After two weeks of print, radio and television ads promising the appearance of the fabulously talented, highly controversial professional tennis player, the tournament begins.
The player, jet-lagged and not quite sure what time zone he’s in, has a first-round bye and rests. In his first match, he faces an eager young player who worked through qualifying to get there. Eager fans pour in.
The star is sluggish and falls behind. He massages his shoulder during a changeover. Back on court, he gingerly tests the shoulder and discreetly winces.
After losing to the young hopeful, he emphatically denies he’s injured and declares his opponent was “just too good” this day. That evening, he’s checked out of his complimentary hotel suite and is on a private jet, either going home for a few days of golf or on to the next tournament.
The loss is forgotten and the money is in the bank. For the top-10 player had been paid $100,000 just to show up.
Welcome to the murky world of appearance fees, where athletes are lured to a tournament with the promise of a big payday, regardless of what happens on the court.
Tennis, like golf and a few other individual sports, thrives on the financial infusion of appearance fees. Unlike professional team sports, tennis players set their own schedules and decide where they will play, giving them leverage with tournament directors who all want the marquee players so they can sell tickets and lure television.
Appearance guarantees are outlawed on the women’s tour, but the No. 1 player in the world, Steffi Graf, is under investigation for an alleged pattern of accepting them.
Appearance fees are within the rules in the men’s game, but only for the third-tier events. Appearance fees are forbidden in Super Nine and Championship Series events but the smaller World Series events, which have smaller prize purses, are allowed to pay players to show up.
The philosophy on the men’s tour is that guarantees allow the smaller tournaments to compete and draw fans.
But in fact, it’s not only the World Series events that pay. Todd Martin, president of the ATP Player Council, admits that some Championship Series events pay appearance fees and others say that at least two Super Nine tournaments pay guarantees.
And it’s not only the top players who get the money. Martin estimates that everyone ranked in the top 40 gets some guarantee money.
Andre Agassi is ranked 13th but, next to Pete Sampras, may receive the highest guarantees among the men. And winning a major title can make a major difference. Richard Krajicek enjoyed an immediate boost in his earning power after winning Wimbledon last year. He now commands $100,000-$150,000 in appearance fees.
“In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be a need for appearance fees,” Martin said. “There’s more than enough money in the game. It’s a case of the rich getting richer.”
Martin makes the point that, besides their obligation to the fans and the tournament to give their best efforts, players who take guarantees have an ethical obligation to their fellow pros, from whom they have taken a spot in the draw.
Ethics are seldom the issue, though. Players who chase guarantees often hopscotch around the world, backtracking and scrambling to get from place to place.
A few years ago, Sampras reportedly received $500,000 to play in the Middle Eastern country of Qatar. He lost in the first round. That early exit allowed him to accept a wild-card berth in the Sydney event the next week, which he won. That, in turn, fit nicely into his travel schedule, since Sampras was on his was to the Australian Open in Melbourne the next week.
The Sydney tournament benefits from its geographic and calendar proximity to a Grand Slam tournament. It doesn’t need to pay much to find players willing to participate.
Others must work harder. That tournament in Doha, Qatar, is the first event on the men’s calendar. Yet, despite its modest prize money, it attracts a surprisingly deep field. So does another event in the Middle East, two months later.
The Dubai Tennis Open is a bonanza for both players and some journalists. Selected sportswriters are flown to the oil-rich kingdom and put up in hotels by tournament organizers.
But it’s the players who really make out. According to tournament organizers, who run an extensive duty-free shopping complex, the budget for appearance fees is $2.5 million. By comparison, the prize money for this week’s Newsweek Champions Cup here, one of the tour’s elite Super Nine tournaments, is $2.3 million.
Tournament officials in Dubai reason that bringing in big names will increase visibility for both the event and the shopping complex, the real commodity. To that end, they admit, they would pay Agassi as much as half a million dollars to show up.
“Why else would you go to Dubai?” Martin said, underscoring the problem for the far-flung tournaments.
