COMMENTARY | On Monday, Tennis.com's Peter Bodo half-complained about the dearth of quality, high-profile tournaments between the Australian Open and Indian Wells, dubbing February the "who cares?" month of tennis. While Bodo makes the point that the scatter-shot smaller tournaments dotting the calendar in the wake of Melbourne provide a crucial opportunity for struggling players to improve their rankings, his frustration with the quality of offerings points to a larger problem plaguing tennis: The lack of coherency in scheduling by both the ATP and WTA hurts tennis' public profile, and, importantly, its television exposure.
As the most international of the major American sports -- and whether tennis is a "major" American sport is certainly up for debate -- tennis' TV exposure is naturally fraught with the problem of playing so many tournaments in foreign time zones that force American fans to tune in at odd times in the middle of the night, if live TV coverage exists at all. But compounding the exposure problem is the ubiquity of smaller tournaments that render following tennis between the Masters and major tourneys difficult for all but the most ardent fans who are willing to follow scores on the Internet.
How is tennis to grow its fan base with so many tournaments scheduling one or two stars battling largely anonymous players across the globe with little or no live TV coverage?
To the WTA's credit, it tried to mend its convoluted schedule in 2009 by instituting sweeping changes that mandated top players attend four premier events designed to complement the four grand slams and consequently raise the public profile of women's tennis. While these reforms are certainly an improvement, the revamped schedule still only guarantees eight tournaments a year featuring the best players. To highlight the lingering problem, the WTA schedule runs from Jan. 14 to March 6 without a mandatory event for its best players.
The ATP schedule roughly mirrors the WTA's in that there is a substantial gap in meaningful tennis between Melbourne and Indian Wells, the next big-time tournament. Both tours allow players to drift from tournament to tournament for too long, creating the sort of competitive wasteland of competition Bodo addresses.
The solution to tennis' scheduling problem is to merge the women and men into more meaningful tournaments, more often. A good first step would be to ensure both tours compete in the same Masters/Premier events, and to place a meaningful tournament into the mid-February morass. Putting both tours in the same place more often with higher stakes not only provides coherency to the sport, but it also provides broadcasters with profitable broadcast opportunities. With an increase in television coverage comes the attendant rights fees to both associations, an increase in consistent exposure in America, and the attendant spike in relevance.
The notion of an ATP/WTA merger has gained steam for years, but players' unions and TV contracts have held up the chance of a truly streamlined tennis tour becoming a reality. With so many stakeholders on both sides, it seems unlikely that a grand bargain will materialize in the near future. This economic climate leaves one desirable -- and feasible -- option left on the table: to merge the two tours as often as possible.
And the American appetite for big-time tennis is palpable in TV ratings; 17.7 million tuned in to watch the Serena Williams/Victoria Azarenka final at the 2012 U.S. Open. Likewise, ESPN's coverage of the Andy Murray-Roger Federer Wimbledon final scored a record 3,925,000 eyeballs.
The ATP and WTA must find a way to draw these kinds of audiences more consistently if growth is to be realized, especially in America, which is bereft of home-grown male stars.
Evidence of the infighting surrounding tournament growth, and, by extension, a tour merger, can be seen in the ATP board of directors' recent vote to not allow the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells to increase its prize purse by $1.6 million ostensibly to protect international tournaments wary of the growth of American influence. Andy Roddick, who seems like a slam-dunk choice for ESPN's tennis coverage, was flabbergasted by the vote.
"I do understand that when someone gives you a (expletive) of money, you take that money," Roddick said. "Someone like Larry Ellison wants to invest in his event and make it the biggest possible, and he gets stopped by the ATP. If you're a start-up, what would make you want to navigate through that and to go through that firing line? How can you step into tennis with any confidence? It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of."
Prize purses are a festering point of contention between the players union and ATP/WTA; it took the threat of boycotting the 2013 Australian Open for the players to win a prize increase that aids players who struggle to foot travel bills and/or lose in the first two rounds. Add to this the high-profile complaints of many top players about playing too many tournaments, and one can see the rift between the players and powers that be will probably stifle reform, however good it may be for tennis.
For tennis to become more relevant, creating more high-profile tournaments like Indian Wells is in order. Broadcasters are hungry for live, DVR-proof programming in the age of on-demand binge TV watching. Keeping the men and women together in higher-profile events as much as possible makes a lot of sense, unless you can't wait to read the live score updates for Sao Paulo this afternoon.
Chris Patch is a blogger former beat writer for the Kansas State women's tennis team at the Kansas State Collegian.
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