- Kamakshi Tandon
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The back-to-back ATP Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati begin this week, with the players competing on the court for about $7 million in total prize money. Behind the scenes, they're competing with the tournaments for an even larger amount.
The ATP Player Council is pushing for significant increases in prize money from the Masters 1000s, whose agreements are up for renewal this year. Three years ago, they agreed to an increase of 9 percent a year, but the players are seeking bigger payouts.
"We are looking for more, yes," said Eric Butorac, vice president of the council, in an interview with ESPN.com.
That's because the tournaments grew at more than twice the rate they were expected to, explained Butorac, who is ranked No. 27 in doubles. "Even with their 9 percent increase," he said, "as a total unit, they grew at a 7 percent rate per year."
Players have previously emphasized their aim of getting a larger share of the amount tournaments make.
The growth of the Masters 1000 events is in contrast to some of the smaller 500- and especially 250-level tournaments, where attendance and sponsorship problems are frequent. Such events often have difficulty attracting top players and must pay a large amount for the big names -- often six figures for a player like Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Andy Murray.
But players are required to show up at the eight Masters events (plus one optional), which take place at Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo (optional), Madrid, Rome, Toronto or Montreal, Cincinnati, Shanghai and Paris. That has allowed the tournaments to benefit from increased interest in the top men's players, especially the huge popularity of the Big Four, given their dominance of the men's game in recent years.
The players argue that they should receive some of the extra money, which they say is generated by their growing following. They have also stated their general aim of getting a larger share of the amount tournaments make.
"So I think just with the way the top players are playing, and the ability to have a tournament that contains players like Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, it's just so valuable," said Butorac. "Those tournaments have really thrived. So we hope we can be compensated adequately."
According to Sports Business Journal, the council is looking for prize money at the Masters events to double within the next four years, but the tournaments want the figure to be much lower. The two sides are currently in talks.
The push follows the significant increases that have been secured from the Grand Slams, which have been upping their purses by large amounts. The U.S. Open, for example, will pay $38.3 million this year and has committed to giving $50 million in three years' time, double the amount it gave two years ago.
But the Grand Slams are independent of the ATP, while the Masters tournaments are tour events. That means things will operate a little differently this time around. With the ATP board made up of both tournament and player representatives, the organization is, in a sense, attempting to reach a deal with itself.
That can create some ambiguity, said Butorac. "Most sports, they have a union," he said. "But with us having a bipartisan board, it is a different battle."
The board consists of the CEO, three tournament representatives and three player representatives. The ATP Player Council is made up of current players who are elected by their fellow professionals. Things have changed there as well, noted one observer.
During the discussions with the Grand Slams, then-Player Council president Roger Federer was instrumental in getting the majors on board, personally attending meetings and putting forward the players' case. But now a father of four and no longer the dominating player he once was, Federer decided not to run for re-election this year.
That means it is unclear who will lead the player effort, though it certainly will not be anyone with the stature of 17-time Slam champion Federer. New members of the council include John Isner and Stanislas Wawrinka, and the new president will be elected at the US Open. Wawrinka, Federer's friend and compatriot as well as the highest-ranked player on the council, has expressed an interest in becoming the president.
But there will be no let-up in the council's demands for more prize money, because more militant members like Sergiy Stakhovsky and Gilles Simon have stayed on. With most of the same players involved, the council has been able to have a consistent message.
"About six years now, to have a similar group of guys over a long period of time is really helpful," said Butorac.
The goal, he said, is for players and tournaments to reach a "mutually agreeable place and nothing drastic happens."
The tournaments want something similar.
"They're pretty much on the same page; we're aware of their desires," said Karl Hale, tournament director of the Rogers Cup in Toronto. "The parties involved are working together to reach a conclusion, and I'm sure they will."
Any increase would apply to all the nine Masters events, though their individual finances and resources differ -- something that is likely an issue in the discussions. Some, like Toronto, are run by national associations that use the proceeds to fund grass-roots development, while others like Indian Wells are privately owned. But Hale said the Canadian stop, which has the advantage of being two weeks before the US Open, generally has an attractive field and is prepared.
"Toronto's one of the top stops on the tour for the players," he said. "We've talked about this in years leading up to this, so I think we're in a very, very good position for that."
While the two sides are not in agreement about how to share the proceeds of their recent growth, it's a good problem to have.
"But all in all, the tour's good," Butorac said. "Players need to hear that little bit, tournaments need to be aware of that. We've been as successful as we've ever been. The tour's making more money.
"So tennis worldwide is in a really good place."
And for the players, should they succeed, it's about to get even better.