Day 6

The off-court grind: Canada's Vasek Pospisil says tennis players deserve a bigger piece of Grand Slam revenue

Professional men's tennis has 500 ranked players and the lowest revenue sharing of all professional sports. Many players struggle to make ends meet and Vasek Pospisil wants more players to get a bigger share of tournament revenue.

'I'm fighting for more say and representation for the players,' says player calling on pro tennis to unionize

Vasek Pospisil serves during his opening round match at the 2019 Rogers Cup tennis tournament at Stade IGA in Montreal. (Eric Bolte/Reuters via USA Today Sports)
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Canada's Vasek Pospisil may be a world ranked tennis player, but that doesn't necessarily mean much for his paycheque.

Now, he's calling on pro tennis to form a union.

According to the 29-year-old, who has ranked as high as 25th in 2014, only the top 100 players make money. That's because only 14 per cent of the sport's revenues go back to players, he said.

"Any time you're getting 14 per cent of the revenue when you're the product, and you're really what's making all the high revenue, it doesn't resonate," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. 

Pospisil, a member of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Players' Council, missed the first half of the 2019 season with a back injury and is currently ranked 216th in the world.

That revenue share is split evenly between men and women, he added. From a pot of over $75 million, the top singles players will take home more than $5 million each at this year's U.S. Open.

While many players in the top 100 make a healthy living, Pospisil included, lower ranked athletes struggle.

According to Pospisil, many emerging players sacrifice financially to climb the ranks — due in part to low revenue sharing. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

And some — once travel expenses, equipment costs and coaching fees are factored in — are losing money, he said.

"There is an illusion of a democracy but the reality is that we have very, very little power to influence any decisions in our livelihoods," he said.

Tough for aspiring players

Unlike in hockey, basketball and baseball, where players' expenses are covered and a salary paid by a franchise or league, individual tennis players take care of their own finances.

Based on his own research, Pospisil says at least 50 per cent of revenue in those sports goes back to the players.

"Hopefully you've had some money saved up or your family is helping you because, on your own, you won't be able to make that ranking," he said about aspiring tennis players.

Vasek Pospisil, pictured during the 2019 Rogers Cup in Montreal, showed signs of fatigue. He missed eight months of play due to a back injury. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

For Pospisil, who started playing at age five — the average starting age for most top 100 tennis players, he says — the low revenue sharing made his climb up the ranks tricky.

"My dad ended up quitting his job and he was working at the brewery and worked double shifts and overtime," he said. "Then he started travelling with me. We had an old Winnebago that we drove around North America to play tournaments."

Pospisil says that level of grind sounds extreme, but living on a shoestring budget early in one's career is common amongst players on the tour.  

We can't really go anywhere else to make a comparable living. There's only one tennis tour.- Vasek Pospisil

In the world of tennis, it's a challenge to make changes, Pospisil argues.

According to the ATP governance structure, most tournaments must have three player representatives and three tournament representatives. 

When that group of six votes on a proposal — and it ends in a tie — "nothing changes," Pospisil wrote in the Globe and Mail.

Players 'independent contractors'

The ATP structure also makes it tricky to form a union. 

In the eyes of the organization, he says, players are considered "independent contractors" who are not dependent on income from tournaments or the association itself.

"The issue with that argument is that we can't really go anywhere else to make a comparable living. There's only one tennis tour," he said.

"If you actually took that to the court of law, there is no way, in my view, that that would pass because a balanced judge will look at all the information and say, 'Well, guys, I'm sorry but these are dependent contractors because there is no competing tennis tour.'"

Ultimately, Pospisil hopes that more players will be compensated for their talents.

"More than anything, I'm fighting for more say and representation for the players," he said.

"Then I assume that that will also lead to more players making money down the ranks — and having 300 players make money rather than a hundred."

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