The ATP Inequality Issue

Rafael Nadal’s has been one of the most successful. The distribution of wealth across the top of the men’s professional game has once again been highlighted by a study in USA Today, with the disparity between those at the very top higher than it has ever been.

The study, which includes the grand slam events, has shown that the last three years produced the largest gap since the creation of the tour in 1990. The incredible performance of the top 3 players over the past 5 years has meant they have been by far the biggest earners since the inception of the tour.

During that period they have averaged between a fifth and a quarter of the annual prize money between them. The only other time three players together earned more than 20% was when Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer achieved the feat in 2006.

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A quick look at the stats of the events with the biggest prize funds shows exactly how they’ve achieved this. Only one of the last 12 majors was won by another player (Del Potro’s 2009 US Open victory) while they have combined to win 18 of the last 28 Masters 1000 tournaments.

When you include Andy Murray’s regular appearances in the latter rounds of slams and the Masters 1000 victories he has the gap between the top guys and the rest widens further. Two other important factors are making it tough for the lower ranked guys.

Firstly, the Challenger Tour has failed to grow at anything like the pace of the main ATP Tour. These events are the main income source for the guys outside the top 50 and the lack of substantial prize money for competitors is having an impact on their annual earnings. Secondly, the weighting of prize money distribution at the big events tends to heavily favor the latter rounds.

One event that has come under particular scrutiny Indian Wells, where the winner earns double what the runner-up does. This amounts to almost $500,000 so it’s not small change we are talking about.

The difference between going out in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals of the men’s singles draw is close to $60,000. Money has been high on the agenda for most of the year, starting with the uproar at the Australian Open about the distribution of revenues to the prize fund.

Normal tour events typically put up around 30% of revenue as the pot, but the grand slam tournaments contribute about 12%. At one point there was talk of a player strike taking place, a notion which has not entirely disappeared.

Andy Roddick has described the current situation as a ‘civil war’ within the game and has called for players and officials to put the good of the game ahead of personal interests. It could be argued that the top players are the ones who generate the most income for tournaments and they are more than entitled to the lion’s share of the profit.

Conversely, without the lower ranked guys, we wouldn’t have tournaments at all so they deserve the chance to make a decent living from the sport. The biggest issue, in my opinion, is the disproportionate distribution of prize money to the later rounds.

Chances are the top-ranked players who will reach this stage will already be receiving a substantial appearance fee from the organizers, so filtering some of the money down to the earlier rounds would have less of an impact. It’s a complex and emotive issue, so hopefully, they will reach an agreement to avoid any kind of player strike in the future.

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