out."

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E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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