Ok, But I Could Set The Building On Fire
Pospisil Very Publicly Calls Out ATP Leadership
Ok, but I could set the building on fire…
Vasek Pospisil, who alongside Novak Djoković is one of the founding members of the PTPA (the offshoot player association striving to give players more power in the messy birds-nest that is the structure of pro tennis), was not happy in his 1st round loss to Mackenzie McDonald in Miami this week. Looking extremely distracted, and having just lost the first set thanks to a point penalty after a string of ball, racquet and verbal abuses, Pospisil started an extremely rare mid-match rant about ATP politics after umpire Arnaud Gabas gently asked him what was up:
“An hour and a half yesterday, the chair of the ATP (referring to Andrea Gaudenzi) fucking screaming at me in a player meeting for trying to unite the players.”
“The leader of the ATP…”
“Get him out here… Fucking asshole.”
“Why am I supporting this fucking tour”
“You want to default me, I’ll gladly sue this whole organization”
While Gabas was probably left wondering which beaver he had mortally offended in a previous life to deserve ending up officiating yet another on-court controversy with a Canadian, this particularly unusual outburst had a long fuse attached that had been burning for a few years before finally exploding on Tuesday.
The outburst must have felt entirely random to some of the more casual tennis fans watching, who, like anyone seeking to stay sane, would not have been spending much time in the weeds of tennis politics over the last few years. The simplest, up-to-date summary is that some players don’t like the structure of the ATP with its cohabiting of tournament & player interests all managed under one organisational roof. Those unhappy players don’t think the present structure gives the players strong enough, or player-specific enough, representation, nor enough transparency to the financials of the tour. Andrea Guadenzi, the person who Pospisil called a ‘fucking asshole’ is the relatively new Chairman of the ATP, who appropriately only had the opportunity to take the job after Djoković and Pospisil, leading the Player Council at the time, contributed to the ousting of his predecessor Chris Kermode.
Welcome to the mess.
First, a little primer on how the ATP Board, and votes on Tour policy, currently work:
Starting from the bottom, the players and tournaments vote for who they want to be on the advisory councils, ie the Player Council and Tournament Council. Those advisory councils then vote in their representatives on the Board of Directors. The seven Board members — three player representatives, three tournament representatives, and a sort of ‘at-large’ member (almost always the Chairman, President or CEO) — are the ones with actual voting power on ATP policy. These seven members are the decision makers in men’s tennis, and they have one vote each.
Some of the recent tension has come from players concerned that the Board has too much potential to conclude votes not in their favour, arguing that the Chairman may be more likely to side with tournaments than players, therefore creating an imbalance of power. The ATP leans proudly on its status as a collective representing both player and tournament interests, but some players feel like there is an irreparable fault in that structure that is undervaluing the player’s input.
There has been talk of the PTPA looking to other sports and organisations such as the National Basketball Players Association1 for inspiration: a union, entirely separate organisationally from the NBA, that has player representatives from each team (the Board Of Player Rep’s), an Executive Committee that is voted in by the Player Representatives, and an Executive Director, who is appointed by both the Executive Committee and the Player Representatives. The Director then conducts the ‘Collective Bargaining Relationship’ on behalf of the players with the NBA, which includes negotiations across areas such as salary, pensions, working conditions etc. While such a successful structure sounds like a completely reasonable goal for tennis to aim for, the reality is that the two sports are deeply different. Tennis players are internationally dispersed (unlike the NBA which is a domestic American league), and are independent contractors not employees2 (unlike NBA players), meaning any attempt to unionise and/or separate themselves from ATP structure becomes a minefield of mostly novel legal work, with little precedent in other major international sports. Unfortunately for PTPA members there is no available boilerplate to copy. They would very much be treading complex, new ground in trying to overhaul how men’s tennis is run. This complexity doesn’t necessarily mean that such an effort isn’t worthwhile, just that doing so will be difficult and require clever, consistent and cohesive work from a famously fragmented sport.
In recent history, in part to try and safeguard against efforts like unionisation or similar, the ATP can point to increasingly valuable pension plans, greater and wider prize money distribution, continued investment in the Challenger Tour, and perhaps most relevantly will also be voting in June this year on a proposal which includes tournaments having to be more transparent with their financials. These efforts have mostly kept more significant levels of player discontent to a minimum over the last few years, establishing a precious Nash equilibrium where the executives, tournaments and players are happy that their partnership is sufficiently mutually beneficial.
That equilibrium now seems to be on shaky ground as players, notably Pospisil and Djoković, have started to question their end of the deal.
To fully understand what on earth is currently happening in this strange and usually boring corner of the world however, it helps to first rewind a bit.
What does the PTPA want?
