Strikes and Serves: Leagues in conflict and the Players Association

While feuds between players help sports flourish, it is the heated rivalries between leagues that leads to truly groundbreaking changes in the structures of…

By: Karim Zidan | 9 years ago
Strikes and Serves: Leagues in conflict and the Players Association
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

While feuds between players help sports flourish, it is the heated rivalries between leagues that leads to truly groundbreaking changes in the structures of sports. This is particularly true for both tennis and Mixed Martial Arts; over the past two decades, both sports have undergone extensive structural surgery catalyzed by competing leagues battling for complete control over a finite market.

The UFC’s most significant rival was PRIDE FC, a promotion that ruled the MMA landscape at the start of the 21st century. Competition between the two would see ZUFFA rise to the occasion and create The Ultimate Fighter, which brought with it a new fanbase that would help grow the sport in North America.

Although that may be a gross oversimplification of those pivotal years in MMA history, a broad lens is needed when we attempt to draw a comparison between its history and that of tennis, which was split into several competing leagues for over two decades before the ATP took control to become the main league for the season.

First, a little background:

Birth of the Open Era

Shortly after tennis had successfully crossed the boundary to professional competition with monetary incentives in the 1960s, two organizations were established: The National Tennis League (NTL) and the World Championships Tennis (WCT). Once professional competitors were allowed to participate in Grand Slam tournaments–an activity previously reserved for amateurs–these organizations began to manipulate the system by withholding their players from the events unless they were offered guarantees to compete. This sort of immoral influence over tournaments led to the creation of the Grand Prix in 1970.

Originally conjured up to be a “a series of tournaments with a money bonus pool that would be split up on the basis of a cumulative point system,” (from The Game by Jack Kramer) the Grand Prix was intended to give structure to the qualification process for Grand Slam events based on a particular player’s performances and ranking points during those tournaments.

By 1970, the WCT had absorbed the NTL and was well on its way to running over twenty events per season. Along with the Grand Prix, they were the two largest leagues in tennis, and were overseen by the International Lawn Tennis Federation (now ITF). This was a problem in itself, as there was a clear conflict of interest, favouritism and questionable motives with regards to some of the decisions taken during that time, including limiting Grand Slam participation for players favouring the WCT.

The Association of Tennis Professionals

Years of conflict amongst themselves – with players suffering the consequences of the strict ban on certain Grand Slams – led Grand Prix pioneer Jack Kramer to create the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which would one day control the sole professional circuit in tennis.

The Grand Prix and WCT remained separate entities for five more years until 1978, when the two leagues began a merge that was finalized in 1985 with the Grand Prix absorbing all the WCT tournaments. Although competition between rival circuits ceased, the problems on the tour did not, and it was clear that the Grand Prix did not care about the majority of the players competing in their league. Heavy tournament schedules became a major concern, while prize money splitting was an even bigger affair.

At the same time, the ATP had made some significant strides. In 1980, they set up a player pension fund, which was a monumental step in an individual-driven sport, and continued to add new memberships over the coming years. Coupled with the discrepancies on the Grand Prix circuit, the decision to separate from the Grand Prix was an easy one.

In one of the landmark moments in the sport’s history, players held a press conference outside the US Open parking lot to announce the “Tennis at a Crossroads” meeting and plan, which proposed a new tour that would bring about the evolution of the sport. It was an idea that spread like wildfire and quickly brought about an end to the Grand Prix circuit. By the following year (1989), the Top 50 competitors had all agreed to participate in the ATP Tour, and helped conjure up a new system of prize money splitting and scheduling tournaments. Although there have been changes over the past 15 years, the ATP remains the sole tennis circuit for men’s competition.

The ATP Player Council (not Union)

However, the singularity of the ATP is also a part of the problem. The ATP stopped being the voice of the players and instead served as a sort of balance between the tournaments and the athletes themselves, thus morphing into an organization with its own interests. One should not confuse the ATP’s purpose with that of a player’s union.

The ATP World Tour has a Board of Directors with seven members, three of which are player representatives. Notice how the balance of power is automatically shifted against the athletes themselves? For the players to get a favourable vote they would require at least one of the other members to vote in their favour.

