For The WTA And ATP, 2024 Could Be A Year Of Formative Change In Tennis

For the WTA and ATP, 2024 Could Be a Year of Formative Change in Tennis

Steve Simon was feeling optimistic.

Despite a 2023 season that ended with an avalanche of grumbling following the WTA Finals in Cancún, Mexico, which featured bad weather, a potentially dangerous center court and unrelenting complaints from the players, Simon, the chairman and chief executive of the women’s tour, was doing everything he could to move forward into 2024.

WTA

“The WTA is very fine,” Simon said by video call in mid-December, just after it was announced that the WTA will soon separate the roles of chairman and chief executive, with Simon becoming executive chairman. He no longer will be in charge of day-to-day operations and instead will be tasked with, as he said, “working on strategic geopolitical issues, which are now very prevalent and affecting our business in many different ways.”

There are formative changes coming to the WTA and ATP this year. The ATP has put into place its OneVision strategic plan designed to align the interests of players and tournaments with an eye toward enhancing the fan experience while also creating more lucrative media contracts.

Part of the plan involves increasing the duration and draw size at several ATP tournaments. Madrid, Rome and Shanghai all went from one-week, 56-player-draw events to 12-day, 96-draw tournaments in 2023. Canada and Cincinnati will do the same in 2025. Indian Wells and Miami are already staged that way.

All are Masters 1000 tournaments, the highest level in terms of prize money and ranking points other than the four majors — the Australian, French, and United States Opens and Wimbledon. Several of the tournaments are combined men’s and women’s events. Other tournaments, like ones in Dallas, Munich and Doha, Qatar, are increasing in value while still others, including Atlanta and Newport, R.I., are falling off the calendar after this year.

In 2023, the ATP introduced a 50-50 profit-sharing plan that distributed $12.2 million in additional bonus pool money to the top players, raising the overall bonus pool to a record $33.5 million.

The WTA is not in a financial position to offer profit sharing, but Simon said he was determined to provide equal prize money to women and men at combined tournaments by 2027.

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

For this year there is an added event, the Paris Olympics. Simon is aware that will place an added burden on already overworked athletes.

“I’m not sure there is ever a great time or a bad time to introduce change,” he said. “Obviously the players play a ton, and it’s very demanding and they are tired. But we also know that the players need to play in order for us to drive the value of the product and the value of the marketplace. Fans want to see them play all the time, and they want to see them playing against each other all the time.”

Simon said that 12-day events benefit players because they often get a day off between matches, which helps their bodies recover. Martina Navratilova does not agree.

“Two-week events are great for the fans because it gives them more chances to see the top players,” said Navratilova, a nine-time Wimbledon singles champion and former No. 1. “But the players are still in suspended animation. A day off isn’t really a day off because they still have to practice and be emotionally invested. It’s just exhausting and much more stressful.”

To shore up finances following the money-depleting Covid season in 2020, the WTA sold 20 percent of its stake to CVC, a venture capital firm that once was an owner of Formula 1, which is infusing $150 million. Talks continue about merging the ATP and WTA, but nothing is expected to happen in the near future.

Simon likened the WTA to other professional sports like the 82-game N.B.A. season and 162-game Major League Baseball season. But that does not take into account the multimonth off-season of team sports, while tennis breaks for barely a month. Team sports also don’t require international travel every week and allow for rest substitutions during competition. Tennis does not.

Some people feel tennis is fighting an uphill battle.

“I think we’re at a crisis point in our sport,” said Mary Carillo, a former touring pro and longtime television commentator. “There are all these stupid turf wars over scheduling. And with everyone having to go from time zone to time zone every week it’s very hard for anyone to connect to what’s happening unless you’re really in the weeds. It always seems like we’re trying to turn around a leaky cruise ship.”

One of the biggest controversies surrounding both tours is the willingness to play in Saudi Arabia, a nation with deep pockets for big payouts with a troubling human rights record.

Last year the ATP played its year-end 21-and-under event, the Next Gen Finals, in Jeddah and Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz held an exhibition in Riyadh right 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 tenuous time for tennis,” said de Picciotto, who has represented many top players, including Steffi Graf. “Everyone is jockeying for position amid 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 about the product in the long term, whether it’s governance or marketability. If Billie Jean King hadn’t thought long term in the 1970s, then we would be nowhere today.”

AMAZING COMEBACK AT THE AUSTRALIAN OPEN

1 thought on “For the WTA and ATP, 2024 Could Be a Year of Formative Change in Tennis”

Leave a comment