Are Professional Tennis Players Underpaid?

To the casual observer of tennis, it would seem that professional tennis players lead a charmed life. In describing the players at the top, then this is correct for the most part.

Is there evidence to suggest that compared to other top professional sports, tennis players are underpaid? By top sports, we’re talking Baseball, Football, Soccer, Golf, Basketball, Hockey, Boxing as opposed to Curling or Swimming. Let’s look at some statistics and compare by current ranking and career earnings to date, excluding sponsership of the top 300.

50 places makes a difference.

#1: Novak Djokovic – $51,437,295

#50: Florian Mayer – $4,618,190

#100: Steve Johnson – $399,207

#200: Andre Ghem – $257,354

#300: Patricio Heras – $44,503

With some fluctuations, we can see that the pay scale dramatically goes down from 50 onwards. There are many players who are ranked outside the top 50 that have had fine careers and are millionaires but it does mark a line in the sand if you’re a journeyman at a certain level, you’re earning potential based on ranking.

According to Forbe’s Miguel Morales:

Should Challenger prize money continue to flatline, players outside the top 100 will be squeezed even more, increasingly forced to retire for lack of funds. Young players who show promise may be increasingly diverted to other sports that reward its pros more handsomely. Players, fans and the sport will suffer.

In team sports, it’s literally a different ball game with benchwarmers making as much as Florian Mayer. There is essentially ‘danger money’ for boxers or Formula One drivers and franchise teams are so business orientated, that players are assets rather than simply players. Team players are salaried by their organizations and average earnings go something like this:

1. NBA – $5.15 million

2. MLB – $3.31 million

3. NHL – $2.4 million

4. NFL – $1.9 million

These sports are billion dollar revenue generators, so unless tennis can provide that kind of cash, it’s not as comparable.

Golf really is the best comparison right now. Let’s compare golfers year-to-date prize money by ranking:

#1: Tiger Woods – $7,659,119

#50: David Lynn – $1,381,453

#100: Ben Crane – $796,947

#200: Tim Petrovic – $196,564

#300: Tom Lehman – $20,077

Ben Crane: Millionaire to you.

In one year, Ben Crane has made more money than Steve Johnson has in his career so far. Tom Lehman may only have made peanuts this year but his career earnings are $21,495,878. Ben Crane has made $17,776,774 in his career and who the hell is Ben Crane?

Considering the mental and physical effort that tennis players put on the court, it’s tough to really say across the board they are paid enough. Golfers can play professionally until well into their 50s whereas tennis players might make it to 35 with enough money in the bank, but it’s no sure thing.

Journeyman pro ‘Iron’ Mike Russell, has earned over $2m in prize money over 15 years, which sounds a lot but isn’t:

If you lose in the early rounds of Challengers, you only pocket about $500 to $1,000. To break even, you have to make the semifinals. Keep in mind that a lot of the Challengers don’t provide hospitality, pay for travel and other services.

The top four players not only have a coach, but also a physio, a doctor, a hitting partner with them. Four, five, six people on their payroll.

All things being equal then, it’s of little surprise when hearing journeymen players retiring in their mid-20s if their career just hasn’t taken off. The alternative is sticking it out for 15 years playing singles and doubles and being smart with your money, as many players do. Maybe the depth of competition is so good right now, because of the meritocracy.

There is however, no room for complacency in tennis and they have to fight to get to the top, which makes it even more thrilling for us spectators.

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