There has been no live tennis for a while as the pro-tour remains shut till at least July due to the coronavirus pandemic but a game is afoot.
On Wednesday, Roger Federer posted a series of tweets suggesting a merger between WTA and ATP, the two governing bodies for women’s and men’s tennis respectively. The buzz surrounding was immediate with resoundingly positive reactions from many fans, journalists and fellow players.
On the face of the entire incident – the idea coming from someone of Federer’s stature, the response from players like Rafael Nadal, Boris Becker, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza seems incredible and makes sense in the bigger picture. One sport, one governing body.
More importantly, Billie Jean King, who founded the WTA in 1973 – a year after the ATP took over the men’s game – said this was her long-time vision. “I have been saying so since the early 1970s. One voice, women and men together. The WTA on its own was always Plan B,” she said.
A big seal of approval.
But on the other side of the spectrum is the underlying concern that caused King and the other women to create the separate bodies in the first place – equality.
Although not perfect, tennis is already among the sports with a good gender balance, thanks largely to the effort of players, from King to the Williams sisters. A united front for the sport is great on paper but unity doesn’t always translate to equality in any walk of life.
Admittedly, it’s unfair to view what, at first look is a mere Twitter suggestion – even with the weight Federer’s voice carries – with preemptive cynicism. It is also premature to celebrate what could potentially be a powerful game-changer for tennis.
What can be discussed and dissected are the questions before such an idea is debated by the tennis bosses. The idea raises issues, both positive and puzzling, and here’s a look at the questions that will need to addressed if it to become a reality:
How to ensure equality in every aspect?
It’s not just a question of prize money, which is still equal only at Grand Slams after a long fight. Will scheduling, media attention, broadcast see a 50-50 treatment as well? Historically, the men’s tour has been reluctant to share its platform with the women’s tour which led King to start something new. Even now, there are sections who will believe that the men’s tour would stand to lose their profit if shared with the women’s tour.
Team sports like cricket and football have struggled with equal treatment of the men’s and women’s tournaments; both at the international and national federation levels of governance. Whether it is US Soccer and the lawsuit filed against gender discrimination or the lack of live telecast of so many women’s international cricket matches, a unified body doesn’t always guarantee best results.
The Badminton World Federation shows that it is, theoretically, possible to have all players under one umbrella and do justice, even though tennis has unique challenges in terms of time and space needed.
In 2014, the men’s and women’s squash was brought together under one governing body and that proved to a largely successful move because tournaments, viewership and money increased, according to The National.
Can a joint tennis association ensure equitable treatment beyond money and media? At present, the four Majors provide the prototype of the challenges at hand in this regard. The regular problems that crop up at Grand Slams include allotment of the main courts, primetime slots, interview rooms, etc. for players and this could be amplified based on who or what becomes the bigger draw for a combined tennis body.
Does a combined product mean more money?
The almost universal approval for the idea partly stems from the financial value a combined product will add.
Having the two tours together suggests the marketing value will increase and business negotiations can be easier.
The media rights will be a bulkier package and might bring the women’s matches to a lot more screens. In India, for example, WTA matches are not telecast while only a handful of ATP matches are on TV except for Slams. A combined deal on a shared platform like Tennis TV, which streams ATP matches, can reduce the reliance on broadcast partners at non-Slam events.
With fans fairly split between ATP and WTA, there’s also a chance that both tours reach newer audiences and open up revenue streams as well in different parts of the world. Sponsorship could pose an issue as some brands would look for a gender-based strategy, but that’s a bridge to be crossed later.
What will be the technical challenges?
One of the points raised by Federer was how the different ranking systems, different logos, different websites, and different tournament categories can be confusing for fans. That will probably be the easiest to remedy with a consolidated database for players and uniform structure for tournaments.
But integrating the different ranking systems and rules will be a different issue. WTA allows on-court coaching, for example, while the ATP and Grand Slams expressly forbid it. ATP typically considers 18 tournaments towards deciding ranking while WTA takes into account 16. Earlier this year, the ATP created an independent ATP Cup between countries which was the sole season-opener for them, which relegated women to outer courts in Brisbane.
The other question is over the human element – what happens to the workforce. The two bodies create a number of jobs and working as one unit / media channel could slash the number of employment opportunities.
The Player Councils is another area of concern given how they are structured to include representatives from different ranking categories. To get singles and doubles, high and low ranked players from WTA and ATP together as one body, with potentially only one head, can be tricky.
Already, Nick Kyrgios has questioned if a merger benefits ATP players and in the past, even Nadal has questioned if a combined effort would make a stronger product. Aligning the many stakeholders together will be an important prerequisite.
What happens to the calendar?
As things stand, the men’s and women’s tennis calendars intersect only at Grand Slams, Masters/Premier Mandatory tournaments at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid as well as Masters/Premier events such as Rome, Rogers Cup in Canada and Cincinnati. There are also some tournaments such as Doha and Dubai which happen in close proximity to each other. The end of the ATP season is based in Europe while WTA has expanded its base with all season-ending tournaments in Asia.
While the calendar might be one of the least affected aspects in the merger given the relative independence and the equation with tournament officials, it will be interesting to see how a combined body tackles the scheduling of matches and interactions.
More importantly, it presents an opportunity to jumpstart regular combined tournaments that drive even more fans to events. As idealistic as it sounds, working together could also mean a revival of the Hopman Cup or create similar tournaments as well as more mixed doubles, which can only enhance the fan experience.
Will the lower rung also benefit equally?
As things stand, lower-ranked players in both ATP and WTA struggle financially and the male players have often called out the body for discrepancy in prize money.
In a sport that is already top-heavy, a merger could further isolate the players in the lower rungs. Expanding the top could result in a concentration of power, which can further skew the balance. Attention will have to be paid to how the benefits of coverage and ranking will percolate down efficiently.
The ATP has the Challenger Tour which is a step lower than the World Tour while the WTA has various levels of contests within the broad framework of the 125K series. Both of them happen at a much smaller scale all over the world, much like the ITF tournaments which often see both genders, and combining it could pose a new set of challenges even for local organisers.
Beginning on equal footing
This is subtler point that seems lost in the hype, but one that should be at the very heart of this idea.
A Sports Illustrated article from 2002 mentions how the ATP wanted to merge with WTA just as the star of the Williams sisters was on a high. It was a move aimed at cashing in on their popularity at a time men’s tennis didn’t have consistent stars.
…it’s hard for the ATP to market and promote players who are not consistent winners. Small wonder, then, that the men’s tour has been making overtures to the WTA, inviting the women’s tour to relocate its offices from St. Petersburg to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where the men are headquartered, and looking into the possibility of holding more joint events. This interest in joining forces with the women’s game – unimaginable five years ago – has been glossed over with corporate-speak such as “building synergies,” “creating efficiencies” and “integrating resources.” But it boils down to this: 32-year-old Andre Agassi won’t be around much longer, and no other male player comes close to the international star wattage of the Williamses. Why not try to get in on the action?
To many, this suggestion by Federer feels like a reverse of the situation from 2002, with women’s tennis now beset by inconsistent performers while men’s has a steady top three.
In either situation, if at all there is credence to the perception that one party has more to gain from the action than the other, then that very thought can make for a flawed foundation to whatever the plan is. The joining of forces has to not only aim for but begin with equal footing. Both the ATP and WTA have set patterns and resources and this move should look to share those instead of tapping into another.
Ultimately, there are pros and cons attached to the decision and till the idea solidifies into something more concrete, it’s futile to debate about the merits or lack thereof.