The new-look ATP Challenger Tour, announced Monday and due to come into existence in 2019, promises the following, in the following order.
1) It will “further professionalize the sport”;
2) It will “unlock significant investment and growth in prize money at the lower level of men’s tennis; and
3) it will lead to a “greatly enhanced player pathway”.
Those are ambitious goals and lofty adjectives, arrived at after what the ATP calls an extensive strategic review.
The first, most noticeable change is that the singles draws at Challengers will jump to 48 from their current 32. The ATP says that will mean about 2,400 more job opportunities per year (16 spots x 150 Challengers).
Already, many of the Challengers have added hospitality (i.e. hotel accommodations) for main-draw players to their prize money. In fact, the lowest level ($43K Euros), it’s mandatory. But now, that will be across the board, and available to a larger number of players at each event because of the larger draws.
There will still be qualifying, but it will be like the doubles qualifying is now: four players, two spots.
Doubles, with 16-team draws, will stay the same.
The weekend qualifying will be history (there no longer being a need for it). Tournaments will run Monday to Sunday.
Everyone gets a cheque
The way the circuit is currently constituted, there is no prize money in the qualifying (although players obviously get at least first-round main draw money if they win three matches).
With all 48 players now earning, that will be roughly equivalent to starting the prize money with the second round of the current qualifying (in a three-round format), since an extra 16 players will take home something.
The press release estimates that will add up to an additional $1 million in prize money per year. (We’ll note that this is not much, but it’s something).
Changes in the brand – going numeric
The Challengers, which all basically fall under the same umbrella regardless of whether the prize money is $50,000 or $150,000, now will be rebranded the same way the ATP Tour’s 250, 500 and 1000 events are.
They will be Challenger 70, 80, 95, 110 and 125. The Tour believes this will “facilitate communication and marketing opportunities.”
At the moment, the Challenger prize-money levels are: €43K/$50K (80 points), €64K/$75K (80 or 90 points), €85K/$100K (90 points), €106K/$125K (100 points) and €127K/$150K (125 points).
The ATP promises to upgrade the facilities for the players: better access to physios, more practice courts, better treatment facilities.
It also says that it intends to stream all singles main-draw matches. That mostly happens now, with the main court at just about every Challenger streamed, and often the second court as well.
For example, the €43,000 (plus hospitality) tournament in Tampere, Finland this week is streaming three courts.
There is no mention of whether this service, currently free of charge and very handy, will remain free or if that’s one way the ATP hopes to help monetize the changes. Let’s hope not.
“These are significant changes that will lead to a real enhancement of the ATP Challenger Tour, particularly as we seek to provide more earning opportunities for players at the entry level into men’s professional tennis,” was the statement from ATP president Chris Kermode.
“A big priority for us is to ensure we have a healthy player pathway and that we improve the viability of a career in men’s professional tennis. These changes represent an important step in the right direction for our sport.”
By 2020, more changes
The changes sort of dovetail with the earlier announced revamp at the ITF Futures level.
By 2020, there will no longer be ATP Tour points available below the Challenger level, a move the ATP says is aimed at “improving the player pathway up and down the tennis ecosystem, while positioning the ATP Challenger Tour as the first stage of professional tennis.”
It should also be noted that while the new format indicates all players in the singles draws will get prize money, it doesn’t indicate that all of them will earn ranking points.
Also left unconfirmed is whether all of the current Challengers will go along with the upgraded requirements – all of which cost money at a tournament level where, except in certain parts of the world, attendance can be fairly sparse and margins very thin.
Can the Challengers afford it?
The need to add practice courts, medical staff, the increased hotel room costs and the other incidental fixed costs all will add to the financial burden of these events. If the ATP doesn’t step in and chip in, it’s entirely possible some of them will cease to exist. Many are played at small clubs that can’t necessarily handle a 48-player singles draw with a Monday start.
That’s tough enough to do that at the ATP level; at outdoor events, it pretty much requires perfect weather. And some of the tournaments already are stretched, because they host both women’s and men’s events the same week.
This year, with 149 events on the schedule, the total prize money adds up to about $12.3 million.
So the estimated increase of $1 million (which the ATP bases on “the same number of events taking place as today”) is only about eight percent of the current total.
The $162,480 offered by the “highest-level Challengers” in 2019 will be a 10 per cent increase over the current €127K/$150K level.
There are currently 11 tournaments at that level. Six of them are in Asia. Four of them – three new this year, part of the Oracle Series in Newport Beach, Indian Wells and this September in Chicago. The final one in Monterrey, Mexico. So none of those top-level Challengers are currently held in Europe or South America.