Labor strife and sports – nobody likes it. To fans, the employees look greedy and the employers often more so. There are rumblings in men’s tennis that the inmates may riot. There’s talk, however quiet and brief, about forming a new player’s union. It’s not as big a story in the U.S. where the sport is more of an afterthought; most likely a byproduct of an eight-year Grand Slam drought. Oddly enough a line could be drawn connecting the two situations. Why are the game’s best considering unionizing? Why is the U.S. struggling to produce top male players? As Deep Throat said to Woodward: follow the money.
Back in 1985 Ivan Lendl finished the season No. 1, and led the ATP Tour with $1.9 million in earnings. Compared to the major team sports at the time, Lendl would have been the second-highest baseball player (Mike Schmidt: $2.1 million) and the fourth-highest basketball player (Magic: $2.5 million, Moses Malone: $2.1 million, and Kareem: $2 million). Inconceivable as it seems today, Lendl actually out-earned the highest-paid NFLer, Super Bowl MVP and Saturday Night Live masturbator, Joe Montana ($1.3 million). Lendl more than doubled the salary of the Great One ($825K), the NHL’s highest-paid skater, who had a much less memorable SNL appearance.
This was an era when Americans like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe – who constantly bemoan the demise of U.S. tennis – were on a fairly even economic playing field with their sports brethren. In 1984, McEnroe’s pinnacle as a pro (and in theatrics), he topped $2 million in earnings. Throw in the advantages individual sports stars have in the endorsement world, and the grass (and money) is plenty green on this side of the fence. To the great generation of Sampras, Agassi, Courier, and Chang – top juniors at the time – tennis was magazine covers and shaving commercials.
Fast-forward to 2010 when Rafael Nadal became the game’s first $10 million man after a stellar season which saw him win three Slams and seven total tournaments. While an impressive haul, it wouldn’t put Nadal in the top 25 highest-earners in either baseball, basketball, or football. Players in those sports are trafficking in the $20-$30+ million range. His countryman and commercial wingman, Pau Gasol, made over $15 million playing second fiddle to Kobe Bryant (in salary as well) on the Lakers. In fact, the $10 million mark was first past in the MLB 13 years prior by the ever-pleasant Albert Belle. Perhaps more telling is the fact that Lendl’s 1985 earnings would still place him 10th on the 2010 ATP prize-money list. The top-earners in the team sports from 1985 wouldn’t even be making their league’s current average salaries. Montana still has to shill for Sketcher’s. Nadal’s winnings would put him at the top of the NHL’s money food chain, but hockey institutes a cap on how much players can earn. An individual player can only make a certain percentage of the team’s overall payroll. But this also distributes the wealth more evenly throughout the league. The average NHL salary in 2010 was $2.4 million, which would have been 8th on the ATP money-list. Plus, the minimum player salary is $500K, which only 61 players on the ATP made in 2010; there are around 700 NHL players. Throw in players are paid guaranteed contracts regardless of performance, all travel and training expenses are covered, and there’s a legitimate off-season in team sports and the disparity grows deeper.
Perhaps a more fitting comparison for tennis would be to pro golf. The two sports are seen as country club siblings and both adhere to the independent contractor model. There are no guaranteed contracts in either sport; players only eat what they kill, albeit in cooperative silence. In 1985 Curtis Strange led the PGA Tour with $542K in earnings, making him a veritable pauper compared to Lendl.
Since then a little something called Tiger Woods happened to golf. His massive appeal and penchant for chain-restaurant waitresses brought tremendous added revenue from title sponsors and television contracts. Woods has crossed the $10 million threshold in yearly prize-money several times. These past few years he has been busy repairing his knee, finding his swing, and nursing his ego, leaving the PGA Tour without a dominant golfer in 2010. Matt Kuchar topped in prize money at $4.9 million, a mere $100K ahead of Jim Furyk and his crazy swing. Furyk played well enough, though, to win some convoluted points race called the FedEx Cup which tracks player performance at certain events throughout the year. His bonus? $10 million. So while this doesn’t count toward the official prize money list, Furyk actually made closer to $15 million – without winning a major. When Woods won his two FedEx Cups – it just completed its fifth year – his yearly earnings were just south of $21 million. As Mardy Fish recently tweeted: “10 Million to the winner of the Fed Ex Cup on the PGA Tour. Thats kind of a game changing sum of money.” In his entire 11-year career, Fish has made – singles and doubles combined – just over $6 million.
But it’s not just more at the top; golf does a better job of spreading its wealth. While 20 ATP players made $1+ million in 2010, 95 PGA golfers made seven figures. And just so you don’t think the money in tennis doesn’t trickle down because the top guys gobble all the prizes, in 2007 Tiger made slightly less than $11 million, yet 99 guys still made at least $1 million.
So in terms of economic growth, the numbers don’t paint a flattering picture. Not being attractive enough for a major television contract is a definite factor, but players unionizing could go a long way in determining how current revenues are distributed. During this past U.S. Open it was revealed that players received just 13% of tournament revenues. In their recent collective bargaining agreement settled earlier this year, the NFL’s players union agreed with franchise owners to a nearly 50% stake of all revenues. The $18 lobster salad sandwich sold at the Open is mighty tasty, but fans are flocking to Flushing to see the players. Perhaps they do deserve a larger reward.
Given that tennis is perhaps the most expensive sport to undertake seriously at the junior levels, and one of the least lucrative at the professional ranks, pursuing it as a career becomes a pretty poor investment. A 12 year-old with a passion for the game might not be thinking of the carrot down the road, but his parents most certainly are. And any coach will tell you: No player reaches the top without a pushy parent or benefactor in the wings. Besides, kids are pretty precocious these days. They recognize sports are big business and love of the game is often trumped by love of the dollar.
Several years ago, towards the end of his playing days, Andre Agassi spoke at tennis event in Las Vegas. At one point he thanked the audience for supporting his career and, in deprecating Agassi fashion, he also thanked Michael Jordan for having never picked up a racquet. Otherwise, Agassi would have been Horace Grant to Pete Sampras’ Scottie Pippen. Agassi went on to wonder what American tennis might look like if the sport ever figures a way to pilfer some of the best athletes from the professional team sports.
It was a longshot bet then, and the odds have only gotten worse.