The Professional Tennis Players Association: a vehicle for improvement in governance standard
On the eve of US Open 2020, a group of professional players announced the launch of Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA). The right to form associations and unions is enshrined in many national constitutions and international human rights instruments. Article 12 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and Article 11 of European Convention on Human Rights provide for the right to “freedom of association with others”. This includes “the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his or her interests”. According to Article 20(2) of the UN Declaration on Human Rights “[n]o one may be compelled to belong to an association.”
In order to gain access to tennis tournaments, professional tennis players are subject to the compulsory membership of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which ties them to various rulebooks and bylaws passed by these governing bodies. In tennis, players are not allowed to form unions – ATP and WTA base this prohibition on the premise that their executive and other bodies already provide for the proper representative structures. At their inception in the early 1970s, the ATP and WTA were indeed intended and designed to protect players’ interests. However, the decision-making was quickly overtaken by the tournament directors and the representation of players’ interests became inadequate. For example, the tournament representatives can outvote players’ representatives at the ATP Board of Directors, while the Players’ Council plays only a powerless consultative role in the decision-making process.
For the past 30 years, players have been openly dissatisfied with many issues concerning the governance of tennis. This included the inequality in distribution of the prize money between various levels of pro-tournaments, revenue sharing at the four Grand Slams (7% of the profits is distributed to men, 7% to women – with no transparency as to the rest of the profits), a crowded calendar, a lack of legal counselling, heat policy, and no real influence on decision-making that affected their livelihoods. Given that only about the top 100 players are not struggling to live from their sport, these issues have intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new PTPA should be viewed against this background. Its establishment was a result of athlete activism (Vasek Pospisil and Novak Djokovic) and a desire to improve the conditions, such as prize money for the low-earning players, players’ influence in the decision-making process, the financial transparency and accountability, pensions and insurance. The PTPA has so far gained a support of around 200 professional male players and WTA players are expected to join imminently.
A couple of top players (Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) supported the status quo in the ATP structures and led the opposition to the PTPA. This is hardly surprising given that those players themselves are tournament owners, indicating a deeper conflict of interest. Creating divisions of this kind can only act against the interests of all other players.
United players can organise boycotts of the tournaments similar to the one staged at Wimbledon in 1973, if the situation calls for it. Such possibility is bound to make the governing bodies and tournaments count with the needs of all players in pursuit of their commercial goals. As Pospisil indicated, staging an alternative tour would not be unthinkable somewhere down the line, should players continue to be treated as thus far. At the very least, the creation of an alternative association might put pressure on ATP and WTA to improve their governance structures and allow for proper representation of players’ interests. While such improvement in itself might complete the PTPA mission, players need to be aware of the cosmetic changes that offer short-term fixes to the chronic issues.
Dr. Katarina Pijetlovic | Reader in Sports Law
Manchester Law School | MMU Sports Policy Unit