This can be difficult to concisely pin down, as various stages of this player initiative have focused on different things. Initially, at the end of 2019, Pospisil and Djoković hired a law firm to negotiate prize money and transparency with the Slams (which are separate from the ATP). The Slams are the four, independent crown jewels of tennis, which account for about 60% of the total revenue in this sport, or approx $1.2 billion collectively out of the total $2.2 billion in total tennis revenue.
Walied Soliman @waliedesqLooking forward to hearing from our friends at the @AustralianOpen - I am ready to meet in Sydney at anytime. The leading men and women of the sport have come together in an unprecedented manner for the benefit of the sport’s future: https://t.co/OydUbsgVWt via @NYTimes
Questionable negotiating approach aside (it’s almost certainly not productive to publicly threaten & call the four most powerful and proud events in tennis ‘ignorant’), this was always an easy to understand area of grievance for the players. Slams are generally acknowledged to share between 12-18% of their revenue with their players, compared to other major sports like the NBA which share approx 50% of their revenue. A common player gripe has been that the Slams are not transparent enough with their financials and therefore aren’t giving players an opportunity to explore whether the current prize money output is a fair exchange for their blood, sweat and tears input on court. The last time this came to a head was back in 2012 when the players, including Federer and Djoković, lobbied and successfully negotiated a bump in prize money at the US Open from 2013 onwards, from approx 11% of revenue to the 14% that’s been relatively stable over the last 7-8 years.
Despite these figures generally not being in the public domain you can do some simple back of the envelope math for both the US Open and Australian Open, both of which have had recent revenue figures reported, to work out what the last 5 years have looked like (pre-pandemic):
One of the difficulties as you can see above is that different slams have different approaches. The US Open, the richest event in tennis, offers the most total prize money out of all four Slams, but offers a lower % of revenue as prize money and doesn’t seem to be interested in increasing that % as revenues have grown. In contrast the Australian Open, while offering lower overall prize money, has in recent years gradually ramped up the % it shares with players year by year, scaling it up as the event itself grows. Perhaps even more relevant is the early round payout growth of these tournaments, usually benefitting lower ranked players which Pospisil, Djoković and the PTPA are most concerned with:
1st Round Prize Money increase over 5 years:
Australian Open (2016-2020): 134% increase or 38,500 AUD (2016) to 90,000 AUD (2020)
US Open (2015-2019): 47% increase 39,500 USD (2015) to 58,000 USD (2019)
Of course, if ever pushed to the negotiating table, the US Open, whilst clearly sharing a smaller % of its revenue with the players than the Australian Open for e.g., could simply point to the fact that overall it is still the most generous of all four Slams thanks to its status as the richest event in tennis.
One of the problems with players negotiating, or even trying to enter into negotiations, with Slams therefore is the same problem tennis always seems to run into — fragmentation. Not only are the Slams absurdly powerful with entrenched, enduring appeal & earning power that renders the risk of a player revolt very low, but they also each require separate and tailored negotiations. Only the Australian Open have been willing to engage with players on this issue recently, with Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley noting that he hoped (pre-pandemic) that the prize money pool at his tournament would increase to $100 million (AUD) from $55 million (AUD) between 2018 and 2022. Outside of this, the Slams essentially shut the door in Djoković and Pospisil’s faces when it came to requests to sit down with the law firm representing them. Tennis’ biggest events simply didn’t appear to take the requests or threats seriously.
And so, despite the Slams representing the biggest piece of the prize money pie for players looking to push for a greater share of revenue, Pospisil and Djoković’s unsuccessful mission seemed to prompt the realisation that a more pressing, foundational goal should be to first strengthen the player’s own negotiating position and ability to organise.
In September of last year, after officially launching the PTPA alongside Djoković in August, with the support of a not insignificant number of ATP players, Pospisil noted this clear change in priority:
‘The issue is the structure of the ATP… In some ways, it (PTPA) just replaces our (ATP Player) Council and our Board reps. I think the only thing it really does is just organise the players in a way we haven’t had... Maybe something will have to be restructured on paper, but the actual functionality of the Tour should not change whatsoever, in terms of the events, the same events running the way they’re running now. I think just the negotiations would be very different.’ Source
‘It’s not a union – but being unified is what ultimately gives that leverage where at least in some way we can have these business discussions as partners and not just like, OK, here you go guys, just take whatever we do, these are our decisions, whether you like them or not. That’s the main thing.’ Source
Then again in November:
“We basically don't have any information and the tournaments don't need to provide anything and don't need to be transparent at all (RE: finances).” Source
These statements demonstrated a clear goal — to separate player interests and representation from the ATP, which currently houses and represents both players and tournaments, and enable players to build influence in a way that could put practical pressure on ATP tournaments and executives when it comes to how the tour is run — The logic is definitely reasonable and the goal is largely benevolent, with lower ranked players especially not obviously or consistently well represented in either the Player Council nor Board Room under the current structure. Additionally, if the status quo remains then the players are always going to be bumping up against the conflicting reality of trying to effect change while sharing an office and voting structure with tournaments and an executive, who will often be diametrically opposed in terms of motivation from the players.
