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Kiran Gupta explores the benefits of unionisation in sport, especially in light of freak world events such as the spread of COVID-19.
Coronavirus is playing out differently day by day. It seems like news is breaking every second and the outlook is becoming increasingly pessimistic. The outbreak has affected many different groups in many ways. Just last week, the ATP and WTA (male and female tennis tours) have postponed two of the biggest tournaments of the year, Indian Wells and Miami and the entire tour has been suspended for six weeks. This means no source of income for players for a significant chunk of the year.
This poses a few interesting questions. We have seen all around the world that the gig industry is in turmoil, musicians are cancelling gigs, casual academics and tutors are losing work, not to mention the amount of other casual employees who just don’t have people to service. Tennis is no exception to this. Team sports are a slightly different case. Take cricket for example. The top players are centrally contracted to their countries, which means that, although there may be some alterations (I’m not a lawyer and don’t have the details of the contracts), they will still be relatively secure financially in a freak circumstance like this. This is the case for most team sports.
Tennis is very different. Although the tournaments and the tours are governed by organisational bodies such as the ATP, the WTA and the ITF (International Tennis Federation), the players are not contracted to these organisations which means they are essentially independent contractors. The practical reasons for this make sense, it means that their finances are governed by their results. If they win the tournament, they make a lot of money. If they lose in the first round, they make less.
However, problems have emerged in this model over the last couple of years. Tennis stars, Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic have noted that the tours have to serve both the players and the tournament operators at the same time. This creates a clear conflict of interest and of duty. This was evident earlier in the year with the bushfires that swept over Australia during the Australian Open. British tennis player, Liam Broady, accused officials of treating players “worse than animals” after forcing players to play their matches against medical advice in Melbourne, insisting that people stayed at home. This had grave consequences for players including Dalila Jakupovic, who had to abandon her match after suffering an intense coughing fit.
After these events, and numerous players calling to shorten the season, many players called for a union to represent the player’s interests and concerns. These players included Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil, who noted that male and female tennis players only receive 7% each of Grand Slam revenue. A union would provide the players the ability to negotiate pay increases, better accommodation and player-friendly schedules.
However, with the rise of COVID-19, this has taken on a different dimension. With players out of a job for at least six weeks (probably longer), they are looking at a significant chunk of earning being lost including for many, during the peak of their career. A lot of players are setting themselves up for life and are providing for their family so to have a huge chunk of earning in the peak of their career lost could be life-shattering. They also need to keep training, so need to continue to pay coaches and support staff even though money is drying up for them.
It is estimated that only the top 150 singles players in the world break even at the best of times, when the cost of flights, accommodation and support staff are factored in. With a catastrophic loss of play like this, that figure will be significantly lower. Players could lose their world rankings, they may not be able to afford to pay coaches anymore. This will create a downward spiral that could be impossible to stop.
The only solution to something like this is unionisation. Deakin Business School Sports Management Lecturer Dr Michael Naraine has said that, “the impact on tennis could be huge. If tennis players were able to unionise and speak with one voice, they could have much more power to influence issues [in the sport].” Although a pandemic like this is unprecedented, it has exposed the need for players to be protected in the case of something going very wrong. Whether it is on an individual or a global scale such as here, players do need some form of protection in the height of their careers, especially when they are making such big investments in themselves.
At the end of the day, players have been arguing for a union for a very long time. Whether it is a top singles player like Novak Djokovic, a top doubles player like Jamie Murray or a lower-ranked player such as Noah Rubin, there is an overwhelming consensus that things need to change. It might have taken a pandemic to make that clear to the wider public, but COVID-19 has exposed some fundamental problems in the system that need to be addressed. There is now a dire need to protect players from something like this. And this is the way to do it.