participation fee

The Not So Glamorous Life

This week, the best eight singles players in the world have converged on London for the ATP World Tour Finals. When they’re not playing tennis, these guys stay in the nicest hotels, eat at the best restaurants, and chat with celebrities. They’ve earned it. It takes a great deal of hard work to make it to the top. In addition to the many millions each of these eight guys takes home from endorsement deals, they win a lot in prize money. This week alone, each of the eight players will receive a $95,000 participation fee plus $120,000 for each round robin win. The players progressing to the semifinals and the final match will add even more substantial amounts to this week’s pay check. As neither Rafa nor Roger has lost a match yet, they are also still in the running for the giant undefeated bonus, assuming one of them manages to win the whole event without losing a match. Not bad for a week’s worth of work, considering a player could win absolutely nothing and still go home with nearly $100,000.

As much as I would have loved to be in London this week, it just wasn’t in the cards. However, last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a challenger level ATP tournament in Champaign, Illinois. I don’t think you could find a tournament much farther from the glamour of the World Tour Finals. Previously, the smallest tournaments I had attended were ATP 250 events in Estoril and Newport. The difference was striking. These players weren’t famous. No one was stopping them for autographs or photos. They didn’t bring an entourage. They hung out to watch other matches and chat with friends. They drove their own cars. The crowd almost never exceeded 50 people and tickets only cost a few dollars. Not to mention the tournament was played in a college gym, albeit a very nice one. There wasn’t even a concession stand. As I found out at the check presentation, the players even spent the week staying with host families to save the expense of a hotel. Remember, these are professional athletes, not high school exchange students.

Before you misunderstand me, I realize that these tiny challenger tournaments are necessary for players to gain points and make their way to larger events. I honestly applaud these guys for their hard work. You really have to love playing tennis to spend a week staying with a stranger on the off chance you may win 75 points and $7,000. One of the doubles finalists actually planned on leaving directly after his match to drive fourteen hours in an effort to make his flight home. This made me feel a little better about my own three hour drive.

Anyway, this dichotomy between the top of the top and the average pro got me thinking. Tennis is an expensive sport. Unlike a baseball or football or basketball, there’s no contract, no team to pay for flights, hotels, and food. Most players don’t make tons of money in endorsements so the majority of their income depends on whether they win. There are tournaments almost every week of the year in countries all over the world. So, with travel and other expenses, how many tennis players really make the kind of money we associate with professional athletes?

Clearly I don’t have the data on endorsement money for every player in the ATP or how much they spend on travel each year, so we’ll have to speculate on that. What I do have is rankings data and prize money data. I ran through all kinds of numbers and statistics and came up with the following table. All of these numbers are based on rankings and prize money data from the week of November 22nd.

Year to Date Singles Per Tournament
Top 10 $3,183,927.70 $3,138,576.80 $153,010.41
Top 20 $2,197,778.90 $2,119,418.40 $101,402.16
Top 100 $800,184.21 $743,088.26 $34,224.64
20-100 $456,841.83 $399,005.73 $17,430.26
100-200 $127,097.53 $111,024.79 $3,794.92
200-300 $51,469.07 $43,817.25 $2,328.23

Life is pretty good if you’re in the Top 10. This data doesn’t even include the money the Top 8 players will make this week in London or the ridiculous amounts they are paid to endorse brands like Nike, Lacoste, Wilson, Head, Rolex, Gillette, Mercedes, Kia, and many many other companies. Things are still pretty good if you’re in the Top 100. It’s likely that even after taxes, travel, and management/coaches take a cut, Top 100 players are living quite comfortably. After that, things get dicey. Outside the Top 100, players are rarely guaranteed direct acceptance and are often unsure whether they will even be able to play in the main draw of the tournaments they travel to. For players ranked between 100 and 200, the average prize money this year was $127,097.53. For the average person this would be a pretty good salary, but the average person doesn’t have the expenses of a tennis player.

So, what do we do with this information? Nothing. The tennis life is what it is. Players bounce around the rankings, they get injured, they have breakthroughs, and they win and lose endorsement deals, all of which affect their bottom line. I mostly wanted to share some of my experiences from Champaign and debunk the myth that all professional athletes lead crazy lavish lifestyles. I’d wager that the lower ranked players aren’t so different from you and me.