Growth comes with strings attached
Everybody wants to grow the game. Grow their game.
It’s a euphemism, of course, for making more money. Couching greed in these positive terms allows those running the sport to make it seem like they are selflessly spreading the good word of their particular business to grateful masses around the world.
Once any sport moves to a more global approach beyond mere marketing, in countries where the rules and traditions can be very different, the challenges become exponentially more complicated.
This is where tennis finds itself. With the upcoming Olympics in China and the World Cup in Qatar, multiple sports and many countries are going to find 2022 daunting in those non-democratic nations. News this week that Norwegian journalists were arrested in Qatar as they tried to report on World Cup preparations was troubling.
Tennis is one sport treading water in these turbulent times, and on more than one front.
For the past decade, the sport has aggressively moved into new markets, particularly in the Middle East and Asia. China, in particular, has opened its arms to the Women’s Tennis Association. The triumph of Chinese champion Li Na at the 2011 French Open, with more than 115 million Chinese watching on television, convinced WTA officials that growth in that enormous market was possible and they dove in headfirst.
The WTA Finals, held mostly in the United States for decades, moved to Singapore from 2014 to 2018, then Shenzhen, China, for 2019. It was supposed to be in Shenzhen last year as well, but was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The prize money in Shenzhen was enormous. In all, the WTA organized nine events in China. The men’s tour worked hard to get to that market as well, establishing the Shanghai Masters in 2012. It has become an ATP tradition to head to Asia after the U.S. Open for competitions in Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and China.
This was all well and good and lucrative — until Nov. 2.
That was the day Chinese doubles star Peng Shuai posted on social media that she had been sexually assaulted by a former high-ranking member of the government. Since then, other than two well-orchestrated and heavily managed public utterances, Peng has essentially not been heard from.
These, ladies and gentlemen, are the complications of growing the game. It does not, and will not, come for free.
WTA officials insist they won’t do business with China until Peng is allowed to move freely and an investigation into her allegations is launched. The Chinese government was able to score some propaganda points by getting IOC boss Thomas Bach to “meet” with Peng — which did nothing to alleviate WTA concerns, but did help Bach make it appear as though he cares about human rights in the weeks preceding February’s Winter Olympics.
The recent WTA Finals had been moved to Mexico because of COVID, but are supposed to return to China next year. The men’s tour has similarly been blocked out of China because of the pandemic, but is warily watching from the sidelines, not doing much more than saying it supports the WTA. The controversy continues to brew and Peng’s whereabouts remain uncertain.
It will be fascinating to see how tennis responds. Will the rights of one Chinese player really stand in the way of making millions and millions of dollars? Right now, with no events in China until next year, it’s easy to look tough. But players, many of whom are from non-democratic countries, may or may not care about the political realities of the countries in which they play.
For Canadians, we’ve got marquee players such as Bianca Andreescu, Félix Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil stuck right in the middle of all this. Pospisil has been vocal in calling for reform in the sport.
Meanwhile, tennis has another significant problem in a traditional market.
The sport has blithely allowed some top players, notably men’s world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, to compete all year without confirming he’s vaccinated against COVID. Djokovic won the Australian and French opens and Wimbledon, and is on the verge of setting the record for Grand Slam singles titles by a male player.
The Serb just finished the ATP Finals in Italy and is about to play for his country at the Davis Cup finals in Madrid, both while apparently unvaxxed. Nobody seems to care. Organizers of the Australian Open in January, however, have decided all players must be vaccinated. The entry date is less than two weeks away.
Djokovic hasn’t confirmed his vaccination status, but it is assumed he has not gotten the jab. Given that he has won in Australia nine times, this is no small thing. Alexander Zverev, who beat Djokovic at the ATP Finals last week, even suggested Djokovic should receive some kind of vaccination exemption for the Aussie Open because of his elevated status in the sport.
Dealing with Australia is different than dealing with China, but what’s going on in tennis shows the drive for global growth in sports is more complicated than simply driving up revenues. There are always strings attached.
Professional golf is looking at new leagues backed by big money in Britain and Saudi Arabia that could dramatically expand its horizons. Formula One racing has gained a meaningful toehold in the United States, and is holding its final three races of the year in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
None of this is likely to be as straightforward as it might seem. Growing the game never is.