The articles that comprise this week’s Reading List collectively paint a bleak picture of the Challenger and Futures tours’ financial landscapes, putting into sharp relief the plight of players trying to earn a living on tennis’s minor leagues.

We start with a fairly ominous overview of the situation as it currently stands, courtesy of our friends at the GWH Von Helvete Mens Tennis Blog (scroll down to the Steep Decline of the Challengers subheading).  The article shows that — while total money on the ATP Tour has increased 21.44% from 1995 to 2013 — total money on the Challenger Tour has decreased by 30.27% in that same span.

“With little fanfare the ATP have increased the prizemoney of the lowest level Challengers from $35K+H (hospitality) to $40K+H. It’s good they have done this, but at best it’s tokenism. When over time the prizemoney on the Challenger tour has decreased significantly while expenses and costs have risen.”

Yeongwol Generosity

Yeongwol Generosity

A point is made about court surface homogenization leading to players breaking through at later ages, thus “the younger players are spending more time playing Challenger level.”  Not a very easy thing to do if a player is losing money every year, with costs increasing and Challenger purses dwindling.

Also, the blog echoes what I said here regarding an economical environment in which match-fixing becomes even more problematic:

“The lack of money at the lower level there are greater temptations to fix matches since the payments exceed the amount of prizemoney earned. It stands to reason raise the income at the lower level then the temptation is reduced.”

For corroboration of these numbers, check out Douglas Robson’s story for USA Today last year, which comes to similar conclusions (using something called the “Gini co-efficient”), even for players within the top 100:

“From 1990 to 2011, total ATP prize money went from $33.8 million to $80.1 million in 2011, a 137% increase. Over the same period, total Challenger prize money barely doubled to $10.2 million from $4.9 million and even has fallen from a high of $12.3 million in 2008.”

To get a personal glimpse into what this translates into for a player on tour, we need look no further than James McGee. In this article from this week’s Irish Daily Star, the Irish #1 — who reached a career-high of 220 in the world earlier this month — discusses his having to stay at shared rooms in hostels while on tour, because (in effect) there’s not enough prize money available at tournaments to support staying in the official tournament hotels without incurring a monetary loss.

If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend having a look at McGee’s more-detailed breakdown of his financial challenges. There, the Irish #1 shows how expenses can’t be met even if he wins a Futures event every week.

"Congrats on making the final, but you lost money this week!"

Per my own analysis, McGee would’ve had to make the second round of every Challenger event he played just to make ends meet. We’re talking about finishing the year having made no money at all — essentially an unpaid internship on the pro tour — for having won as much as you’ve lost.

Prize Money Receipt for 2nd Round of Challenger

Prize Money Receipt for 2nd Round of Challenger

As a point of comparison: the 220th-best earner on golf’s PGA Tour, Scott Jamieson, cleared over $130K in 2013, which he made playing only 3 events. Had James McGee made the finals of all 17 Challengers he entered this year, he still would’ve pulled in just $106,635. How’s that for rewarding (potential) success?

Furthermore, as Tom Perotta noted in his piece from the Wall Street Journal earlier this summer, the minimum salary for a Major League Baseball player this year was $490,000. And the minimum for players in the National Basketball Association is $474,000.  So who in their right mind is going to opt to play tennis, when the possible monetary rewards are so weighted against it?

In this article from Spazio Tennis last week, ATP #277 Simone Vagnozzi weighs in:

“If I have to point out, however, an element that I find really bad for those who do my job, apart from the case is not entirely uncommon in the hotel where the tournament proves to be a hovel, I must refer the obvious costs: simply absurd.” (Google translation from its original Italian)

As with McGee, Vagnozzi outlines an average year’s expenses (both with and without a coach) and comes to similar conclusions. Basically, a player needs to make 30-35,000 EUR just to break even. And if they can’t, then playing for a club can offer some semblance of fiscal salvation.

Simone Vagnozzi

Simone Vagnozzi

From Ireland to Italy (and I’m sure everywhere else) it remains the same: one has to have a phenomenal level of success (relative to other professions) to even break even as a tennis pro.

Since mine is a site which purports to celebrate the extraordinary athletes who compete through these extraordinary challenges, I find all of this to be quite alarming.  One wonders: if current trends hold, will Challenger and Futures players become a professionally endangered species?

And if that’s the case, from where will tennis pros of the future emerge, if not from the Futures?  At what tipping point of inequality, if any, will those who guide the game and determine its course off of the courts realize that this is current model is not sustainable and will ultimately endanger the product at every level?

The ATP has just elected a new president, Chris Kermode. As he was mostly a Futures-level player himself, there may be hope that he — along with the ATP’s player reps and governing councils — can steer the tour through factions and transactions to a place in which not just the very top players can earn a living.

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