Stakeholders think their sport could be next

PIF attempted to participate in a 20 percent takeover of the WTA Tour’s commercial business, but these efforts were unsuccessful. Getty Images

tennis legend Martina Navratilova is quite clear about her position on the possibility of Saudi Arabian investments disrupting professional tennis in the same way that LIV Golf destroyed the sport.

“I certainly hope not,” she said. “I am absolutely against what they are doing with sportswear that is trying to normalize their government and state and they couldn’t pay me enough for it. I hope tennis players have a more moral compass than golfers.”

With professional tennis players considered independent entrepreneurs and the sport already so fragmented, tennis is often seen as a reasonable next target for a Saudi-backed investment. In fact, according to two sources, PIF tried to get involved in CVC Capital’s 20 percent acquisition of the commercial business of the WTA last month, in part because it would appear like Saudi Arabia would have its own stake in a women’s sports league.

In contrast to golf, women play a much larger role in professional tennis. And no doubt many women tennis players would hesitate to engage with a country that culturally and legally restricts women’s rights.

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 speaks.

“It’s clear that it has had an impact on golf,” she said. “If they want to throw tennis players a few billion dollars, I’m sure they could.”

Tennis is faster than golf and its fanbase is younger and more diverse than golf’s. Nonetheless, Ahmad Nassar, who was hired as CEO of the Professional Tennis Players Association in August, is among the many sports stakeholders who agree that tennis could be vulnerable to disruptive Saudi investment. The presence of the PTPA itself, formed in October 2020 at a time of particularly open player discontent, suggests there might be some receptive ears within the sport to any offer made by a Saudi or Saudi-backed organization could.

“Is tennis a disruptive sport? I would say a resounding 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 US Open – would likely be immune to the threat of a rival tour or competition like LIV Golf. LIV Golf also needs the biggest stage that tournaments like the Masters and the US Open offer so that the brand of its players can grow.

“I don’t know if the slams are as imminently threatened as the tours, at least that’s what we’re seeing in golf,” Lew Sherr, CEO and executive director of the US Tennis Association, recently told Sports Business Journal.

Parts of the ATP and WTA tours could be more vulnerable, particularly the smaller 250 and 500 level events spread across the calendar. It’s easier to see a rival company pulling players away from these events, or planning events at the same time and attracting more media and public attention.

The tennis season already stretches almost all year round, ending at the end of November and starting again a month and a half later in January. Could a rival entity, backed by massive Saudi funding, launch an exhibition series during the brief period of the year when established tours are dormant? Neither the ATP nor the WTA have held events in Saudi Arabia, but the country hosted an exhibition tournament in December 2019 that featured such well-known players as John Isner, Daniil Medvedev and Stan Wawrinka.

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

Nassar, who works in part to create more meaningful commercial opportunities for pro tennis players through group licensing, said that LIV Golf could be the best thing that could ever happen to pro tennis if the people who play pro tennis do the Taking lessons from the struggles of pro golf to heart this year. Nassar said that disruption and growth are related terms. The question in tennis is whether the disruption that inevitably comes is internal or external.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *