Will the Australian Open End Up in China?

Now that the competition has ended at this year’s Australian Open, let’s look at some of the commercial and political issues that temporarily faded into the background while we were watching the fabulous play of Jo-Willie Tsonga, Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic

The Australians are concerned that they’ll lose their slam event to China. Shanghai is waiting with its gleaming Qi Zhong Tennis Centre and gobs of money to bid for the tournament, while the Melbourne Park facility has faded over time. Qi Zhong hosted the ATP Championships for the past three years and will host a Masters Series event starting in 2009. The Australian government is chipping in some money for a Melbourne Park upgrade but there is a second problem: the tournament is getting a reputation for unruly crowds.

Last year there was a brawl between Serbs and Croats and this year there were two notable incidents. Three Greek fans were arrested and surrounding fans were hit with pepper spray during a match between Fernando Gonzalez and Konstantinos Economidis. Novak Djokovic’s family was surrounded by security during his final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after Djokovic’s family complained about the behavior of Tsonga supporters.

If the Australian Open is worried about losing the slam because of its growing reputation for unruly fans, that’s a battle they will surely lose to China. You will not see fan violence at a Chinese sporting event. Chinese fans are well aware that they live in an oppressive country and the government will not tolerate that kind of behavior.

The Chinese government has already started imprisoning dissidents in preparation for this year’s Olympics. The New York Times reported today that Hu Jia, a human rights activist, was imprisoned last month on charges of subverting state power. Among other things, Hu was involved in the case of a factory worker who started the “We Want Human Rights, Not the Olympics” petition drive.

The Olympics have become an important political and commercial symbol and that brings up interesting conflicts. NBA player Ira Newble and most of his teammates signed an open letter to the Chinese government urging them to resolve the crisis in the Darfur before the summer Olympics begins. Darfur is in Sudan, a major source of oil for China.

Should you use the Olympics to pressure the host team to make political change or should you go in there and force a bit more capitalism on them? Newble’s teammate LeBron James was one of the few players on the team who did not sign the letter. James and his marketing team are using the Beijing Olympics to increase his commercial visibility in Asia which is a huge market.

As the following example shows you, the two approaches can be combined. Many of us complained when professional tennis started selling its tournament slots to the highest bidder which, these day, is likely to be an Asian country. Some of those tournaments went to Arabic countries which don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel.

Israeli players Shahar Peer, Jonathan Erlich, and Andy Ram were unlikely to travel to the Dubai Open because Israel has told its citizens not the go there. That is about to change. Erlich and Ram – the current Australian Open doubles champions – announced that they will play in the 2008 Dubai Open. The ATP has told them that they can provide adequate security.

This is even more important because the WTA Championships are in Qatar for the next three years and Peer is a top twenty player. Dubai and Qatar have been switching their economies from oil to tourism because their oil reserves will not last forever and that’s why they’ve been buying sporting events. This is a good example of commercial interests influencing political change.

I’d like to applaud the ATP and the WTA for being agents of social change but I suspect they were mainly interested in selling to the highest bidder and increasing their presence on the global market. Am I being too cynical?