Like the rest of us, Roger Federer is stuck at home during the coronavirus shutdown. He’s also got the added bonus of recovering from knee surgery. At first, this just allowed him time to advise fans and punters alike on how to do a drill he suggested during stay-at-home orders. Of course, it’s not nearly as easy as he makes it look. All while pulling off an ensemble that, much like his play, he makes look much easier to pull off than it actually is. #PanamaHatGoals
But there’s only so much distraction one can put themselves through, and while Federer’s Twitter is a hidden delight, it appears Fed is now using the break to call for his sport to make major changes. Some might even say revolutionize it. And when Federer speaks, people in tennis tend to listen.
Earlier this week, Federer posted that it might be a good idea to use this break to find a way to merge the ATP (Men’s tour) and WTA (Women’s tour). This has been briefly discussed in the past, but never seriously. Federer certainly draws enough water to bring it into the realm of serious discussion.
It may surprise most that the two tours aren’t combined, as you see them together at the grand slams and various ATP 1000 events, which is what most people watch. But they’re not. The grand slams are overseen by the ITF, and even when the men and women are at the same event other than grand slams, they’re still governed by their respective associations.
Which leads to a fair amount of problems. Each tour has its own ranking system, its own broadcasting deals, its own websites, own sponsorships, and on and on it goes. An effort to streamline all of this seems obvious. But nothing is ever obvious in tennis, at least when it comes to the administration of it. The sport is known for evolving at about the same pace as an anaesthetised sloth.
It would be a boost to the women’s tour financially, of that there can be little doubt. Currently, it is believed that the ATP makes nearly twice as much money as the WTA. The ATP cashed in around $150M revenue last year, and while the WTA hasn’t released exact figures, it’s thought it’s around half of that. The grand slams may pay both equally, but the tours clearly don’t.
Which is going to lead some on the ATP side to wonder what they have to gain by bringing the women on board, other than optics. They’re making more money, why split it up?
That apparently doesn’t bother the chairman of the ATP, Andrea Gaudenzi, who said this was a “big opportunity” to create unity within the sport. In the fall, WTA president Micky Lawler was also pushing for discussions on bringing the tour together. There was momentum before, and having Federer behind it only ramps that up.
Not that everyone is pulling exactly in the same direction on this, or has in the past. World No. 1 and also medical-loon Novak Djokovic has displayed his galaxy brain in other realms in the past. He’s backtracked that stance since, but you can imagine there are others with pull who feel the same way now. Nick Kyrgios checked in from his home planet to also voice disapproval.
Still, putting everyone in the same basket would have to mean more viewers, fans, and money for all. Currently, with both tours having their own contracts and tournaments for most of the season, you’re splitting the audience, both in attendance and viewing on TV, a lot of the time. Even if there are fans that are only interested in the men’s or women’s game, if everyone is at the same tournament, and everyone’s in the same pool, then everyone gets the benefit of a ticket bought or a set of eyes on the tournament. You don’t have to figure out who is there for what.
Of course, that was one of the reasons the WTA went out on its own to form its own television deal, but here we are.
There’s already been more cohesion in recent times, as both the ATP and WTA opted and cooperated for TV deals in the UK and Ireland through Amazon. Both have deals with Tennis Channel in the U.S.
The hurdles are still massive. Some tournament agreements are locked in for years into the future, as are sponsorships that go along with it. For instance, the WTA was set to move its season-ending championship tourney to China this fall for the next 10 years. The ATP was moving its from London to Turin for the next five. Altering those agreements to line them up in the same place will be a Herculean task, if it’s even possible. There are these kinds of knots all over the place. Whenever you have two bureaucracies, bringing them together means some are going to lose jobs, and drawn-out fights can be expected.
But the hurdles in returning from the coronavirus shutdown are also massive, and almost certainly easier to negotiate through one body than two. Schedules will have to be reworked, contracts with sponsors and TV as well. Determining rankings to boot. All of these bills will come due sooner than the tours can merge to tackle them together, but greater cooperation on how both can solve all this will only bring them closer together. That in turn sets the stage for a merger that would make the future easier to handle.
It is unlikely tennis, or any other sport, will be back in a recognizable form for a long time. With both presidents and leading players calling for change, perhaps they can come out of this break in better form to grow and run the sport. Stranger things have happened.