Planned Boycott Would Backfire ATP's $50 Million Threat

July 06, 2003

The 2003 Wimbledon award for incomprehensible self-destruction?
It's a tough call, considering Greg Rusedski's expletive-laden
meltdown during his loss to Andy Roddick on June 25--you don't
often hear a half-baked Brit dropping f bombs and "wanker" over
the BBC. But the winner has to be the ATP, which runs the men's
tour.

Two days before the tournament began, more than 100 ATP players
met at the All England Club and decided to threaten a boycott of
the next five Grand Slam events. Never in the history of the
sport has a weaker hand been played at a worse time.

The issue, of course, is money. Unlike the ATP player boycott of
1973, in which 13 of the 16 men's seeds pulled out of Wimbledon
to protest the banning of Nikki Pilic for failing to play in a
Davis Cup match, this year's threatened walkout has more to do
with principal than principle. The ATP is seeking a 150% increase
in its annual payout from the four Grand Slams, to $50 million.
No one argues that the Slams--by far the sport's most profitable
and stable franchises--could not easily stand to pay players
more, especially those out of the top 50. But $50 million? On
June 23, All England Club chairman Tim Phillips termed the ATP
demand "unacceptable" and then opened the gates on the most
beloved tennis event in the world.

Therein lies the rub. If you compared the brand trajectory of the
Slams and the ATP tour over the last 10 years, one would resemble
Nike and the other British Knights. While the Slams were busy
upgrading facilities, becoming more fan-friendly and attracting
sellout crowds, the men's tour struggled to fill seats and failed
to produce a rivalry or star to replace the old guard of Agassi
and Sampras or Becker and Edberg. Its crop of so-called New Balls
has distinguished itself so far mostly with its churlishness
(Lleyton Hewitt), remoteness (Gustavo Kuerten) or befuddling
undependability (Marat Safin).

In the last two years ATP CEO Mark Miles has presided over the
demise of the tour's $1.2 billion marketing agreement with the
now defunct ISL and a growing dissatisfaction among the players
that led, four months ago, to the formation of a splinter group
called the International Men's Tennis Association.

When the ATP negotiating committee of Todd Martin, Todd
Woodbridge and Richard Krajicek meets again with the Grand Slam
committee on Thursday, it will go to the table knowing that most
of the tennis world perceives the boycott threat as absurdly
hollow.

Check out Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag each Monday at
si.com/tennis.

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