Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A new prize money debate

For reasons that are beyond me, prize money is the biggest source of debate in tennis. For some reason, we care more about how much athletes are paid than the sport they actually play. Prize money is an important issue that is worth talking about, but it should never be more important than the sport itself. That's why I have been relatively silent on the topic on this blog (I have however been dragged into the discussion frequently on Twitter).

Today, I'm breaking my silence on the issue to talk about prize money in a new way. Most discussions about prize money are about how much men get compared to women or how much the best in the world get compared to those that are struggling to break through. However, very few people talk about the distribution of money within a tournament.

I believe that winners of tournaments and those that lose in the first round are both receiving too much money, while everyone in between and qualifiers are not making enough. My solution is to tie ranking points and prize money together. In other words, the amount of prize money a player receives should be directly proportional to the amount of ranking points he earned.

In a Utopian world, the ATP could simply say that each ranking point is worth 700 dollars (the average value of a ranking point in Cincinnati was $693.21), whether that ranking point is earned by winning a first round futures match or if that ranking point is one of 2000 that are the result of winning a major.

A $700 payday for a first round win in a futures event would be a huge change. Currently, a player has to reach the final to earn that kind of money. However, the ATP has very little control of how much prize money is given out, that is determined by each tournament.

Still, that doesn't mean that individual tournaments can't adopt this model. Instead of giving disproportionately high amounts of money to tournament champions and first-round losers, tournaments should give out points based on the amount of ranking points earned.

Let's look at the tournament in Cincinnati from a week ago as the example. It is a Masters Series 1000 event that gives out a total of $3,216,490 in prize money. Here is a break down of the distribution of ranking points and prize money.

Winner: 21.5% of ranking points and 25.9% of prize money ($834.70 per point)
Runner-up: 12.9% of ranking points and 12.7% of prize money ($682.12 per point)
Semifinalist: 7.8% of ranking points and 6.4% of prize money ($572.17 per point)
Quarterfinalist: 3.9% of ranking points and 3.3% of prize money ($581.89 per point)
Third Round: 1.9% of ranking points and 1.7% of prize money ($604.33 per point)
Second Round: 0.97% of ranking points and 0.89% of prize money ($637.22 per point)
First Round: 0.21% of ranking points and 0.48% of prize money ($1548 per point)
Average: 2.1% of ranking points and 2.1% of prize money ($693.21 per point)

Based on this, the players that didn't win a single match in the main draw are the ones that received the most money per ranking point. Meanwhile, the winner is the only other player that is paid above average. In fact, the winner gets more than double the prize money of the runner up despite spending essentially the same amount of time on court and getting much less than double the amount of ranking points.

There are three main reasons that this issue needs to be addressed, which are betting in tennis, retirements, and player motivation.


Why do players want to win matches? It is not to lift trophies, because if that were the case, players would save their celebrations for winning the final. That would be the only win worth celebrating. Instead, what we see is lower ranked players fall to the ground after upsetting an opponent at a big tournament. Remember when Janowicz ripped off his shirt after beating Tsonga in the early rounds of a Masters Series 1000?

He wasn't motivated by winning a trophy, but instead by the fact that he just earned a massive amount of ranking points and prize money. Those two things, ranking points and prize money, are what motivates every player. Those two things in large part determine the importance of each and every match. As a result, more important tournaments offer more prize money and more ranking points.

Therefore, both rewards should motivate players proportionally. As it stands now, a player will be mainly motivated to win a first round match by ranking points. However, in the final their main motivation switches to prize money. The amount of motivation a player receives from both should be consistent throughout the tournament.

The truth is that some players are motivated by ranking points while others are motivated by prize money. A player that wants to pay for a coach to travel with him to make him a better player, will be motivated by prize money, so that he can get that. A player that gets a coach for free from the USTA, but doesn't have a high enough ranking to get directly into the main draw of a Challenger Tour event will be motivated by ranking points. Thus the player motivated by prize money will go to the tournaments that offer the most prize money, but will get crushed by the better competition. Meanwhile, the other player will travel to the ends of the world to find a tournament with a weak draw and win the title easily.

