MIAMI — As job cuts go, a 44.9 percent decrease in a workforce of 3,337 qualifies as draconian. But that’s the percentage of ATP and WTA professionals who might no longer have ranking status if the International Tennis Federation (ITF) succeeds in its efforts to see the number of pros in each division reduced to 750.
The 3,337 players ranked by the tours are just the tip of the pro tennis iceberg. According to the three-year Player Pathway review conducted by the ITF, there are over 14,000 professional tennis players. Half of those players never earn a dime in tournament they play. They’re what U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier describes as “dreamers.”
But all parties agree that a basic problem exists: There are far too many players and far too little prize money below the top level to support the ones who need it most — talented young players who might not have the resources to finance a transition to the pro tour.
There’s a related problem too. The explosive growth of small ($15,000 and up) events that attract players who have ATP status has been a breeding ground for match-fixing. The blowback from gambling scandals involving obscure players in far-flung minor tournaments has already tarnished the image of the game.
“We want a good clean sport where players don’t have to live in fear,” Roger Federer said after winning his quarterfinal match at the Miami Open on Thursday. “Where they see real [competitive] matches. If it means we have to cut players, that’s not a bad thing. When I came up, we had far fewer, maybe 1,500, max 2,000 [guys]. Now we have more like 4,000. They’re going to cut it back, but I don’t get the full picture yet. I need more information.”
That information is evolving as the ITF works out the details of a proposal to restructure its $15,000 F1 Pro Circuit events, which are ATP and WTA feeders. Re-purposed, those events will no longer offer ATP and WTA rankings points. Instead, they will become a “Transition Tour” intended to make it easier for up-and-coming players to make the leap from the junior circuit to the tour level.
The Transition Tour will have its own entry and ranking system, ultimately linking with the ATP and WTA Tours in ways yet to be determined. But it will not offer main tour ranking points the way Futures events do now. The various events on the tour would be organized regionally, cutting down on travel and expenses.
The new model would not necessarily eliminate the threat of match-fixing, though. The only conceivable remedy for that, according to Courier, would be a digital blackout of events that have no spectator value. Gamblers in the UK, Europe and elsewhere can bet during matches on anything from individual points to whether or not a player will break or hold a given service game.
“Just take the data away,” Courier said. “As long as there is live streaming of matches, there will be a market for gambling.”
The Transition Tour concept was spawned by a disturbing trend uncovered by the Pathway study. According to the data, the number of players entering the pro game has risen since 2001. But the numbers moving from junior tennis into the top 100 has remained static.
The reason: The glut of players and low-prize money events that offer ATP and WTA ranking points have created a logjam — and formidable obstacles for young players. Also, the already meager resources below the main tour level are distributed over too wide a field.
“There’s over $300 million in prize money out there,” Kris Dent, senior executive director of pro tennis for the ITF, told ESPN.com. “But only about 500 pros are breaking even. Our system is broken.”
Dent added that data gathered by the ITF established that in order to break even on the tour, an ATP pro had to be ranked No. 336 or better. A WTA player had to be No. 253 or better. The calculation did not include coaching costs, as that was too difficult for the analysts to quantify with any accuracy.
“Radical changes are needed to address the issues of transition between the junior and professional game, playing affordability and tournament cost,” ITF president David Haggerty said in a news release on Thursday. “At the same time, it is imperative that we do not reduce the chance for players of any nation or background to start their journey towards the top 100.”
The WTA and ATP have worked with the Pathway group, but there is no agreement yet on some of the key details. For instance, ATP and WTA ranking points are not the ITF’s to award or withhold. Also, tour representatives have not decided whether 750 is the right number of ranked pros. But the stakeholders do agree that the tour has too many minor tournaments and players — and an inadequate feeder system.
“The WTA supports the ITF initiative, which is providing for a more clear, healthy and performance-driven pathway to the professional level of our sport,” WTA CEO Steve Simon told ESPN.com in an email.
As Dent added, “With no set number of job opportunities, the number of entry-level tournaments just grew huge. But it’s better to have fewer players who can make a real living. We just have to put the right structure into place to achieve that.”