What does it mean to be considered as one of the 100 best in the world, at anything? Incredibly elite status in almost all professions. Djokovic, Federer, Nadal–in men’s professional tennis even the most casual of observers can name the top three. 98, 99 and 100? Not so much. Even many who follow the game closely struggle to know the name Andreas Mies. Mies is currently ranked #98 on the 2019 ATP Tour prize money list with just over $398,000 earned.
Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal surpass $20 million in 2019
While the trio of Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal earns and collects massive sums, the overall allocation and distribution of money across professional tennis causes complaints, disputes, and calls for action. The questions are myriad; answers are elusive.
As of the end of 2019 Wimbledon, the three male megastars–Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal–again stand atop the world rankings. Likewise, they top the ATP prize money list. Together they have combined to earn in excess of $20 million. For top ten players, multiple millions of dollars in earnings, lucrative endorsements, and luxury travel are commonplace. For world-class players who live outside the elite status, tour life can be very different.
Prize Money Allocation
The first prize money question frequently posed relates to the total amount of money earned by the players in a given event. Prize money breakdowns for ATP events are relatively easy to find out. Winners of Masters 1000 events frequently earn over $1 million, while Grand Slam winners now take home in excess of $3 million.
But, of how much? The 2018 US Open prize money pool for men and women exceeded $53 million. On its face, this appears to be an extreme amount of prize money for a relatively small number of participants. However, when critics note the $53 million represents about 14% of US Open revenues, the discussion gets murky.
“It’s the revenue share which is the target, there is no transparency,” said ATP Player Council member Vasek Pospisil on the Lucky Letcord podcast with Chris Oddo. Via Twitter, interview, and as a Player Council member, Pospisil argues for greater openness in allocating prize money to the players. When asked to identify how much money players should win, Pospisil honestly says he can not answer. “We haven’t been able to get the financial numbers from the Masters (Masters level ATP tournaments) at all.” he says.
Many Questions Arise
How much of a tournament’s revenue should be returned to competitors? Should more Grand Slam and Masters 1000 revenues go to the players? Should these large tournaments support smaller ATP tournaments, Challenger Tournaments, and even Futures events for the long-term health of the industry? Or, should tournament owners–who risk their money–keep their revenues? Nobody is making Pospisil, Mies, or any others play. For every professional tennis player earning money, there are thousands of players wishful for the opportunity.
Not a simple questions, but truly unanswerable without knowing the revenue. While the fine print causes some variation, it is commonly estimated that NBA and NFL players are compensated with about 50% of team revenues. Pospisil is one of a growing number of players calling for discussions around this point in tennis.
An open dialogue should be welcomed by all. In tennis, like in other professional sports, the players are the product. No fans buy tickets to see tournament directors. ESPN does not pay the USTA nearly $75 million a year in order to interview executives. Players have a short time window to earn money playing. Collectively, the players need to know what they are generating in order to understand their situation.
Distribution of Money and Federer, Nadal and Djokovic
After the prize money is allocated, it must be divided. Tournament winners and finalists walk away from big events with checks to support themselves for years. World class players who live outside of the top 100 or 200 in the world usually face different circumstances. Of course, winners earn more than losers and champions take home more than anyone else in the field, but how much more?
If Roger Federer converted one of his 2019 Wimbledon championship points, he would have collected over $1.4 million more than his runner-up purse. One more point for $1.4 million. While few worry about Federer’s financial health, the difference between winning and losing at the smaller tournaments and in the earlier rounds is substantial.
Regardless of rank, players must travel, lodge, and eat in order to play tournaments. Many pay for family, coaches, physios, and more to travel. These expenses come whether significant money is won or not.
More Player Voices
Players at various levels of the world rankings and money earned addressed this issue recently. Since tennis players are essentially independent contractors, they do not have travel, food, and medical care paid for the way NFL or NBA players do. They must both pay for and manage these expenses on their own.
Through his social media “Behind the Racket” project, and by speaking on the Coffee Cast podcast with Mike Cation, World #170 Noah Rubin discusses this and several related topics in detail. Rubin calls for money prize money for earlier rounds and smaller tournaments. Reviewing costs for travel, food and more, he said, “Someone who is #275 in the world at what they do, we are talking about true expenses for a year, and taxes, is losing money.”
This focus on player expenses does not stop with higher tier players. Top American John Isner explained expense related challenges in a recent Forbes essay. Explaining his trip to 2019 Wimbledon, he wrote, “For Wimbledon this year, I found a nice home a short walk from the All-England Club for around £30,000 for the duration of the tournament. The prize money for the first round at Wimbledon is £45,000, which weighed against flights, salaries, and expenses for my team would make the tournament a money-losing event for me.”
This past week, Isner and Rubin traveled to play in Newport, Rhode Island. Rubin lost in the first round, netting about $5,000. Isner won the title and over $100,000. As a Top 20 player, Isner calculates costs for his team; very low ranked players can barely pay for themselves, possibly with a part time coach.
Winning a significant sum of money for merely playing in a tennis match seems quite appealing to many. The USTA announced that the prize share for losing a first round match at the 2019 US Open will be $58,000. That means that in only two days, over $7 million will be earned by 128 men and women who will not win a single match.
A player who gained entry to all four 2019 Grand Slam tournaments can earn over $200,000 without winning a single tennis match. In terms of generating revenue, many of these match losers will never be seen on TV and many will play on courts with less than 500 people watching. This is in contrast to the crowds Nadal, Djokovic and Federer draw.
By contrast, the #100 ranked male professional golfer, American Nate Lashley, recently competed in The Open Championship in Great Britain. Lashley had to manage his own expenses, practice multiple days, and play two rounds in front of large crowds. He competed for 36 holes. He tied or outplayed 82 of 155 competitors. Lashley did not win a single dollar–zero. On the other hand, by playing well enough to reach #100 in the world, the 36-year-old Lashley earned already earned over $1.8 million in prize money this year.
What’s next? More money to players who do not even win a singles match? Already, players receive fines for not trying hard enough in first-round matches–only playing to collect money. Increasing the entire pool of prize money? But, how much are the tournaments earning? Tournaments funding more travel, lodging, and medical costs? Many contractors in other industries would jump at that opportunity for any of this.
What’s needed is more transparency. A real discussion between players and tournament owners. An age-old question about the struggles of labor and ownership, except the labor is also the product and the product is finite. The long-term health of the game will benefit to spread the wealth beyond the big three. On the other hand, are Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer drawing the crowds and bringing in the valuable tv ratings to justify their earnings?
However, transparent or not, #100 Andreas Mies has already won almost $400,000 in prize money this year. Mies has not won or lost even one ATP Tour level singles match this year; he only plays doubles. Every college player and club player knows, $400,000 for doubles play is more than enough. Or is it? Compared to what the Djokovic, Nadal and Federer level of singles stars make.
Main Photo from Getty