Asia Tennis Travels: What does ATP's global exec predict for tennis in Asia?
SHANGHAI, China -- In the course of my travels with the ATP and WTA tours across Asia, I've talked to the players about what it's like to make the long trek to the tournaments and to local journalists about the state of the game in China. Now it's time to get a tour's perspective.
Alison Lee is the ATP's executive vice president of the international group, a region that includes Australia, Asia, the Middle East, Russia and Africa. Appointed in November 2012 and based in Sydney, Australia, Lee has spearheaded the ATP's continued growth in the Asia-Pacific region. She also sits as the chair of the ATP Challengers committee. Notably, she's the only woman on the ATP's 13-person management team. "I do think it's true that women add a different perspective when you're in a room full of men," she told reporters last fall. "I really do believe that, a different perspective. Apart from that, I just consider myself a regular employee, the same as anybody else."
SI.com spoke to Lee at the Shanghai Rolex Masters, a tournament she has been intimately involved in since its Masters Cup days, to discuss the ATP's strategy in Asia, the particular challenges the nascent region presents and the opportunities opened up with the success of Japan's Kei Nishikori.
SI.com: First off, I'm not sure everyone knows how the ATP is organized and what exactly your role as the head of the international group entails. Can you explain?
Lee: The ATP is a partnership between players and tournaments. We're a not-for-profit organization. Whatever money we make at the end of the day is redistributed it back to our members if we can. The way that the ATP divides the world up is in the Americas -- North and South America -- someone oversees the business affairs and tournaments in that part of the world, someone else in Europe, and then I have the rest of the world.
The International Group office in Sydney opened in 1990. Because we are a member services organization we don't have a lot of staff. We're extremely lean. There's only four people in my office but everyone works remotely with different teams. It's not exactly a 9 to 5 job when we're there because we have to speak to our counterparts all the time. I usually get the bum end of the deal. "Sorry, Alison, you're going be on at 1 a.m." But that's just part and parcel.
So we all work in different departments. I started at the ATP in 1998 and went to the first Heineken Open in Shanghai. I worked on all five Tennis Masters Cups in Shanghai as [former ATP President] Brad Drewett's second in charge. I worked on every aspect of this tournament with the current promoter of the Shanghai Rolex Masters. Besides working with the tournaments I do other things. I like promoting players from our regions who will be playing our tournaments. I also work in corporate sponsorship. I'm also the chair of the Challengers committee. That's a whole other tier of 150 tournaments.
SI.com: Why did you want to chair the Challenger committee?
Lee: I know. Pat Rafter said to me, "Al, is that a demotion?" I've been with the tour since 1998. You kind of knew about the Challenger circuit but you didn't have anything to do with it. So I wanted to integrate it into my overall strategic plan.
When I look at this region I want to see more Asian players coming through. I want our tournaments to be stronger. One day I want to see more tournaments in this region, more sponsors coming out of this region. Challengers are the only way we can start to get a foothold into this market. That's how the fans get to know what the ATP is and also for the players to not to have to travel too far from tournament to tournament. That makes such a big difference.
In Europe, which has 70 percent of our top 100 players, they have 30 of our 62 ATP World Tour tournament licenses. Out of our Challenger tour, which has 151 events worldwide, Asia has something like 22 percent of the Challenger events. We've doubled in five years in this part of the world. Europe is still around the 50 percent mark. They have this little cluster and they can travel easily to the tournaments.
SI.com: There's been some discussion about increasing prize money at the Challenger level. But what does it mean to pump money into the Challenger circuit? Increase the quality of the tournaments? Prize money? More tournaments?
Lee: It's easy to say we need to pump more money into it, and we should to help make sure players aren't losing money. But we don't want players to carve themselves a living for eight years on the Challenger tour. If you're not playing up [to the ATP World Tour level], what are you doing?
We have a plan. We're trying to get all the tournaments to move up from the bottom level. Right now, $40,000 plus hospitality is your minimum prize money category. When the tour started they were sitting at $25,000 for the lowest level of events. I think seven years ago they went to $35,000. Last year we went up to $40,000, and by 2017 we will make sure that every bottom level tournament will be $50,000 plus hospitality. That's almost doubling the prize money at that bottom level in less than 10 years.
There are lots of different levels. There's $40,000 plus hospitality, $50,000 with no hospitality, $50,000 with hospitality, etc. By pushing the bottom level up we're already helping to make sure there's more money being pumped in.
We're also sending more ATP umpires to the top-level tournaments. For tournaments with a prize purse of $75,000 and above, we'll send one more ATP official. We're sending more ATP physios and ATP Tour managers to Challengers as well. The player services guys deal with the players. If they go to these low-level events they can educate these low-level players, who will eventually be on tour, and teach them how the ATP works.
