Vasek Pospisil, elected to the ATP Player Council for the first time at Wimbledon, is determined to make a difference.
And the 28-year-old Canadian has a clear idea of what he wants to focus on, as the new council meets for the first time at the US Open.
The first priority would be to restructure the council so that the players themselves have more significant influence on the decisions that affect them.
And the second, which flows from the first, is to work to get the players a more equitable slice of the revenue pie.
It all began nearly a year ago, at the mandatory player meeting at the US Open.
The hot topic, then as now, was prize money.
“Just watching their presentation to the players. Every time you sit through one, you can kind of see how they bend the numbers and they don’t give you any real information. They just kind of try to keep the herd moving, not asking any questions,” Pospisil told Tennis.Life in an extensive interview from his hometown of Vancouver, where he is the top seed at the $100,000 men’s ATP Challenger event.
“At one point I was just tired of the misinformation, and of them playing the political game and trying to keep us completely uninformed. I was agitated at how I felt they underestimated completely – almost mockingly – the intelligence of the tennis players. … Just the fact that this issue has been discussed for so long, and we haven’t really made any significant strides.” he added.
Pospisil said after nearly a decade on Tour, he realized he still was basically in the dark about some of the biggest issues affecting his livelihood. From that came the impetus to get involved not only to become more educated personally, but because he felt he could make a difference for his fellow players.
What he believes is that the players aren’t getting their fair share.
It’s not about the bottom line, which is significant by any measure.
To Pospisil, it’s about what the players receive relative to how much revenue is generated by their work. And he’s willing to devote considerable time and energy towards getting the players what he feels they deserve.
From Challenger, to ATP events, to Slams
“I feel I can do a really good job in representing all of the players because even in recent years, I’ve been at every level. I’ve been a top doubles player. I’ve been a top-30 singles player. Even now I’ve been playing Challengers, ATPs, Slams, I’ve been playing everything the last couple of years. I’ve been in touch with all levels of the sport, and doubles,” Pospisil said.
“You need somebody who’s determined to effect change. Obviously there’s a learning curve I’ll have to go through, but I’m confident that I’ll adapt quickly. I really want to make changes. Tennis careers are short. And there’s nothing I dislike more than when people are taken advantage of – especially if I’m one of them. Fairness is a very important thing to me, a principle I live by. We as players are getting taken advantage of.”
A force for change
As his term begins at the upcoming US Open, Pospisil has clear objectives he wants to work towards
*Work on restructuring the Player Council and the voting process so that the players have more of a say in the issues that concern them.
*Work on getting the players a fair share of the revenues – particularly from the ever expanding and ever more lucrative Grand Slams. Not a nice, tidy and very PR-friendly increase every year, but a legitimate share of those annually-increasing revenues that better reflects the importance of the players’ efforts in making those events the financial windfalls they are.
*Effort to create a more cooperative atmosphere with the ITF so that both sides can work towards a new Davis Cup that will work for everyone – notably the top players, whose participation is crucial.
*Work to streamline the council procedures so that various players will focus on the agenda items that most affect them and bring that information back to meetings, rather than everyone on the council opining and trying to tackle the various minutiae. That way, the players’ scarce free time is more efficiently utilized.
*Work to ensure that the new generation is more educated, and informed than he has been through his first 10 years. “The players have no idea. They only hear about the injustices. But they don’t now why, or from where. They need to be informed, and then the tournaments will have a little more pressure,” he said.
Pospisil, presidential material?
Freshly minted as a rookie member on the Player Council, Pospisil hadn’t entertained the notion of running for president.
The vote for both president and vice-president will take place at the US Open in a few weeks.
But when asked by Tennis.Life if it was an idea that intrigued him, Pospisil gave it some thought.
“Honestly, It’s not something I am expecting but it would be an honor If I were to get elected by my fellow council members. I would embrace the position and accept it with enthusiasm,” he said. “These are exciting times for tennis and I would be fully committed to making real positive changes. I’m confident that if I were to be put in such a position that I would learn and adapt quickly and would dedicate time and effort to come up with unique strategies and ideas to benefit the players of the ATP Tour.
“Most importantly, I would never deviate from the core principles that I live by, and would always do what I believe is best for the players and our Tour – even when uncomfortable or difficult decisions would need to be made,” he added.
There are significant issues at the forefront of the men’s game right now.
Here are some of them, and Pospisil’s take on them.
A fair share of the revenue pie
At best, at the Grand Slams, some seven percent of the revenues are flowing back to the male players. At Wimbledon, it might be even less than that.
Just as a basic comparison, the players in the National Hockey League get 50 per cent of team revenues.
“We’re not really getting much of a prize money increase, compared to how much more these Grand Slam events are making. I just kind of got sick and tired of it. … My career is short – everyone’s career is short – and I felt like I had to take matters into my own hands,” he said. “Not that the council has done a bad job. Not at all; they’ve been fighting vey hard. But in my opinion there are better ways, more powerful ways to go about it.”
The common response from the majors when talking about sharing the wealth is that they put those revenues back into the game to grow it, which benefits everyone.
The historical foundation on which tennis federations were built is that of an amateur game with modest revenues.
Still today, most federations remain nominally non-profit, despite the hundreds of millions they generate every year. And those national federations run all four Grand Slam events.
“That’s all great. But we have a business to run, too. So where do we get the money to invest in our business? We’re both the employees and the product at these events, if you really look at it. They’re just the management,” Pospisil said.
“We’ve worked our whole lives to create this product – which is us, playing at a high level, that we then give to these events. And they’re exploiting it, taking advantage of it. Giving back seven per cent is an absolute joke because without the players, what are these events? Tennis is really booming now. It’s great that it’s doing so well. But our paycheque is essentially the same.”
