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Why tennis trading cards could be a big deal: Checking in on the PTPA (Part 2 of 3)
"Globally, tennis is a Top 5 sport, there is lots of opportunity there," says Ahmad Nassar, executive director of the Professional Tennis Players Association.
Published Dec 19, 2023
This is the second installment of Peter Bodo’s in-depth interview with Ahmad Nassar, executive director of the Professional Tennis Players Association and former NFL Players’ Inc. President. For a closer look at how and why the fledgling PTPA was formed, see Part 1.—The Editors
BODO: Some of the issues you refer to—isn’t the job of the ATP and WTA Player Boards to see that they are addressed? Is the PTPA trying to steal the player boards’ thunder?
NASSAR: There’s this mythical notion that the players are already represented by the tour because there’s a Player Council and an ATP Player Board. That’s all true. But the Player Council (which advises the Player Board) consists of full-time players. I am tired after going to less than half of the events globally every year, and I don't even swing a tennis racquet. So doing this is not really a player job.
I had a member of a Player Board tell me about not being full-time, and not being paid. That's a bad thing, because you get what you pay for. And let’s be honest, board members get flown across the globe to go to these events. At the end of that conversation, the player said, “Enjoy the tennis.” And I thought, “Whoa, that right there is a great example of the problem here. I'm working in tennis. I'm a fan of the players because I respect the hell out of what they do, but I'm not there to be a fan.”
The tours have been mostly about how to provide the players with the least amount necessary to avoid breaking the system—just doing the minimum necessary to keep these professional athletes from going off and doing their own thing, starting another tour. That's totally backwards. We'd actually flourish if we had a system that prioritized the players—not over-prioritize, but just prioritize.
Underlying the entire issue of player power is the fact that U.S. labor laws prohibit the players from unionizing because they are considered independent contractors, not employees. Are you reconciled to that status quo?
We are never going to accept the status quo. At the moment, the structure of tennis doesn't allow for traditional unionization. But are they really “independent contractors” if they can’t earn a living playing tennis anywhere but on the ATP and the WTA tours? Part of our job is to ask a lot of questions—of independent third parties, like lawyers, like accountants, about everything.
The way tennis is set up, nobody is incentivized to ask those questions. In fact, they're incentivized to avoid those questions. But look what happened when they didn’t ask those questions in golf. Well, somebody with deep pockets came in and completely disrupted the entire game. Who knows where that story ends, because it's still not over.
Because players cannot form a formal union and strike, the only real job action would be the kind of non-binding boycott that hasn’t been very successful in the past.
You're right. Boycotts never really worked for the athletes. It is the ultimate tool, but it’s not the only tool. On a continuum from zero to 100 it is at the 100 end. There are lots of numbers in-between.
At the zero end, players may be saying, “I'm lucky to play tennis, I'm going to keep playing tennis. I can't believe I get paid to play tennis. Thank you for everything. It doesn't get better than this and I'm just going to keep quiet.” I think engaging in good faith and trying to create an independent organization that represents the players is at that lower end. Then, securing commercial and legal opportunities, some of the public relations stuff like we did around the WTA Finals is creeping a little higher on the continuum.
That’s a little more adversarial, but designed to foster accountability by the tours and a voice for the players. You see what kind of traction your ideas get along the way, right? And I think the easy way [to operate] is keeping things at the lower end of that zero to a hundred scale. The hard way is making players go tiptoeing up to that 100 line where there’s more risk. But along the way there's also more tools for everybody.
I had people tell me, when I took the job, “Well, a player boycott is never going to work, you know.” And I said, “Do you think my job is only to organize a player boycott? That's the most drastic thing that any group of workers can do.”
Trading card deals don't sound like we're curing cancer, and we're certainly not. But it benefits tennis players.
What incentive do the tours, or the other powers that be, have to engage or even partner with the PTPA?
I guess it's kind of like, there's an easy way to do this, and there's a hard way to do it, right? The easy way would be to reform amongst ourselves and say, "Okay, let's do this the right way. Let's create or recognize an independent party that represents players. Let’s bargain at arm's length." By the way, when you bargain at arm's length, it creates all sorts of benefits for the business, and for the industry. Like the NFL has enjoyed with its anti-trust exemptions.
How does helping players improve their income opportunities figure in the PTPA’s agenda? Doesn’t that put you in competition with the agents, promoters and other rainmakers?
Getting a deal for a player to wear a watch, or a t-shirt with a specific logo on it, that’s not our job. Individual agents for players already do that, and they’re great at it. We spent an inordinate amount of time with the players and the agents not only explaining what we're trying to do on the advocacy side as the PTPA, but also signing up players one-by-one with their agents to participate on the commercial side of these group NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) opportunities.
An example of that is how we’ve announced a trading-card product that’s going to feature hundreds of players, men and women. Why hasn't there been an annualized set of trading cards just like in baseball, football and basketball every single year? Globally, tennis is a Top 5 sport, there is lots of opportunity there.
Is it difficult to find and exploit these “group” opportunities?
The opportunities are a little harder to corral if you don’t have a group mentality, right? But at this point, probably close to 400 men and women have signed up for our commercial program. We've been able to unlock $10 million of incremental revenue for players over the course of this year, and we’ve just started. We did a broad deal with TUMI international, a high-end brand, where we got close to I think $3,000 worth of product for 300 players, men and women. That was value that was just floating out there because nobody had the incentive to focus on it.
But we (the PTPA) can’t be a burden to the players while creating value for them. We have to show we’re here to benefit them. We’ve gotten in front of the players and told them, “Focus on your craft, your job if you want, but we're helping you. Maybe what we generate will help you pay for another coach, or to get free hotel rooms, whatever.”
These are just little examples but they make me say, “Well man, what else is out there?” Trading card deals don't sound like we're curing cancer, and we're certainly not. But it benefits tennis players.
In the third and final installment of this interview, we’ll look at more of the specific issues the PTPA is designed to address, and how the PTPA, which does not rely on dues, is funded.