Upstart tennis group faces key challenges
The launch of the Professional Tennis Players Association on the eve of the 2020 U.S. Open caught many in the sport by surprise.
The PTPA, led by world No. 1-ranked player Novak Djokovic and Canadian pro Vasek Pospisil, says it wants to give ATP Tour players a stronger voice. The timing of the announcement — during a pandemic that has ravaged pro tennis just as the sport was beginning to get back on its feet — was questioned by some tennis stakeholders.
Players had complained about a lack of communication from the ATP during the five-month coronavirus tour suspension and about executives not taking pay cuts while players were unable to earn money. But Pospisil told Sports Business Journal that the primary reason for starting the PTPA now “is to do what players have been trying to do for 30 years, which is have a voice and an association that is players only, that looks out for the players’ interest.”
The ATP’s operating structure consists of a board made up of three representatives from the tournament side and three from the players’ side (who are selected by the Player Council), a partnership intended to collaborate for the good of the tour. But in recent years, votes on key decisions, most often involving prize money, have ended in 3-3 stalemates, each side voting for its own interests with the chairman, now Andrea Gaudenzi, having to cast the deciding vote and alienating one side or the other.
The PTPA plans to represent the ATP’s top-500 singles and top-200 doubles players, with funding coming from membership dues. The group wants to hire an experienced businessperson from outside tennis to represent the players’ interests and, Pospisil said, avoid tennis’s numerous conflicted interests, such as agencies and individuals representing players while simultaneously owning or running tournaments. Serious organization of the PTPA began just a few days before it was announced, a move sparked by perceived inconsistent enforcement of positive COVID-19 test protocols at the U.S. Open, so there isn’t a fully developed platform yet.
The key players
Andrea Gaudenzi, CEO
Massimo Calvelli, Chairman
Board of directors, player representatives
“I hope it will dilute and fade out within the next month,” said ATP tournament council member Herwig Straka, who also runs the 250-level tournament in Kitzbuhel, Austria, and represents this year’s U.S. Open men’s singles champion, Dominic Thiem. “I hope we have a good opportunity to talk to Novak and Vasek to find good solutions. Definitely, they will be heard, of course, but I think there is still a good chance we can come together.”
Pospisil said 70 players signed a document confirming their interest in the PTPA the first night, and the number is now in “the hundreds.”
Tennis players are individual contractors, not employees of the ATP, so they can’t form a legally protected union in the U.S. or other countries with similar laws where ATP events are played. Jeffrey Kessler, co-executive chairman of antitrust/competition and sports law practices for the Winston & Strawn law firm, said that because the PTPA isn’t a union, the tour could voluntarily recognize the new group … or ignore it completely.
“They could advocate for their members, they could try to get improvements, they could sponsor litigation, like antitrust cases or other types of litigation to vindicate their rights,” said Kessler, “but they only will be able to negotiate if ATP is willing to negotiate.”
The PTPA, which is being supported by the Norton Rose Fulbright law firm, wants to essentially replace the Player Council within the current ATP structure, according to Pospisil. But if the ATP gives the PTPA a cold shoulder, the new group’s leverage could effectively be limited to organizing player boycotts, for which Pospisil said there are no immediate plans.
Pospisil said he spoke with tour CEO Massimo Calvelli for 45 minutes after the PTPA launch, and Calvelli was clearly disappointed.
In an email to SBJ, the tour wrote, “This year has been a challenging year across all sports, and we acknowledge there is some discontent among some of our players on certain issues. We continually strive to improve everything we do for our players, and as a part of that, we are always open to any discussions around their concerns.”
Pospisil stressed that the PTPA means the ATP Tour no harm, has no plans to start its own tour, and that he personally thinks highly of Gaudenzi and Calvelli. But if the PTPA succeeds in coalescing the players, Donald Dell, who helped found the ATP in 1973, could see a nuclear possibility.
“If you had a tournament directors association and a players association and they were really battling,” Dell said, “then you’ve got management and labor and I would maintain that management — if you look at the NFL and the NBA — the people putting up the money are going to have a much stronger say.”
The two most influential active players in the game, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, were publicly critical of the PTPA’s timing. Andy Murray highlighted the PTPA’s omission of WTA players, a mistake that Pospisil acknowledged and attributed to the group’s rushed organization. Other players said there was no cogent explanation of why players couldn’t achieve their goals within the current system.
“They have to work out their internal player issues before anything meaningful can happen going forward,” Kessler said.
Kevin Anderson became president of the Player Council after the former president, Djokovic, and three other members, including Pospisil, were asked to resign because of their PTPA efforts. After the Player Council-driven process to remove previous ATP CEO Chris Kermode last year, Anderson thinks the new management team needs more time.
“I think it’s really important as players that we stand united behind them,” he said.
The ATP quickly began counterprogramming after the PTPA’s unveiling, ramping up education efforts with players on the roles and duties of the Player Council and the board and sending out a 92-page document two weeks ago outlining the strategic plan of the new tour leadership. Among the many details was a plan to eliminate the highly divisive annual prize money negotiations between players and tournaments through the creation of a new long-term prize money formula.
“An equal partnership cannot work without trust,” the ATP document says.