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Stakeholders think their sport could be next

Stakeholders think their sport could be next
Stakeholders think their sport could be next


PIF attempted to secure a 20% acquisition of WTA Tours’ commercial activities, but those efforts failed. getty images

tennis legend Martina Navratilova is pretty clear about where she stands about the possibility of Saudi Arabian investments disrupting professional tennis in the same way LIV Golf has broken that sport.

“I hope not,” she said. “I am totally against what they are doing with sports washes that are trying to normalize their government and state, and they couldn’t pay me enough to do it. I hope the tennis players have a moral compass than the golfers.”

Because professional tennis players are considered independent contractors and the sport is already so broken, tennis is often considered a reasonable next target for a Saudi-backed investment. Last month, according to two sources, PIF even tried to be part of CVC Capital’s 20% acquisition of the WTA’s commercial operations, in part because of what it would look like if Saudi Arabia owned a portion of a women’s sports league.

Unlike golf, women play a much larger role in professional tennis. And no doubt many women’s tennis players would be reluctant to be involved in a country that culturally and legally restricts women’s rights.

Still, Navratilova, who grew up in politically repressed Czechoslovakia (before it became the Czech Republic), and was granted asylum in the US as an 18-year-old, understands that money talks.

“Obviously it has had an impact on golf,” she said. “If they want to throw a few billion dollars at the tennis players, I’m sure they can.”

Tennis is faster compared to golf, and its fan base is younger and more diverse than golf’s. Despite this, Ahmad Nassar, who was hired as CEO of the Professional Tennis Players Association in August, is one of many involved in the sport who agree that tennis could be vulnerable to disruptive investments from the Saudis. The presence of the PTPA itself, which was founded in October 2020 during a period of particularly pronounced player discontent, suggests that within the sport there could be open ears to any offer made by a Saudi or Saudi-backed entity.

“Is tennis a sport ripe for disruption? I would say unequivocally yes,” Nassar said. “And I think a lot of people in tennis would say that.”

The four Grand Slams – the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open – would likely be immune to the threat of a rival tour or competition like LIV Golf. Even LIV Golf needs the biggest stage that tournaments like the Masters and US Open offer so that its players’ brands can grow.

“I don’t know if the threat to the slams is as immediate as it is to the tours, at least that’s what we see in golf,” US Tennis Association CEO and executive director Lew Sherr recently told Sports Business Journal.

Portions of the ATP and WTA tours can be more vulnerable, especially the smaller 250 and 500 tier events scattered across the calendar. It’s easier to see a rival entity pulling players away from those events, or simultaneously planning events and attracting more media and public attention.

The tennis season has been going on for almost the entire year, ending at the end of November and starting a month and a half later in January. Could a rival entity, backed by huge Saudi money, set up an exhibition run during the only short time of the year when the established tours are inactive? Neither the ATP nor the WTA have held events in Saudi Arabia, but the country did host a practice tournament in December 2019 that attracted players such as John Isner, Daniil Medvedev and Stan Wawrinka.

“Is that possible? One hundred percent,” a tennis source told SBJ. “But today’s players value their free time.”

Nassar, who is working in part to generate more significant commercial opportunities for professional tennis players through group licensing, said that LIV Golf could be the best that has ever happened to pro tennis if the people who run pro tennis listen to the lessons taught by the struggle of professional golfers. this year. Nassar said disruption and growth are related terms. The question for tennis is whether the disruption that inevitably comes is internal or external.




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