This post is not intended to go into the details of the match-fixing scandal covered by the BBC and Buzzfeed, but as soon as I heard the news (from at least 10 people), I started to think really hard about why this is happening in tennis. Today, betting is prevalent in every sport today at every level of play, yet this is beyond just gambling. It’s about players taking bribes and tanking matches, harming the integrity of the sport. I’d like to provide My Side of the Net as to why I think certain players are more inclined to take bribes than others through an economic analysis of the sport.
There aren’t many sports where as much income inequality between a top player and the 300th best player in a league exists. In Major League Baseball, teams are allowed up to 40 players on their rosters and there are 30 teams, meaning there can be approximately 1200 players in the league at a given time. In 2014, there were 853 players (750 active 25-man roster players and 103 disabled or restricted Major League players) as of March 30th set to receive the minimum salary, which has risen from $300,000 to $507,500 over the past 12 years. There are collective bargaining agreements that provide for a daily meal stipend of up to 100 dollars for active players on the road and that have faught to increase the minimum salary every year, even for minor league players.
I’m not picking on baseball. In fact, I’m using it as model for the ATP, to show why and how tennis needs to protect its players. Bloomberg has put together some great articles over the years about the economics of being a player on tour. There are articles profiling guys like Michael Russell and Noah Rubin that show how hard it is to earn a living on the tour. The truth is, most players on the pro tour fall into the “journeymen” category rather than the stallwart group we are used to hearing about in the media, and these are the players that the top players need to fight for and that are often the targets for match fixing.
This diagram below is one of my favorite graphics I’ve come across, stacking up Michael Russell’s earnings next to those of each year’s world number one player.
For those who don’t know who Michael Russell is, he is one of the few American players in the past 15 years or so to make it to the 2nd week of the French Open, holding match points against the 2001 champion Gustavo Kuerten before succoming to defeat. He spent 17 years on tour floating around the top 200. He’s your teams utility man: sturdy, reliable, and works hard. He does it not for the money. He continues because he loves the game. As you can see from this graphic, there are no minumum salary requirements and there are no guarantees. If a player gets injured, no prize money comes in. On top of that, players pay for travel, which can cost more than $75,000 a year. They need a coach, a physical trainer, and more. And for those who have sponsors at the lower tiers of the sport, the money they make may only account for a fraction of their expenses. A bribe to tank one match may be more than they will see in prize money that entire year.
I know there hasn’t been much concrete evidence or names named in the report, but to me that’s not important. This is a systemic issue of inequality that the ATP and other governing bodies can get ahead of by doing more for their players. Instead of the top players distancing themelves from this issue, they need to be proactive. They need to look at the numbers at the challenger and futures level and remember what their careers were like before they were chauferred to tournaments in a sponsor van. And like the BBC article said, Tennis needs a governing body with teeth that can nip corruption in the butt and provent further damage to the image of the sport.