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What Novak Djokovic and the PTPA believe they can do to help tennis players (Part 3 of 3)
Djokovic "means it when he says he just wants to make things better for tennis and the players," says Ahmad Nassar, executive director of the Professional Tennis Players Association.
Published Dec 20, 2023
This is the third and final installment of Peter Bodo’s interview with Ahmad Nassar, the executive director of the Professonal Tennis Players Association. See Part 1 and Part 2 of our series to get caught up.—The Editors
BODO: So Ahmad, let’s get a little more granular here. What are some of the specific issues in which the PTPA can advocate for players the way it did in Cancun?
NASSAR:Let’s take the “ball” discussion that became so big near the end of the year. (ATP and WTA players agreed that constantly using balls with different properties if not dimensions was a health hazard). It was prompted by one of our executive committee members, [PTPA co-founder] Vasek Pospisil. He went on social media to say his elbow was wrecked because of having to play with different balls on a near week-to-week basis. All these other ATP guys quickly picked up on that, and we were like, “That doesn’t make any sense. At all.”
The outcry was the result of our effort to keep getting the word out, saying,“This is who we are, this is what we do.” That’s what we’ve been focused on this year. You can see on social media that we do a lot of comparing and explaining what other player associations do—to make the point that tennis players should have something similar.
There are also some bigger, thornier issues in play, right?
We’ve been getting our arms around a lot of those issues. There are some absurdly unfair things in play, like the way anti-doping testing and enforcement works. Just this year we’ve seen people (Jenson Brooksby, a promising young pro from the U.S.) get suspended for a year-and-a-half not for testing positive, but for allegedly missing tests.
A weightlifter from Iowa training for the Olympics is in a very different situation from a tennis player, who is traveling the globe, changing hotels and flights, dealing with late nights and early mornings. A lot of stuff can happen. To then say, “Well, you didn't test positive, but you're getting a year and a half banned from your sport because you missed the test. . .” That's rough. You don't get banned for a year-and-a-half even if you’re caught red-handed with a positive test in virtually any other major sport in North America.
You could literally be an admitted doper in the NFL, the NBA or MLB, and you still wouldn't be suspended for a year and a half, much less get suspended for missing a test (Ed. Note: one missed test does not trigger suspension. The red line is three missed tests within 12 months). All the world players associations face similar issues in their anti-doping programs. We're collaborating with them. We're not trying to make the system better for people who want to go cheat. We're trying to make the system more fair on a fundamental basis.
Player fines are another area. The system is opaque. The players can be fined for almost anything. We’ve really been able to help them navigate that. We've got a systemized process that enables us to say: “Look, there were these other cases that were like this. They were here (fines-wise), this is where you should be.” We can connect a player to a lawyer or help them write an appeal, especially if English is not their first language. These are all things that didn’t exist before, but we’ve already started to shine a lot on them.
Let’s talk a little bit about your financing. How can you support an organization and an agenda as large as the PTPA’s without levying dues?
Being dependent on dues is always hard in the union world, and also in sports. But what’s even worse is being (financially) dependent on the people you're trying to negotiate against—the tours, the Slams, and the tournaments. Just how hard can you push when you're dependent on them for revenue to keep the lights on?
We literally took the same exact model of some successful player associations (those of FIFA, the NBA, and MLB, among others). That is, we use a portion of the group NIL revenue to fund the PTPA, and that’s it. You take a little bit of that trading card money and you just reinvest it into the players' association. That creates a stable, wholly independent source of funding that doesn’t depend on the very athletes we are supporting, or on others who may not be aligned with us in the tennis ecosystem.
Not to be rude, but it’s hard to imagine how these start-up group NIL activities will generate enough income to keep the PTPA going—or perhaps I’m wrong?
Those deals aren’t that big, but then neither is our staff of five people. That’s not nothing, but I think the ATP has over a hundred employees. The WTA has less than that, but probably more than 50. I don't know for a fact. We're starting small in recognition of that fact.
We had some initial investors who were able to front us some of that money on the basis of their own independent analysis of what trading card revenues or other group NIL revenues could be generated over the next five years. It’s not a unique structure by any stretch. (Ed. Note: Hedge-fund titan—and tennis nut—Bill Ackman's Charitable Foundation and Prism Capital were the co-lead investors. Nassar has had a long history with Prism, which helped his team create and later sell a multi-sport NIL platform company called One Team Partners.)
If the investment team has a face, it belongs to Ackman, the founder of Pershing Square Capital Management, isn’t that right?
Bill's a tennis guy and has been a big fan and part of the finance group. He also has sponsored individual players before they got on the tour, guys like Francis Tiafoe and others. Bill's actually “investing” in air quotes, because he’s done this through his charitable foundation. Legally, he can't really make a nickel off of this thing, which I didn't know before meeting him a year and a half ago. He means it when he says he just wants to make things better for tennis and the players. So does co-founder and leader Novak Djokovic. He doesn’t own or derive (personal) value from this.
Speaking of Djokovic, another thing that caught my eye is the anti-corruption clause, which addresses conflicts of interest—something for which tennis has always been notorious. You have management firms owning tournaments, Djokovic’s brother acting as tournament director of an ATP event held at a club Novak owns, coaches working as television analysts, management firms owning events. Is it part of your mandate to clean up Dodge?
Well, right now it (conflict-of-interest) is a feature and not a bug, right? And that stuff is not necessarily illegal, or even untoward. But sure. Can you imagine a management firm owning an NFL or NBA team? That wouldn’t be illegal, but it would be frowned upon and contrary to the rules of the sport. So that is the kind of thing where we would say, “Does that make sense? Is this best serving the players or the fans or the commercial partners?”
What have all these—let’s say “unique”—features of tennis tell you?
Some of these things just evolved in their own way, or it was some compromise struck 10 years ago because there was some other fight. These are the things where if you just had a better structure and you had the player interests represented independently, you avoid a lot of this. My job isn't necessarily to clean up the sport just to clean it up. It's more like, “From a player perspective, are any of these things kind of holding the players back?” I would say some of them definitely are holding the players back. And so we’ve got to look into them, air that out, and see if we should change some of those things.
Thank you, Ahmad, it was a pleasure speaking with you.