But since forming the PTPA in August of last year, progress appears to have been slow. Djoković admitted as much in December:
‘The PTPA has yet to be structured with its strategy and long term vision is yet to be clearly defined.’
Given how complex, and uprooting in nature, some of their goals sound, this isn’t particularly surprising.
So what now?
That all of this has unfolded in the middle of a global pandemic, with a new ATP executive team trying to execute on their own plans for modernising and uniting the sport, has deeply strained the relationship between the PTPA and the ATP. In September Pospisil talked brightly about still having a good relationship with ATP Chairman Gaudenzi and CEO Massimo Calvelli. But just a month or so later the relationship was clearly starting to degenerate after Djoković and Pospisil were barred from rejoining the ATP Player Council.
And now here we are at the end of Pospisil’s fuse, just under 7 months after the PTPA was formed, and a year and half since the discontented players tried to negotiate with Slams: the relationship between the PTPA and the ATP has never been worse. Pospisil’s outburst is reported to have come about because a group of players led by the Canadian were seeking to discuss and vote on whether they should boycott the Miami Masters. Upon hearing about this possibility some players reportedly messaged Gaudenzi and Calvelli to come and talk to Pospisil et al. Open Court reports that Guadenzi and Calvelli then proceeded to call Pospisil “ignorant” & “uneducated” and that Pospisil finished the meeting in tears.
Things appear to be getting messier.
The two sides have very obvious reasons to be hostile to one another as of this week. As much as the PTPA have tried to tread carefully and have mostly maintained that they want to peacefully coexist alongside the ATP, the reality is that the PTPA’s biggest threat, as a result of organising and aligning disillusioned players, is a large scale boycott which could financially wound an already pandemic-hit ATP and its tournaments (the overall threat becomes even larger when you consider that the PTPA have signed up WTA players as well). Pospisil said as much back in September of last year:
“Nothing drastic should happen. But the fact that we would be able to potentially boycott is what would potentially give us any kind of leverage in these discussions.” Source
Not only this, but the Canadian even threatened the future possibility of players forming or playing another tour entirely rather than ATP events:
“We’re not allowed to play anything other than ATP events – well, that’s a different discussion. That’s not our intention right now, at all. But of course, I’m also not naïve, if you fast-forward six, 12 months, 24 months, whatever, suddenly things could look very different. And if they do, that just means that the ATP hadn’t done a good job, because if we’re having better opportunities that they’re throwing at us, then we’d be crazy not to take it.” Source
The player’s meeting on Monday night in Miami looks like the first real, if small, threat of this ‘leverage’. A slightly timid opening salvo on behalf of some disgruntled players that was apparently met with a preventative reply of heavy verbal artillery from the ATP executives on the other side. From Gaudenzi and Calvelli’s perspective, the PTPA are trying to disrupt their plans for a vital restructuring of media rights, tournament stability, calendar tweaks, and cross-organisation cooperation, whilst retaining the basic building blocks of how the tour is put together. From Pospisil, Djoković and the PTPA’s perspective, ATP leadership are trying to squash their attempts to build enough player support and influence to dismantle some of those building blocks in order to try and construct something better, separate and more fair for the players.
Eight players have since shared tweets of solidarity with Pospisil: John Isner, Steve Johnson, Tennys Sandgren, Ivo Karlović, Ryan Harrison, Rajeev Ram, Milos Raonic & Novak Djoković. But given all of the above were already part of the PTPA, there’s not much indication yet of whether non-PTPA players will have been moved by what happened on Tuesday. The ATP will be praying that the answer is no, otherwise Gaudenzi’s reportedly humiliating dressing down of Pospisil will be looked back on as a major misstep that potentially unites players against the ATP.
My read is that the PTPA have not played their hand well thus far (although considering that these are pro tennis players with extremely demanding careers, this is perfectly understandable given the size of the task ahead of them). They’ve largely maintained that they want to peacefully coexist with the ATP, and change Tour structure while keeping most of the status quo of playing tournaments and keeping the ball (money) rolling. But Pospisil dropping suggestion bombs of boycotts and playing separate tours will have utterly spooked the ATP (and the WTA), and as a result of course the executives are now treating the PTPA in a hostile manner. This is not a surprising turn of events, and it’s slightly confusing as to why the PTPA were shocked by the response. No one should expect the ATP to stand by as pacifist observers to a faction of players trying to partially incinerate the organisational ground, and power balance, they’re standing on. The PTPA’s change in priority away from prematurely negotiating with Slams, and towards overhauling ATP structure, was the correct one in that it identified the need to first build a strong platform to negotiate from, and then start demanding reform. But from the evidence available it doesn’t look like a half-hearted attempt at a boycott, with large chunks of the player body absent from Miami, had sufficient support for the cause. The good news for the PTPA is that there is a treasure trove of historical precedent in management vs labour disputes3, that they would hopefully be reading up on if they’re trying to be increasingly effective when organising and exerting pressure going forward.
