Professional Tennis –  A Missed Opportunity

by Patrick Coony (



Professional tennis as it is presently structured has failed to deliver on fabulous financial opportunities.   Due to the global popularity of tennis, it has the potential to be the second only to football (soccer) in global ticket and television revenue.  But at present it comes nowhere close to that goal. 


Here are two examples of the problem:




Both of the problems I mention have a common cause – the fact that tennis is entirely marketed by the tournament structure.   There are additional problems as well.  The full group of top players does not enter each tournament.  Tournaments feature lopsided match-ups in the early rounds which diminish fan attendance and television viewers.   At least in the United States, there is no interest in tennis for the casual sports fan outside of the grand slams.  Millions regularly watch ESPN’s sports center but almost never see tennis highlights.  The regional and disjointed marketing of tennis seriously reduces the potential visibility of the sport.


There is a solution.


Scrap all tournaments except the grand slams and perhaps a select group of others.   Assemble the top 16 men players, the top 16 women players, the top 16 men’s doubles teams and the top 16 women’s doubles teams into four leagues for each group.  I picked the number 16 as an example – it could be more or less.   Establish huge amounts of prize money (especially in the singles categories) for each position the player or team might achieve in the league standings.  Obviously an end of season playoff structure should also be established.  Schedule these league matches throughout the calendar year in every major city of the world.  So a typical tennis event would include four sets of tennis, one in each of the category.  Or it could be two sets, pro sets or even a match for the singles.  A variety of formats are possible but the critical element is that each competition be regarded by all concerned as important and meaningful.  The singles matches could be heavily promoted and televised throughout the world.  The worst match-up would be between the top player and the 16th ranked player in the world. 


Although the venues for tennis would be increased under this kind of structure, the travel burden on the professionals could conceivably be reduced.   The players would not have to stay a week at each location and the schedules could be geographically tailored so that the one or both participants would be playing in their home country.  The increased revenues and interest would be so substantial that the players would quickly see the benefits of the new format.   


To make this kind of change feasible, the financial interests that are involved in the various tournaments that presently are involved with the global tennis calendar could be given a big financial stake in the new alignment and their venues could be used for a substantial number of the events.  Television contracts which would be sure to welcome and accompany this change in format would become a huge source of the new revenue.  A tournament calendar would remain for all the players who do not qualify for the elite “league” groups that I have described.  Every year, perhaps even at mid-season as well, the top players in such tournaments would replace those at the bottom of the “leagues”.  These tournaments would also be the basis of providing substitutes if a league player becomes injured.


The relegation of professional tennis to a tournament structure did not have to happen.  It dates from the aftermath of the 1969 transition to open tennis.   Prior to 1969, there were only a small number of professional tennis players.  Most of the year, they toured the world playing in head to head exhibitions although there were a select number of professional tournaments, notably the U.S. Pro, which were played with a very limited draw.  There was no professional women’s circuit.  The problem with exhibitions in any sport is that no one regards them as meaningful competitions.  Any event has to “count” in order to attract real fan interest.  That is why today’s version of professional tennis really started when the open era began. 


With the advent of the open era, various interests competed to formulate the new professional calendar.  The World Championship Tennis and ATP tours competed for men’s tennis fans.  Both were based on a tournament structure and the two entities eventually merged.   But an emerging talent, Jimmy Connor, rejected this structure and played some televised match-ups in Las Vegas against Rod Laver and then John Newcombe among others.  These generated considerable television interest because they were fraudulently promoted as “winner take all”.  He also joined most of the top women players in participating in World Team Tennis.  World Team Tennis, the one true alternative to the tournament format for professional tennis that emerged, ultimately was not successful not because it deviated from the tournament format but because it promoted a team concept for what is truly an individual (or two individual in the case of doubles) sport.  Also by playing only in select cities in the United States, it could not reach a full potential market. 


One event which occurred during the infancy of the open era gave tennis a huge shot in the arm – the historic match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome.  This one heavily promoted match substantially increased the number of recreational tennis players in the country, creating a “tennis boom” that lasted about a decade.  Many young players who took up the sport in that era are still playing tennis even though they are over 60.  Unfortunately, no event since that time has inspired potential young players to take up the sport.  Throughout the country, the municipal tennis courts are populated mainly by older players.


The popularity of the Astrodome event and the Las Vegas Connors events reveals that tennis perhaps compares in some ways to boxing in that fan attention is focused on head to head match-ups.  Fans become interested in who can claim the throne as the best in the world.   A highly anticipated boxing match is promoted for weeks and generates huge television on demand revenues.   In contrast a premier head to head tennis match-up is revealed to fans only a day or so prior to its occurrence.  There is no opportunity for the kind of promotion that would substantially increase fan interest and such matches have very limited television exposure.


There are obvious comparisons between the marketing and spectator appeal of tennis and golf.  Both sports feature four annual grand slam events and two of these (the Masters and U.S. Open in golf, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in tennis) have enough prestige to generate widespread fan and media interest, thus reaching the casual sports fan.  The rest of the events in both sports are primarily of interest to fans who actually play these sports.  Both sports have an origin as diversions of the wealthy and today the affluent classes remain disproportionately a high percentage of the players and persons who attend tournaments.  There are some distinct differences though.  Golf pretty much has to use a tournament format to market professional events.  The final round of a golf event features a multitude of players, not just two as in tennis.   For the recreational player, golf is far more expensive.  Tennis also has a huge advantage over every sport except soccer in its potential global fan appeal.  Elite tennis players have emerged from virtually every corner of the world.


To summarize, a promoted “league” format for marketing high level professional tennis offers the following benefits:


·        The marketing of tennis will not be constrained by the calendar.  Professional tennis can be exhibited in all major cities of the world where there are potential ticket buyers.


·        No more lousy early round match-ups. 


·        Match-ups are known far in advance, allowing for the kind of promotion that can generate huge fan interest and television ratings.


·        With constant media attention paid to the “league” standings and match-ups, fan interest will potentially expand well beyond the niche groups that primarily follow the sport at present.  The sport will become far more popular with the casual sports fan. 


·        Although the league format will allow tennis to be exhibited in many more locations, the travel demands on the players could be less as they would not be required to spend an entire week at a location.   They will have the opportunity to spend more time at home. 


·        By limiting the match-ups to a set, a pro set, or two sets, the structure will avoid the unpredictable timing that currently complicates the televising of live tennis.


A note about me.  I am a 70 year old life-long recreational tennis player.   In advocating the changes that I have described, I have no financial interest whatsoever.  I simply would like to see the sport I love achieve the popularity that it deserves.   I would like to see our public tennis courts again filled day and night with recreational players.   I would love to see our best young athletes consider tennis as a sport to specialize in.  These changes can only happen if the sport as it is played by the very best players receives far more exposure than it presently gets.