Four thousand spectators populated the 5,000-seat stadium at Adelaide’s Memorial Drive Tennis Club for the exhibition that kicked off the 2021 tennis season in the final days of January. After taking part, Novak Djokovic was moved to tell the media:
“I had goosebumps coming into the court playing in front of the fans again after 12 months of not experiencing that. It feels like ages, you know, playing without fans.”
Djokovic was voicing an opinion oft-heard from players in recent days at Melbourne Park. The prospect of playing before any number of spectators again (the Australian Open is allowing up to 30,000 to attend daily, separated into three zones) is like the appearance of an oasis for parched travelers in a desert. It strikes an optimistic note for fans as well, but a major question looms behind it: Can tennis tournaments survive with a limited number of fans allowed through the gates?
The answer is as complicated as the structure of the sport, and in some ways worrying.
“Unfortunately, only four tournaments can afford to run without fans, and that’s the majors,” Eddie Gonzalez told me recently.
Gonzalez is tournament director for the Truist Atlanta Open, and also helps operate the (canceled) New York Open. He warned, “If we treat this [pandemic] like a tennis match, we’re still in the first set. Until a tournament can get up to 50 percent of [attendance] capacity, or higher, it's going to be tough to make the math work [for financial survival].”
As 250s, both of the events Gonzalez oversees occupy the lowest rung on tennis’ three-tier structure. While the 250s offer the lowest amount of prize money and rankings points, they also are the lifeblood of the tours. And the lifeblood of these events is the paying spectator.
“On average, 39 percent of [ATP] tournament revenues comes from tickets, and only 20 percent is from media or broadcast,” Massimo Calvelli, the CEO of the ATP Tour, told me. “You can imagine the kind of impact it has the second you close the gate [on fans].”
There were, coincidentally, 39 ATP 250s played or scheduled (pre-pandemic) in 2020, but only 13 middle-tier ATP 500s, and just nine of the top-tier ATP Masters 1000 events. The numbers differ slightly for the WTA (which this year embraced the same numerical designations as the ATP) for its main tour events. But their bottom-tier events, too, are still the most numerous.
A packed house at the 2019 Atlanta (ATP) tournament. (Getty Images)
These events already rely heavily on financial aid from tours. To further complicate things, 250-grade events are—sometimes refreshingly—artisanal enterprises. Some are focused on profit, others strive to serve a community. The latter are better positioned to survive due to a higher degree of loyalty by partners, including sponsors. Kelly Wolf, a vice-president at Washington, D.C.-based management firm Octagon, told me, “There are so many variables, depending on the country, the city, the level of the event—just so much . . . stuff. Every tournament in the end is its own individual problem.”
Wolf’s firm secured the WTA sanction that produced last year’s Top Seed Open, the Lexington, Ky. event where Venus and Serena Williams (along with other top stars) returned from the long hiatus forced by the pandemic. But the host club decided that the prospect of limited fans, and no guarantees that the top stars would enter again, posed too much financial risk. “We have some irons in the fire,” Wolf said of the hunt for a new promoter/venue.
Pent-up fans in the nation’s capital are lucky. Over the past half-a-century, the Citi Open—an ATP 500—has become a major fixture on the D.C. summer social scene. It was canceled last year (due almost entirely to one issue: restrictions on international travel). Mark Ein, the entrepreneur and philanthropist who owns and runs the event, is forging ahead this year—his deep pockets a hedge against financial disaster, his motives complex.
“My motivation isn’t financial as much as it is to be the caretaker for an event that’s been central to our community for five decades,” he told me. “Our season ticket holders—this means a lot to them. I am happy to do it even if it’s not financially compelling.”
Mark Ein (in suit, on court) watched as Nick Kyrgios wins the 2019 Citi Open. (Getty Images)
Financial considerations force other promoters to be more cautious, resulting in cancelations—five ATP events slated for the first quarter of 2021 have either postponed or canceled already. Neither the ATP nor WTA is taking punitive action against tournaments that opt out this year. They can keep their places for next year, provided they opted out in time for the tours to find replacement events. The ATP has already issued three single-year sanctions for the 2021 calendar: Antalya (completed), Singapore, and Marbella.
The financial aid packages of the two tours differ. The ATP adopted a transparent formula that allows prize-money reductions based on spectator attendance, with a 50 percent cut allowed to fan-less tournaments. Limited attendance (up to 50 percent capacity) triggers a maximum 40 percent reduction while tournaments with 50 percent attendance can reduce the purse by 20 percent. Masters events are offered smaller reductions.
As a result, the Delray Beach ATP 250, which had a $673,655 purse last year, offered total prize money of $418,195 this year. The singles winner, Hubert Hurkacz, took home just under $31,000—a drop of close to 70 percent from 2020’s payoff of $97,585. First-round losers took home $5,000, a cut of just 10 percent. Both tours are trying to support the struggling rank-and-file, slashing the payout in later rounds. All the stakeholders have supported the plan.
The WTA took a different approach. Because the organization negotiates broadcast and distribution rights on behalf of all its constituent events, it has a centralized pool of resources. The organization leaves fan attendance out of the equation and simply guarantees that all its events will survive the pandemic.
“All our tournaments are eligible [for assistance],” Steve Simon, CEO of the WTA Tour, told me. “Between money we are able to distribute from broadcast and distribution revenues and supplemental revenues we’re able to pull out of our central organization we are able to cover 100 percent of the tournaments’ prize-money obligations. We’ve done it that way to be clean and simple.”
There’s a caveat, however: the prize-money figures are a far cry from previous years. Both tours are operating on a quarterly basis. We don’t know today what the prize money will be for tournaments from May onward.
Stressed tournaments find themselves between a rock and a hard place in another way, says Simon.
“The other significant comparison is between running your event and the money you would lose by not running it. Most tournaments have a significant amount of annual expenses. Not running an event is definitely losing money, so it’s conceivable that you could run it and lose less than you would not running it.”
That calculation appears to have played a role in the Volvo Car Open announcing last week that it will be played, just as its exhibition in 2020, without fans. Also, taking fans out of the equation allows for savings in other areas, including temporary infrastructure (tents and grandstands), security, and pandemic-related protocols. Many tournament directors worry that if they sit out the year, they will lose hard-earned, annual ticket subscribers.
Attendees on Day 2 of the Australian Open. (Getty Images)
The majors are free from some of the concerns faced by tour events, but even financial powerhouse Wimbledon faces unusual challenges. COVID is still raging in the UK, but the All England Club is hoping to host up to 10,000 fans daily in June and July. It has the resources and government support to make that happen.
But tournaments like Queens (ATP) and Eastbourne (WTA) are not in the same position. Should the tune-up events not happen, where will the pros get into grass-court mode? They certainly can’t play a run-up events on the fragile grass of Wimbledon the way they can on hard courts or even clay.
Lew Scherr, the chief revenue officer for the USTA, told me that while a fan-less US Open is not a sustainable business model, the organization is currently in strong financial shape.
“Tickets and hospitality are our largest line of business, but we’re really supported by three pillars (the other two are broadcast rights and sponsorship). All are strong, and if they’re not equal thirds they are very close in their contribution.”
Scherr added that the USTA is modeling a variety of scenarios for the upcoming US Open, from no fans to gates flung wide open.
We should be so lucky.
Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).