The quest for leverage
Pospisil is not the first player to point out that the way the current Player Council structure makes it almost impossible to effect change – and certainly not in short order.
Novak Djokovic, who has been president the last three years and was just re-elected for another term, alluded to the same challenges during a press conference last week at the Rogers Cup.
“The way the system works is that if there are any hot topics or major issues, and the (ATP Board) vote comes in at 3-3 (three board members represent the players, and three represent the tournaments and other interested parties), the CEO has to come in and cast the deciding vote. And he has to to be careful, or he could lose his job by upsetting the opposing side,” Pospisil said.
“We need to have a say in being able to make any changes. It takes way too much energy to change the smallest thing. And the tournaments are never going to really be on the players’ side on anything substantial or significant,” he said. “It’s a business, though. I understand that. Why would you want to be less profitable, just for the sake of being less profitable?”
For all practical purposes, the current council structure essentially means the status quo can be maintained on the tournament side.
And the disconnect between the ATP Tour and the International Tennis Federation, which oversees the Grand Slams, means there’s no effective way to advocate with them to be more equitable.
Worse, the ATP players struggle to arm themselves with the necessary information – the straight scoop on revenues– to find out precisely how vast the inequities are.
Armed with that data, better knowing the value they bring to the tournaments, the players could be more proactive and be less at a disadvantage.
The leverage they do have and are not currently taking advantage of is that without them – as a collective – there are no tournaments.
“They would lose so much money on the event and the optics and consequences of that would do the sport is terrible,” Pospisil said. “So they’re not going to let that happen. They’ll at least come to some sort of a compromise.”
The optics of prize money – a PR battle
Year after year, the Grand Slams battle for prize-money supremacy amongst themselves. And they do it in a very clever way, emphasizing the increase over the previous year’s purse (a vastly different calculation than an increase proportional to the tournaments’ ever-increasing revenues).
Any overtures the players make about getting more, in that context, typically are greeted with disdain by fans who earn a fraction of what a top player earns – but whose work-related expenses also are a fraction of what the players invest in their careers.
But most of the players on the ATP Tour don’t earn what those select few at the top bring home.
“It’s amazing how easily you can twist something in a way that’s to your advantage. It makes it difficult for us to make a case, because all anyone ever remembers is ‘Oh my goodness, the winner gets this much for winning ($3.8 million at the US Open this year), and they’re asking for more money? Look at these spoiled tennis players,’ ” Pospisil said.
“But in reality, half the people in the draw lose in the first round. And these are half of the best 100 in the world at their job. They get $50,000, which seems like a great cheque for one week, when you look at it. It would be amazing if every week you made $50,000. But that’s only four tournaments a year, we have a full team to pay for all year,” he added.
Pospisil, who doesn’t come from a posh background, realizes that’s a tough sell. But he said there’s another way to look at it.
“If you’re one of, say, the top 100 lawyers in the world, would you think that’s fair pay? And this isn’t your average job; you’re a professional tennis player in an industry that is making billions of dollars,” he said. “When you put that into perspective a little bit, you hope the fans can at least appreciate that given the level of success it requires, the amount of work, the money invested, the number of years it takes, everything that goes into make it at that level – even without knowing about all the expenses – that we’re underpaid.”
Get your share, and then share the wealth
Pospisil understands that the membership he will be representing runs the gamut from the Federers and Djokovics, to the players jumping back and forth from the Challengers to the ATP Tour who are barely eking out a living.
But he feels that if the players’ pot grows as it should, there will be more than enough to keep the top players happy – with plenty left over to ensure that more players can make a decent living.
Those Slam revenue numbers are out there. The players see them. And they’re feeling a little hard done by at the moment. But if the players can get a fairer share, Pospisil feels as though the trickle-down effect will be organic.
“Once we get the number we deserve, then we can put our energy towards redistributing it the right way. And we should have at least a large say on how this money is distributed. … Okay, maybe it’s a little too top heavy, so maybe we have to be smarter. Give to the Challengers. Because we need to support the whole system, where the next generations will come from, and not just the very top.
“It will be so much easier to then make the whole sport thrive, so that people can actually make a decent living. Because there’ s no way, in a business that’s making so much money – hundreds of millions at every Slam event, so much money going around – that you should be 150 in the world at something that’s so difficult to do and barely getting by. That’s ridiculous.”
The Davis Cup tug of war
Beyond the revenue distribution and council restructuring, Pospisil has an eye on the proposed changes to Davis Cup.
And as a player who has steadfastly represented his country – sometimes bringing a tie home to Canada singlehandedly – his fondness for the event is balanced with an awareness that it needs to change.
But the way the ITF has gone about it, Pospisil says, has not been good for anyone.
“We need to work together. Everybody seems to have a different agenda, a different angle on this. There’s no doubt that Davis Cup needs to be reformed. There’s no argument there. But while there are so many things that need to be changed, there are a lot of things that are really good about it,” Pospisil said.
“The Player Council, the ATP were more than happy to work with the ITF and come up with something that would benefit everyone. The way it’s done now, that’s just not possible,” he said. “They are also proposing it to be at the end of the year after the Masters. And the year is too long as it is. What we need from Davis Cup is to have the big players playing, and making the year longer isn’t going to help that.”
Pospisil said it feels as though the ITF just sort of threw the Davis Cup revamp plan together, after word leaked out about a potential rival in the proposed ATP-run event, The World Team Cup.
“I love Davis Cup, I love to play for my country. And I think most players are in the same boat. Who isn’t a proud patriot and proud to represent their country? But they’re putting things on our plate and we’re forced to swallow them down, without even knowing what we’re eating.”
“If you’re going to completely re-create an event as prestigious, and with a much history as the Davis Cup, you’d better put a lot of thought behind it and make sure what you’re proposing is the absolutely best structure for everybody,” he said.