Prize Money and World Peace

by: Peter Bodo | March 16, 2012

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Picby Pete Bodo

My pal Doug Robson, a frequent correspondent for USA Today as well as this operation, has done some good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting and produced an excellent piece on a growing controversy within the ATP, and one which echoes a similar dialogue (or is it shouting match?) going on in society at large—the growing disparity between the money earned by the very top players and the rank-and-file ATP members.

The flashpoint for Doug's piece was Indian Wells tournament owner Larry Ellison's decision to pour more cash into prize money, boosting the winner's take to $1 million (a 64 percent leap from last year's $611,000), and distributing the remainder of the $700,000 hike through the final three rounds of play.

This left the first-round losers looking at a mere eight percent bump in prize money, up $594 to $7,709. A number of rank-and-file players have expressed their dissatisfaction with the way the rich keep getting richer—although, frankly, an eight percent bump in this economy seems pretty danged good to me—and have become increasingly vocal about it.

"It's like a Civil War going on inside of the sport," Andy Roddick told Robson.

So where is ATP CEO Brad Drewett on this?

Nowhere, it seems: "There's no doubt that the domination of top four (including Andy Murray) has impacted the distribution of prize money," he told Robson, after examining the data. "My instinct is that this chart reflects this domination rather than any other trend."

Is this what's now fashionably being described as "leading from behind?"

There's no doubt that the recent utter domination of the game by three men (I think you know who they are) has magnified the alleged problem. After all, as Robson shows, No. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 2 Rafael Nadal, and No. 3 Roger Federer have hauled off between 20 and 26 percent of the available prize money over the past five years. According to Robson, at no other time in the Open era has the 20 percent mark been exceeded—not even during the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi-Jim Courier years.

The real question festering underneath the surface here is, so what's wrong with all that?

Federer is not only the most successful Grand Slam champion of all time, he's also the president of the Player's Council, the ATP body that must address such issues. And he told Robson: "I believe it's a winner's tour, so the money is there for everyone to play for." Federer added that he wished the raises were more equitably distributed—a nice sentiment, no doubt, but one which you half-expect him to follow up by declaring that he's also for "world peace."

There are an awful lot of BIG quasi-philosophical issues lurking in the weeds here, starting with the basic question: If Ellison wants to put up more prize money out of his own pocket, who besides Ellison has a right to determine who gets it? He clearly has his own thinking on this issue. Would the ATP have been better off spurning the offer because of the caveats?

We all could have gathered at the dock and watched Ellison's latest boat sail away with the dough.

This controversy brings us right smack up against the fundamental issue of whether or not tennis ought to be governed by the same rules as, say, the U.S. Postal Service. Should tennis players be paid on the basis of the time they put in, with equal pay for an equal amount of work?

If that's the case, Djokovic and Nadal should have been paid the same amount for their Australian Open final. Furthermore, they should have been paid little or no more than six times the amount earned by a first-round loser—because, length of match excluded for now, they worked only six times more often and/or harder. If you apply that formula, that first-round loser who earned $7,709 might feel better if the ultimate champion made only six times more—or $46,254.

I think you could argue that it should be exactly that way (although I wouldn't agree with you). Had tennis somehow decided to distribute prize money along those lines, Federer and Nadal might even still be out there, beating each others' brains out, because tennis players don't go into the sport for the money, although they get accustomed to the advantages of having it pretty quickly.

But it's more likely that if you embraced a more rigid sense of income distribution, one of the first things you'd accomplish is the eradication of an awful lot of ATP jobs, which would be the only way to compensate the top stars who bring in the fans while significantly fattening up the wallets of the men they play and beat. Let's remember that Jack Kramer, the godfather of tour-based tennis as we know it, was actually against paying anything to first-round losers, on the theory that paying first-round loser money only encouraged deadbeats to keep playing.

Here's another way to look at it: To what industry is tennis most comparable, and what are the economic terms by which it operates?

I don't think the answer is Wall Street. I'd say it's the film industry, in which the stars can't even mount the defense used by so many fat cats—that while lavishly compensated, they also made a lot of money for their clients (which is why so many of today's critics of Wall Street were strangely silent while their money managers were earning them seven and eight percent annual return rates before the financial meltdown). All that a Leonardo DiCaprio or Angelina Jolie can say is that they sell a lot of tickets at the box office, and thus they deserve the lion's share of the profits. Which I think is what they get. I don't know, it seems fair to me.

On the positive side, the fate of the lesser players is very much in the hands of the top player. All they need to do is agree to cut the journeymen in for a larger share, but it's always easier to tell others to do it than to do it yourself. When was the last time you offered to take a pay cut in order to get a raise for someone else in your workplace?

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