The result of this is inaccurate rankings. The player in need of money will be ranked lower than he should be and the player with support from his country will be overrated. This may seem like no big deal, but ranking determines a player's ability to enter tournaments and eventually break through in the sport. So many players never break through, because they can't get their ranking up which is a result of not having enough money to go with their coaches to the easiest tournaments. Imagine how much better our sport would be if we had the best athletes in the world competing on the top level instead of only the best athletes from the countries that put the most money into tennis.

Fixing prize money distribution at individual tournaments would do very little to fix this overarching issue, but it is one of many steps in the right direction that can be taken.


Being a professional tennis player is a full time job, which means professional tennis players need salaries. However, because of the format of the sport, that is not possible. As a result, many players get that money they need then by betting on themselves to lose a point, game, set or even sometimes a match.

This is one of the ugliest realities of the sport. Thankfully, the vast majority of incidences happen at the lower levels of the sport. There is no perfect solution to the problem. Many tournaments are sponsored by betting sites. Although some players like Novak Djokovic have decided not to be represented by any betting organization, most players don't have such a high moral standard or enough money to be that picky.

As a result, it is impossible to completely separate the sport from betting. However, tennis can reward more prize money for winning and less for losing to diminish the incentive to throw away games, sets or matches. If the amount of money you receive in prize money depends very little on the result of the match, the players will be less likely to care about the result. However, if $700 depends on even the least important matches, gaining $500 from a bet is not worth it anymore.

With the example of Cincinnati, you get $28,675 for winning your first round match and $15,480 for losing it. So if a gambler offers you $20,000 to throw the match, it is very tempting.

If my system were adopted, a first round win would be worth $31,194.45 and losing would be worth $6,932.09. That means a gambler would have to offer at least $25,000 for the player to gain any money at all.

The same is true on a smaller level for challenger and futures tournaments.Gamblers will have to start offering way more money to control what a player does on court, which would seriously damage their illegal business and clean up the sport quickly.

This issue applies most directly to the grand slams. Since the US Open is going on, we will use that as the example. If prize money was proportional to ranking points, each player would earn $3,290.22 per point, which is a massive improvement from Cincinnati.

Side note: I'm fine with the gap between money per point at Cincinnati and the US Open. Grand Slams are unique. Nothing competes with a grand slam. Players don't have the option of playing smaller events during a grand slam unless they go all the way down to the Challenger Tour. Ideally though, even those events shouldn't be happening during the first week of a major.

If my model were adopted for the US Open, the first round loser would earn $32,902.17 and the winner would earn $148,059.78. Instead the loser gets $43,313 and the winner gets $77,188.

What's the result of this? Players carrying serious injuries show up to the US Open, knowing they have no chance of winning a match. They play tennis for a set, soak up the experience, then retire from their match and grab their check, leaving fans disappointed and lower-ranked players wishing they had been given a chance to play instead. This year, two players retired without even playing a set.

I'm sure Sugita and Kravchuk would have much preferred to get directly into the main draw rather than both lose in the second round of qualifying. I'm also sure they could have given the fans a better performance than half a set of limping around the court.

How serious is this problem? Well, first round matches make up half of the matches in a tournament, but 73% of the retirements in the year following the most recent boost to first-round prize money. The reason so many retirements happen in the first round is because players have the injuries before they arrive at the tournaments.

Some people have proposed getting rid of prize money for players who retire from matches in the first round. However, that will only cause players to play through injuries longer and try to lose faster, while players that have legitimate serious injuries on court, not only lose the match, but also lose their money.

The only solution is to stop paying players massive amounts of money for losing.

Let's take for example Leonardo Mayer, who has finished all of his grand slam matches, but has lost all of them in 2016. Through those three losses, he has earned $101,023. For the rest of his season, he has won 11 ATP World Tour matches and six Challenger Tour matches for a Race Ranking of No. 117. In total, he has earned $297,872 this season. That means 34% of his earnings this season come from three losses, while the other 66% comes from 31 matches on the ATP and Challenger tours, not even counting qualifying matches.

When any player is presented with the option of losing a match for 34% of his salary or withdrawing from the tournament and forfeiting that part of his salary, which one do you think he will take?

The best solution (though it is not perfect) is to stop paying players so much to lose.

The most fair way distribute prize money is to make ranking points and prize money proportional rewards for all professional tennis players. It will clean up the lower levels of the game, it will give players with less money a better shot to succeed, and it reduces the incentive to play tournaments while injured.

No comments:

Post a Comment