To add to the bureaucratic dilemma, an ATP Player Council consisting of 12 members sits right under the Board of Directors in the organizational hierarchy. At the moment, there is neither a President nor a Vice-President serving on the council after Roger Federer decided not to run for a fourth straight term at the helm. The ATP Players Council, which currently consists of the likes of Stan Wawrinka, Kevin Anderson, John Isner and Gilles Simon, will meet ahead of the US Open to determine who will be elected for the positions.

Here is a clip of Roger Federer discussing his time as the President of the council:

While the ATP Players Council is an important concept and crucial for the continued unity of the players, it is limited in its ability to make actual changes on a structural level in most cases. There have been exceptions, such as in 2012 when there were heavy rumours that the majority of the top players would boycott the Australian Open if the tournament did not increase the prize money distribution for the earlier rounds.

However, while that attempt was successful, many others have not been. This can be extremely frustrating for the players; in fact, Rafael Nadal, who was the vice-president for a brief period, resigned from his spot after he was mostly ignored for his suggestion to introduce a two-year ranking system.

The problems extends past prize money. Current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic has been vocal about his own concerns with the council and has never been shy to make public his position on the politics of tennis.

“I have a sense that, you know, spent 10 years at the professional level and was three years involved in politics of tennis and was in council. I get the sense that people are just too afraid of doing ‑‑ you know, going towards some rational maybe changes or improvements or just something that, you know, they are always afraid it can disturb the history and the culture that this sport possesses.

“But it’s always so complicated because it’s structured ‑‑ tennis, the structure is so complicating that it’s very difficult to achieve something, because you have to go through a different governing bodies, to different organizations. We belong to ATP, but then there are Grand Slams and there is ITF and there is WADA and there is ‑‑ you know, I think too many organizations. For people outside of tennis it’s also complicated to follow that up and really understand what’s going on. I think we have to make it more simple in order for this sport to grow.”

The most recent attempt for change is actually an ongoing process right now, as the ATP board is attempting to negotiate a significant prize money increase at all Masters 1000 tournaments on the tour. The contracts are un for renewal and according to SportsBusiness Journal, the players want prize money at Masters tournaments doubled within the next four years.

As a side note, since John McEnroe was such a key component of the first part of the ‘Strikes & Serves’ series, here is another short video of him briefly explaining the history of tennis and the importance of player unions.

What does this all mean?

While MMA history may not appear as fragmented as tennis’, much has changed over the past 21 years since UFC 1, including the promotion’s acquisition of PRIDE, their merger with the WEC, their buyout of Strikeforce, their seven-year deal with FOX as well as their aggressive global expansion. Each of those moments have had a pivotal impact on the evolution of the sport in a variety of different ways. Whether it is the emergence of the UFC as a potential monopolizer of the market, the addition of fighter insurance and the increase in drug testing regimen on an international scale, much has changed in MMA and that is partly due to their rapidly changing structure.

The point being made here is: as the sport continues to grow, the organizational structure changes along with it, which in turn brings about new dimensions that had not been previously considered.

Can MMA eventually have a player’s union? If tennis has not yet succeeded in striking a balance after more than 40 years, it will be a long time before MMA gets there, if ever.

Former world No. 1 Andy Roddick made an interesting point in an interview with the New York Times that will resonate deeply with MMA fans:

“Tennis is a star-driven sport, and if we are going to be unified, all of our stars have to be on the same page,” said Roddick, a former No. 1-ranked player and the United States Open champion in 2003. He added: “Without a union, it’s tough for us to complain about anything. If we don’t unite, we have no one to blame but ourselves.”

In this particular instance, he goes on to make a second point regarding the length of the tennis season, which also runs 11 months out of the year. This is quite similar to MMA, which is not a seasonal sport and features several events in most months of the year.

“It’s too long. The game is so much more physical now. It’s so much more about athleticism and speed. Andre Agassi played until he was 34 or 35, but with these long seasons, you’re not going to see current players last that long. I’d like to see the season begin to wind down right after the U.S. Open.”

This is not to say that there is no hope for significant change in that regard. Players councils and representatives may someday have a place in MMA as well. As rapidly as the sport has risen from obscurity, people underestimate how young it actually is. Is it possible that we will see UFC fighters unite to negotiate more substantial purses for the lower tier fighters, or even the creation of a players council consisting of a variety of notable figures in the sport?

Much of this seems farfetched at the moment, but it all quite possible, even if it is not on the horizon just yet.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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