Does Tennis Need a Commissioner?

Three tennis experts think that tennis needs a commissioner, but I’m not so sure.

John Feinstein, columnist for the Washington Post and author of numerous books about sports, sat in for Jim Rome on his sports talk show for a few days last week. Feinstein thinks that there are a number of problems with tennis these days but he talked about two problems in particular and wow was it great to hear tennis on national sports radio, at least for a few days.

Feinstein interviewed Patrick McEnroe and introduced the first problem by asking him the following question: “What’s the biggest problem in tennis?” McEnroe’s answer? He thinks the biggest problem is the lack of a leader, or commissioner, who has enough power to change the tennis calendar.

Feinstein agrees with McEnroe. He wants a commissioner who will reorganize the tour structure to make it similar to the PGA tour. Smaller tournaments would be relegated to lower levels such as the Nationwide Tour which is second-tier to the PGA.

A commissioner could also establish and enforce a prohibition on appearance fees – money given to players to “appear” at a tournament in addition to prize money. That’s a good idea but even the commissioner of the PGA hasn’t been able to do anything about appearance fees yet.

Pam Shriver turned up at the open media session for the Countrywide Classic last Friday because she was being inducted into the Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame that evening. While we wandered over to a nearby fence so her young son could watch a huge construction crane in action, I asked her about McEnroe’s comments. Here’s what she said:

That’s always been a big criticism, the sport’s not unified enough. And then it’s so political that you just can’t get things moving these days with any momentum in one direction that makes good business sense. So I don’t know if that’s the most serious problem, not having a commissioner, but I would say that unified leadership would certainly be beneficial.

Most major sports have a commissioner and a players’ union and the commissioner is hired by the owners. If the owners are unhappy with the commissioner they get rid of the commissioner. Baseball owners got rid of Fay Vincent because, among other things, he accommodated players too much during the 1990 lockout.

If there was a commissioner of tennis, I’m not sure it would be much different than the current structure. Currently, ATP decisions are made by the board of directors. The CEO, Etienne de Villiers, has one vote, three representatives of tournament directors each have one vote, and three player representatives each have one vote. And only the tournament director representatives and the player representatives vote for the CEO so the players arguably have more power than major sports where the owners hire the CEO.

The problem is that the players don’t exercise their power. If they’re unhappy with the tennis calendar, they withdraw from tournaments. It sends a message to the tournament directors but since there’s no organized work stoppage, it’s not a strong enough message.

I support the idea of a commissioner but only if it’s accompanied by a players’ union with a leader who can organize the players well enough to threaten a work action. Of course, the players would have to vote for that and since they’ve shown no inclination to do that up to now, we might be stuck with what we have for some time to come.

What do you think? Does tennis need a commissioner?

By the way, the second problem Feinstein discussed is the lack of access to players and I’ll get into that later in the week.

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