Tuesday, May 14, 2024
HometennisSaudi Arabia is pouring money in sports. Is tennis next?

Saudi Arabia is pouring money in sports. Is tennis next?

NEW YORK – The US Open has been as gripping as ever in 2023, culminating in 19-year-old breakout star Coco Gauff’s win over Aryna Sabalenka on Saturday and Novak Djokovic’s 24th Grand Slam win on Sunday against Daniil Medvedev.

But as a business, tennis has been struggling for years – and faces new pressure to find a sustainable model as Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) has made major investments in sports, sloshing money around in golf, football and mixed martial arts.

Some dealmakers wonder whether tennis, which has already confirmed initial talks with Saudi Arabia, will be the fund’s next target.

Players are ready for a change. “Of all the important sports around the world, I think tennis is clearly the one with the greatest opportunity for financial growth and the most unrealised value,” retired tennis star Maria Sharapova told DealBook.

Despite the popularity of tennis, the sport brings in only 1.3 per cent of earnings from global media sports rights. That is partly because tennis is made up of myriad entities – including the WTA, the United States Tennis Association and independent tournaments. The independently operated organisations make scheduling tournaments difficult and diminish bargaining power for sponsorship and media deals. Erratic scheduling and long matches do not help entice broadcasters.

Financial missteps are reflected in pay for players, most of whom earn little while having to pay for coaches, training sessions and travel expenses to play in the game.

That is why Sharapova thinks the sport should explore bringing in outside capital, whether it be a private equity firm or sovereign wealth fund. It is also why many believe tennis could be vulnerable to a rival sports league if PIF were to repeat the playbook it used in golf, where its LIV Golf tour eventually struck a deal to partner with the PGA Tour to help settle acrimonious litigation.

Could a merger solve the problem? The private equity firm CVC Capital Partners bought a stake in women’s professional tennis in 2023, in hopes of capitalising on the sport’s commercial promise. There has been speculation that CVC could merge the women’s and men’s tours. But such a deal is complex, requiring sign-offs from multiple parties that do not all share the same views.

Other private equity investors are circling with similar aims, DealBook has heard. But it is not clear any investor or fund could compete with the deep pockets of PIF, which has so far shown little interest in returns.

Not everyone in tennis opposes Saudi money. Most standouts argue that accepting investment from PIF could help the country reframe its tarnished reputation. But others say that tennis should be more concerned with its bottom line: The women’s professional tennis tour’s decision to suspend all tournaments in China after the disappearance of the tennis player Peng Shuai, for instance, dented the WTA’s business – and ultimately failed to pressure China into granting a meeting with Peng.

Some players say that Saudi money could help with pay equity, a longstanding problem in the sport. Outside the four Grand Slam events in 2022, men earned about 70 per cent more on average than women did during tournaments.

Although the women’s tour struck a deal for pay equity in 2023, the new structure will not be in place for another decade. If Saudi Arabia “could help getting us to equal prize money, though there are negatives, there are a lot of positives that can come out of it,” Jessica Pegula, the fifth-ranked women’s player, told Reuters in July.

But there is little consensus. As rumours swirled last week that the WTA would hold its Finals in Saudi Arabia, former tennis star Chris Evert pushed back. “I would be against it,” Evert said, “but I don’t have a vote.”

Those who did have a vote apparently sided with Evert. The WTA announced on Thursday it will hold the event in Cancun, Mexico. NYTIMES

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