New ATP chairman Gaudenzi: Tennis media rights ‘too fragmented’

Andrea Gaudenzi, the new chairman of the ATP tennis tour, has said the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the need for a more collective model in tennis, suggesting that tennis media rights are too “fragmented” and bemoaning the tendency for tournaments to act unilaterally.

The ATP has suspended all tournaments until at least June 7 and frozen its rankings because of the public health emergency. The Wimbledon grand slam in July has been cancelled while the French Tennis Federation has been criticised for failing to consult other tennis stakeholders in deciding to move the French Open from May to late September.

Gaudenzi told Ubitennis in his first interview since he replaced Chris Kermode in January: “What happened proved that tennis needs stronger regulations, so that the tournaments can co-exist, and not just scheduling-wise. Our main focus needs to be our fans.”

During a call with Italian journalists, he said: “The four Slams have different rules for fifth set play; media rights, data, and TV rights are all allocated separately; the Slams and some Master 1000 events are combined tournaments, but the fact remains that the game is very fragmented.”

Gaudenzi complained that tennis “takes up less than 1.2 per cent of the available airtime” on television, in spite of it having an estimated 1 billion fans globally.

He remarked: “Right now, you need three or four different subscriptions to watch tennis, the situation varies depending on the country, everything is fragmented. We can’t keep asking this of our customers, it goes against every commercial logic.

“Moreover, the data on the hundreds of millions of ticket-buying fans are scattered across national federations and tournaments, there is no central database for them, so we don’t know who our fans are. Even the big events will suffer from this situation in the future, even if they have more resources at their disposal […] There are some huge investments that need to be centralised.”

Broadcast rights to the ATP Tour are sold by the ATP Media arm, which distributes the worldwide broadcast rights in conjunction with the IMG agency. In 2018, revenues at ATP Media rose by 6.7 per cent to $121m (€111m). Rights to the third-tier ATP 250 events have also become increasingly centralised in recent years.

The new chairman said the ATP was working on around “50 different permutations” to restart the tennis season once lockdown restrictions are eased, but decisions have been complicated by the limited availability of venues. For example, the London O2 Arena, home of the ATP Finals, is only available in the tournament’s existing slot from November 15 November 22.

He said the ATP Player Council and the three leading players, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, agree that the priority should be to try to host the most prestigious events and schedule as many tournaments as possible to protect prize money and ranking points. The ATP is also cooperating with the Women’s Tennis Association to try to avoid scheduling clashes.

Gaudenzi noted: “We have the ATP Finals in November, but my wish is that the players in London will have had the chance to prove that they are the best across three Slams and seven Master 1000 events, and that we will be able to crown the world’s best player as we usually do…

“We are working on the possibility of a four-weeks clay swing after the US Open. The best-case scenario would be to have the North American swing during the summer, then the clay, then Asia, and then the ATP Finals. If that were to happen, it would mean that we saved 80 per cent of the season after cancelling the grass tournaments. With seven Masters 1000s and three Slams taking place, there wouldn’t be much room for complaints.”

Gaudenzi said he thought tennis was more vulnerable to the pandemic than domestic football leagues, because its travelling model would make it difficult to schedule matches behind closed doors.

He said: “Even if tournaments were to take place behind closed doors, we are still talking about 2,000-3,000 people moving from one place to another, and that would make it difficult to guarantee safety for everybody.

“We don’t want to become a regional sport, because that would mean taking a step back, and that would also create a ranking problem, since the best players would be competing in different leagues instead of against each other. However, it is certainly an option, even if it’s not our preferred choice.”

Gaudenzi added that ATP will prioritise financial support for players with compromised rankings between 250 and 500 rather than higher ranked players who are less likely to need it.

Looking further forward, the new chairman played down the hope that the ATP and International Tennis Federation could agree to combine the ATP Cup and Davis Cup into a single team event. In February, ITF president David Haggarty said plans for merging the two events could be in place by June.

He said: “I’m definitely not against sitting down with Tennis Australia and with the ITF to discuss the creation of a unified event, and that would probably be the best solution. However, I’m not sure we’d be able to achieve that, because the deals are slated to run for many years.”

The Italian, a former professional player, has endured a turbulent start to his tenure, beginning with the Australian bushfires ahead of the Australian Open Grand Slam, and continuing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

He remained hopeful that the sport could return in the late summer or autumn, but revenues would inevitably be damaged the longer there are no events.

He stressed: “If we can sit tight and have the chance to host the [ATP] Finals, that’s good, we’ll survive. Would we survive for two or three years? Definitely not.”