The ATP: eight days a week

This weekend all of the ATP players are in New York for the US Open. After the players gave Andre Agassi a two minute ovation and ATP president Etienne de Villiers gave Agassi a 1970 bottle of Chateau Petrus, de Villiers announced big changes for the 2007 ATP season. More marketing, more prize money, a round robin format, fewer five set matches and an eight day work week – two good ideas and a few band aids for the deeper problem.

More marketing, more prize money, a round robin format, fewer five set matches and an eight day work week – two good ideas and a few band aids for the deeper problem.

First the good ideas:

1. Marketing.

Here is a quote from de Villiers:

We plan to transform men’s professional tennis into an integrated entertainment business based on what makes sense to fans, players, tournaments and media. We are going to actively create more stars, enhance the entertainment element of tournaments and place a much greater emphasis on marketing and promotion.

I’m down with that. Been to an NBA game lately? Even an WNBA game? There’s hardly a minute that goes by without cheerleaders cavorting or fans competing for face time on the jumbotron or a live band blaring from the upper reaches of the arena. I’m not advocating fuchsia tennis outfits at Wimbledon or dancers dressed in skimpy Ralph Lauren dresses doing cartwheels on the grass during changeovers, but it would be nice to see a looser, more hip atmosphere and a lot more kids running around the tournament grounds.

The Tennis Channel already does this at their tennis tournament. This year in Las Vegas – the epitome of “integrated entertainment” – you could have sent your kids to Kids Day, taken tennis lessons, played table tennis, table hockey or paddle ball, and watched the Wilson World Stringing Championships as well as watch a simple tennis match.

It’s a good idea and so is the newly announced multi-million dollar marketing fund which all tournaments will contribute to. The ATP should take NASCAR as an example. NASCAR has gone from a regional sport to a big time national sport by marketing its stars. Harlequin publishes bodice-rippers featuring hunky fictional NASCAR drivers with titles like In the Groove and kids can bounce in bounce houses while their parents mill around the infield. I know, it’s demeaning, marketing to women with the allure of idealized romance as if we don’t drive race cars ourselves, we do, okay then, how about romance novels featuring male and female tennis players? How about All the Right Strokes or I Married a Dirtballer or Mixed Doubles. That’s all I can come up with on short notice, feel free to suggest a few titles of your own. After all, earlier this year, Psychology Today reported that women who read romance novels have 74% more sex than women who don’t read romance novels.

2. Round-robin format.
The ATP will start using a round-robin format in selected tournaments instead of the current single round elimination. Players will be divided into groups and play one match against everyone in their group. Players with the best record will move on to single elimination rounds. The year-end Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai uses the this format.

It’s is a good idea because fans can see James Blake or Roger Federer more than once even if they lose their first match. It also solves a problem I have been complaining about for some time. Players can be on the tour for years and seldom play each other. Look at the draw for the U.S. Open starting this week: if Tomas Berdych and Dmitry Tursunov meet in the third round, that will be their first meeting even though Berdych has been on the tour for four years and Tursunov for five. If Marcos Baghdatis and Richard Gasquet meet in the quarterfinals, that will their first match. If Tommy Haas and Andy Murray meet in quarterfinals, that will be their first match.

…what’s the point of a round-robin if it means watching more matches with the same low-ranked players?

If top players are in the same tournament, they will play each other more often in a round-robin and more rivalries will develop. Short of Lleyton Hewitt versus Guillermo Coria, which is pretty dead at the moment with Coria’s mental difficulties and Hewitt’s injuries, and the Federer-Nadal battle, there aren’t any rivalries in tennis.

But that’s only if the top players show up and this brings up the deeper problem: there are too many tournaments on the calendar and many of them take place on different continents in the same week. The end result is that fans see few of the top players because they’re spread out all over the world and what’s the point of a round-robin if it means watching more matches with the same low-ranked players?

Which brings us to the band-aids.

3. Increase in prize money.
The minimum prize money will go up by 10% next year. This is meant to soothe the players because tournaments will now start on Sundays and end on Sundays. The first Sunday gives the tournaments more broadcast exposure and an extra day for matches and entertainment. But it also means that players now have an eight day work week instead of seven. Even if players don’t have a match on Sunday, somebody has to play in those pro-am tournaments. I can see how it helps marketing but how does it reduce withdrawals by already over scheduled tennis players?

4. Fewer best of five matches.
No more five hour Federer-Nadal matches on clay such as the final of the Masters Event in Rome this spring. Good thing because Federer and Nadal both dropped out of the next tournament due to exhaustion. But it’s a small thing compared to scheduling. Rome is followed immediately by another Masters Series event on clay, Hamburg. That’s two one-week Masters Series events in a row and it happens again during the US Open Series.

The term round-robin comes from 17th or 18th century France. When a group of peasants presented a petition to the king with an idea that displeased him, the king liked to behead the first two or three people on the list to discourage similar thoughts in the rest of the population. To get around this problem, peasants signed petitions with a circular design that looked like a ribbon – ruban is the French word for ribbon – thus equalizing responsibility for the offending idea. ATP players seem equally cowed. James Blake and Ivan Ljubicic, both members of the ATP Player Council, applauded de Villier’s announcement with nary a mention of the longer work week or the burdensome schedule.

They could be afraid they’d get their heads cut off but the smartest move for the players would be to create their own separate players’ union. They currently have three seats on the board of directors of the ATP but so do the tournament directors. [blockquote]De Villiers has conflicting responsibilities, he has to represent both the players and the tournaments – it can’t be done. His job is to make as much money as possible for the tournament directors while also taking care of the players. More money for tournament directors means more work for the players – they are opposing ideas.

The ATP needs to do something. In the U.S. they just lost ESPN coverage of the French Open to the Tennis Channel which is broadcast to 89% fewer households. ESPN dropped the French Open because it loses money broadcasting the slams.

More changes are promised and they will include changes to the schedule. If de Villiers has the nerve to remove tournaments from the schedule, I will applaud him. If he doesn’t, I’ll lay some of the blame on the players.

You can read about who controls the scheduling on the ATP and WTA tour here