SI.com: What's the most difficult part of managing the Challenger tour?
Lee: Challengers are only one-year sanctions, they're not licenses. They're not members of the ATP. Challenger operators don't necessarily want to be locked into anything. The Challenger tour in itself is so complex because it is so fragile. That's a double-edged sword. There's tremendous flexibility but you can lose tournaments. We lose between 10-20 percent a year and then new ones come on. So you have to make sure these promoters are having tournaments at our standards. It's quite a lot of overseeing.
Of course getting the tournaments in the right weeks, creating swings, keeping player's traveling costs down. But through workshops and having everyone talk together, it brings everyone's costs down. We're making headway. We actually only started really focusing on this this year.
SI.com: Chris Kermode spoke earlier this week about how the ATP is trying to figure out the ranking threshold that should ensure players can make a living as a pro tennis player. How do you even come up with that? Top 100? Top 200?
Lee: I don't know, I'm not in player services. That will be a large piece of work. How do you define that? My opinion is that Division I players (the ATP term that refers to Top 200 singles players and Top 100 doubles players) should definitely be making some kind of living. But what is that magic number that they should be earning?
I think you're going to start seeing that number push up dramatically anyway. You have the Grand Slam prize money increases and significant ATP increases coming their way too. So those top 200 guys, the top doubles guys, they'll all be earning significantly more money. And the guys on the Challenger level will be earning more money too. It's all about making it fit together.
SI.com: What are the challenges of growing and strengthening the ATP in your region?
Lee: Particularly in Asia, only Japan is a mature market that understands tennis. The rest of Asia is so new, so young. For Shanghai, I've been coming since their first proper event in 1998, The Heineken Open, and to see how far they've come since then is incredible. On every level. This country has really benefited because they really wanted tennis and they wanted all these tournaments and they had the players, especially on the women's side.
China will just take time. If you have solid foundations and you're building from the ground up it does happen. I'd love to see more tournaments here but I don't know if we're ready to go beyond our 13 regional tournament licenses just yet. If you can get Challengers, players, money coming into the sport from the sponsors then you build momentum towards tournaments.
SI.com: You mentioned the 13 regional licenses in the International region. As I understand it, those licenses cannot be transferred between regions. So if you did want a new tournament in Asia, how would that happen?
Lee: The board would have to approve it because it's outside our current rules. It would have to be persuasive to move a license across regions.
SI.com: Could you just create one out of thin air? Add a fourteenth tournament?
Lee: We've done that in the past for different reasons. South African Airways when they were a sponsor, they leased a tournament directly from the ATP for three years. That's because it came as part of the sponsorship deal and the board approved it.
SI.com: How has Kei Nishikori's success impacted your region?
Lee: Commercially I would love to see more sponsors come out of this region and that's going to happen with Kei anyway. He's got all Japanese sponsors except for Delta Airlines and Tag Heuer. They want a good mix of international and local. His local sponsors support him so well. It would be fantastic if more Asian companies supported their own players more instead of players having to rely on limited federation money. I'd like to see more Asian sponsors on the tour as well. The interest has certainly picked up since Kei has been doing so well. More phone calls, more meetings. So that's all good news.
SI.com: When we talk about the growth and stability of tennis in different countries and regions we often link that to a regional player's success. Li Na does well, China explodes. Nishikori makes history, suddenly Japan is prime tennis real estate. Isn't it dangerous to rely so heavily on the success of top players to sustain a big market?
Lee: Look at the U.S. market or Australia. You can stabilize and you just go through quieter patches with your top players. The thing that we have on our side in China is the population, the structure is already set up, and they are learning. They're looking at what the Japan Tennis Association did with Kei. This time last year I was speaking to the Beijing government officials and people in Shanghai, and I said look what the JTA did with Kei. They sent him away [to train in America]. The thing is, people reacted pretty quickly. Before you knew it, five guys are training overseas. Someone from the Shanghai team is training in Florida at the IMG academy. They want to get there but it just takes learning from other countries what to do. But there's no set way to do it. Even if you've got lots of money, you've got companies behind you, you've got tournaments, the players might get too comfortable. That is also a big problem.
Look, it will happen. It's just not something that was going to happen overnight for us. I think our position in China is very strong with what we've built on the men's side, say with the tournaments and everything working together. There are more and more players coming through who are benefiting from six Challengers in China, 31 in Asia. They can speak much better English now and they're understanding how to live a more global life. So it's all progressing.