The new tournament in New Delhi last year got value from Thomas Enqvist of Sweden, who was paid $80,000 for appearing, then won the tournament. Sweden was already in town to play India in Davis Cup, so it made sense for Enqvist to play.
But the problem is not with players who play and win. It’s with those who take the money and bail out in the first round. Why stay and play the tournament when the appearance fee is, in some cases, equal to 10 times the winner’s check?
Sampras, one of the ATP tour’s most reluctant travelers, set a curious schedule for himself last year. He played and won at San Jose and Memphis, then flew to Rotterdam in the Netherlands for a tournament that paid huge prize money.
Still, that meant that if Sampras continued playing as he had been, and made the Sunday final, he would have to travel from Rotterdam to Indian Wells for the Newsweek Champions Cup, which started the next day.
Sampras solved the problem by withdrawing from the Rotterdam tournament in the quarterfinals, citing an ankle injury.
Asked if money had had anything to do with the convoluted travel schedule, Sampras candidly answered, “You could say that.”
The allegations against Steffi Graf were made last September during the trial of her father, Pete Graf, for tax evasion. The charges were all the more sensational, considering that they were made by the general secretary of the German Tennis Federation.
Gunter Sanders told the German court that Peter Graf had been paid $150,000-$270,000 a year for “services and advertising” between 1990 and 1993 in connection with Federation-run events in Hamburg and Berlin. Peter Graf often served as his daughter’s business manager, and was on trial for funneling her income to offshore bank accounts undeclared to German tax authorities.
Asked if the money had been paid to ensure Graf’s appearance in the tournaments, Sanders replied, “Yes.”
Graf’s alleged appearance fees for the four-year period examined during the trial topped $2 million.
The German magazine Der Spiegel reported that court documents also revealed the widespread practice of paying appearance fees in the women’s game. The magazine reported that Graf and then-co-No. 1 Monica Seles each commanded $30,000-$400,000 to play in an event, depending on its size.
The appearance money was extended to the top 15 players, the magazine said.
Der Spiegel reported that, besides the events in Germany, Peter Graf negotiated appearance money for tournaments in Japan, Switzerland, Canada and Hilton Head, S.C. He was said to have required the money in cash, which he carried around in large plastic bags.
WTA Tour rules state: “No player, agent, coach, or family member shall accept money or anything of value that is given from any sources, directly or indirectly, to influence or guarantee her appearance . . . “
The rules stipulate an automatic fine of $50,000 and a ban of as much as three months for each offense, as well as reimbursement. Additionally, tournament directors who pay appearance money may lose the right to stage tour-sanctioned events.
The problem with the rules regarding “improper payments” is that they conflict with rules that allow tournaments to pay for “player services.” All a tournament director has to do is set up a personal-services contract, or agree to a handshake deal and no rules have been broken.
Anne Person Worcester, CEO of the WTA Tour, acknowledges that the conflicting rules are unenforceable. Rules changes are on the agenda for a WTA board meeting early next week and it is likely that the tour will liberalize player payments.
Worcester said that whatever happens, she doesn’t see a problem with fans thinking the women are taking the money and running.
“In 25 years of women’s tennis, . . . players have never had a reputation for tanking,” Worcester said. “Can anyone ever argue that Steffi Graf ever gave less than her full effort on the court?”
Graf’s public problems began in 1994 when promoter-manager Ion Tiriac sought to recover what he said was $300,000 he’d paid to Peter Graf for Steffi Graf’s participation in an exhibition event Tiriac organized at Essen, Germany. Tiriac says he paid the money up front and Graf never showed.
That alerted German tax authorities, and the tour, that Graf was getting undeclared money, touching off their investigations.
Graf’s agent, Phil de Picciotto, says the flap over appearance money is a gray area and that Steffi Graf is being singled out for practices that are common throughout the sport.
The WTA Tour has an ongoing investigation into Steffi Graf’s business. De Picciotto said he and Graf have cooperated in that.
Worcester will make her recommendations regarding her investigation next week. No action against Graf is expected.