Concern about the PTPA’s approach and/or competence is not a new development. Doubles player Marcus Daniell, on the Baseline Exchanges podcast, aired the following concerns after being part of the PTPA Whatsapp group and initial recruitment drive:
“It just seemed to me to be a really amateur production, there was a document sent around for us to sign… I took it to my wife and my doubles partner’s wife who both happen to be lawyers and they just laughed at it and said this is not something that anyone would sign… I didn’t think that the structure of what they were going to set up was an improvement on the ATP at all. And I didn’t respect the way they responded to my questions. It seemed like my questions were perceived as a personal attack… I just didn’t believe it was a good enough or professional enough organisation.”
And even within the PTPA there seems to be messaging conflicts, with another member John Isner stressing unequivocally that there would be no boycotts, during press earlier in Miami:
“Look, nothing drastic or anything like that is going to happen. Players aren't all of a sudden going to stop playing.” Source
The boycott messaging is particularly delicate as it is both the most powerful weapon the PTPA possesses, but also the thing generating the most hostility towards them from the ATP side. That threat needs to be wielded extremely shrewdly.
Fire or No Fire?
Moving forward, the ATP’s concern should be that acts of aggression, towards what looks, for now, to still be a minority of disgruntled players, doesn’t escalate things to the point where suddenly the ATP’s on fire and players are rebelling en masse. There is a fine line to tread between discouraging PTPA support and pouring kerosene on small embers of rebellion. On the other side of the table, the PTPA’s concern should be a focus on competence, legal expertise and more selective confrontation and communication in order to build a more cohesive and sizeable base of support before they can succeed with more public activism. Any more passionate, but small-scale and futile, outbursts like Pospisil’s have a good chance to set back their cause rather than advance it, and tend to look like a poker player overplaying a hand that isn’t quite strong enough yet.
However, as we hopefully start to return to some sense of normalcy as 2021 continues, and global vaccination efforts progress, the ATP and its events will increasingly stand a better chance at appeasing players who’ve been angered by pandemic-induced prize money cuts and ‘bubble’ living conditions. This is especially true for the higher ranked players who have eaten most of the prize money reduction over the past year, and who in more normal times have fewer reasons to complain given the top heavy prize money structure in tennis. Whilst COVID has represented terrible timing for this nascent rebellion to unfold from the ATP’s perspective, it also may well be the best chance the dissatisfied players have to capitalise on the larger than normal player discontent. Perhaps the chance for reform is therefore more time sensitive than it appears.
And so the question remains — will Pospisil’s on-court outburst be as loud as the discontent gets, combusting noisily but burning itself out quickly and harmlessly, or are there more subtle but growing flames being lit in the basement of the player body?
See you next week.
— Twitter @MattRacquet
// Looking for more?
The Modernisation Of Tennis: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-modernisation-of-tennis
Federer, Nadal & Djoković Rivalry Impact: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/federer-nadal-and-djokovic-make-a
Tennis Pontificates About Format Changes Again: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/here-we-go-again
Tennis’ Identity Crisis: The Umpire Problem https://theracquet.substack.com/p/tennis-identity-crisis
Analysis of the Djoković Medvedev Australian Open Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-racquet-micro-not-macro-match
Analysis of the Nadal Medvedev US Open Final Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-racquet-the-5th-set
Before the union’s inception, NBA players did not receive the wide-ranging privileges and protections that exist today. There was no pension plan, no per diem, no minimum wage, no health benefits and the average player salary was $8,000. It was not until 1964, when the NBA All-Star team threatened not to play in the first televised All-Star Game, that the players gained their first victory.
Tennis players are actually caught somewhere in the middle of independent contractors and employees. They are closer to contractor status than employee, but they have things like an ATP pension and many obligations to play certain numbers of ATP events for e.g. which are reminiscent of more conventional employment contracts. This sort of occupational identity crisis is yet another reason any potential revolution is so difficult.
‘Labor vs management’ isn’t actually a great way of framing ATP vs PTPA, because in its current format the players are actually partners rather than conventional ‘labour’. But the dynamic still holds when it comes to the way the rebelling players are feeling like they’re being treated by tournaments and executives for now.