WTA and ATP face year of formative change

Steve Simon was feeling optimistic.

Despite the 2023 season ending with a barrage of grumbling after the WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico, with bad weather, a potentially dangerous center court and persistent complaints from the players, Simon, the president and general manager of the women’s tour, did everything to continue to 2024.

“The WTA is very good,” Simon said via video call in mid-December, shortly after the WTA was announced will divorce soon the roles of chairman and CEO, with Simon becoming executive chairman. He will no longer be in charge of day-to-day operations, but will instead, he said, be tasked with “working on strategic geopolitical issues, which are now very pervasive and impact our business in many different ways.”

This year will see formative changes in the WTA and ATP. The ATP has created the OneVision strategic plan, designed to align the interests of players and tournaments with a view to improving the fan experience while creating more lucrative media contracts.

Part of the plan includes increasing the duration and draw size at various ATP tournaments. Madrid, Rome and Shanghai all went from week-long events with 56 players to 12-day tournaments with 96 draws in 2023. Canada and Cincinnati will do the same in 2025. Indian Wells and Miami are already organized that way.

They are all Masters 1000 tournaments, the highest level in terms of prize money and ranking points, except for the four majors: the Australian, French and United States Opens and Wimbledon. Several of the tournaments are combined events for men and women. Others, such as those in Dallas, Munich and Doha, Qatar, are increasingly valuable, while others, such as Atlanta and Newport, R.I., are dropping from the calendar after this year.

In 2023, the ATP introduced a 50-50 profit sharing plan with $12.2 million in additional bonus money distributed to the top players. This increased the total bonus pot to a record amount of $33.5 million.

The WTA is financially unable to offer profit sharing, but Simon said he is committed to offering equal prize money to women and men in combined tournaments from 2027.

Simon is also making notable changes for 2024. Despite objections from top players who felt they were being pushed into too much competition, the WTA will require players to commit to 16 tour events, the major tournaments and potentially the year-end WTA Finals. Ten of those events will be at the newly formed WTA 1000 level – a term designed to more closely align with the ATP – and another six will be at the WTA 500 level. A total of 18 tournaments will now count toward a player’s ranking.

This year there is an extra event, the Olympic Games in Paris. Simon knows this will be an additional burden on already overburdened athletes.

“I’m not sure there’s ever a good or bad time to make change,” he said. “Of course the players play a lot, and it is very demanding and they are tired. But we also know that the players have to play to increase the value of the product and the value of the market. Fans want to see them play all the time , and they want to see them play against each other all the time.”

Simon said 12-day events are beneficial for players because they often get a day of rest between matches, which helps their bodies recover. Martina Navratilova disagrees.

“Two-week events are great for the fans because they get more opportunities to see the best players,” said Navratilova, a nine-time Wimbledon champion and former world No. 1. “But the players are still in a state of suspended animation. A day off is not really a day off because they still have to train and be emotionally involved. It’s just tiring and much more stressful.”

To shore up finances after a cash-sapping Covid-19 season in 2020, the WTA sold 20 percent of its stake to CVC, a venture capital firm that once owned Formula 1, which is putting in $150 million. Discussions of merging the ATP and WTA continue, but nothing is expected to happen in the near future.

Simon compared the WTA to other professional sports, such as the 82-game NBA season and the 162-game Major League Baseball season. But that doesn’t take into account the months-long off-season of team sports, while tennis barely has a month’s break. Team sports also don’t require international travel every week and allow for halftime substitutions during competition. Tennis doesn’t.

Some people think tennis is an uphill battle.

“I think we are at a crisis point in our sport,” he said Maria Carilloa former touring pro and long-time television commentator. “There’s all these stupid turf wars over scheduling. And because everyone has to move from time zone to time zone every week, it’s really hard for everyone to understand what’s happening unless you’re actually in it. It always seems like we’re trying to find a leaky cruise ship to save.”

One of the biggest controversies surrounding both tours is the willingness to perform in Saudi Arabia, a country with a lot of money and a poor human rights record.

Last year the ATP played the year-end event for 21 and under, the Next Generation Finalein Jeddah and Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz held an exhibition in Riyadh just after Christmas.

Phil de Picciotto, the founder and president of Octagon, a sports management agency, has worked in tennis for more than four decades. He sees the good and the bad.

“This is the most uncertain time for tennis,” said De Picciotto, who has represented many top players including Steffi Graf. “Everyone is looking for a position in a new landscape that offers enormous opportunities.”

“But it’s important to realize that the sport can’t sustain a series of short-term visions,” he added. “Everyone has to think long-term about the product, whether it’s governance or marketability. If Billie Jean King hadn’t thought long-term in the ’70s, we wouldn’t be anywhere today.”

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