WTA chief executive Steve Simon backs idea of merger with ATP, says coronavirus crisis can provide new opportunities

After leaders of the men’s tennis tour, including Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, said they wanted to explore a merger with the women’s circuit, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association has made it clear that the feeling is mutual.

Representational image. Reuters

“I’m not afraid of the full merger; I never have been,” Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA, said by telephone Monday in his first extensive comments on the ATP’s interest. “I would certainly be the first to support it, because I think then you truly have the business and the strategic principles all aligned, which is what you need to do. Obviously it’s a long and winding road to get there, but I think it makes all the sense in the world.”

Although the new chairman of the ATP expressed interest in a merger about two weeks ago, no formal or detailed discussions have begun.

“We’re at the 10,000-foot level,” Simon said.

Still, the tours, which have operated independently since the WTA was founded in 1973, are now in an unprecedented position. Never before have both tour chiefs and the biggest stars in the men’s game publicly supported considering such a merger.

“Nope, which is why it never happened,” Martina Navratilova, a 59-time Grand Slam champion, said in a text message Monday. “Nice to see the unity for a change.”

Navratilova said she had long supported a merger, as has WTA founder Billie Jean King.

“But the ATP never stepped up,” Navratilova said. “It should happen, and maybe COVID-19 will make it happen sooner rather than later.”

The coronavirus pandemic has shut down the professional tennis tours since mid-March. Wimbledon was canceled, and scores of other events were postponed through at least 12 July.

Both tours have had to reduce costs significantly. The ATP has furloughed or reduced hours for about one-third of its 100-plus employees, and the WTA, according to Simon, is cutting executive pay.

Simon said that a merger was not a financial necessity for the women’s tour, although the ATP generates more revenue and has greater reserves.

“This isn’t about trying to save the WTA,” he said. “We’ll be fine, but look, if we’re going to do the right business thing and we’re finally going to bring the sport together, I think the WTA would be very supportive of this concept.”

Simon said tennis’s global nature would make restarting more challenging than it would be for leagues based largely in a single nation or region. But like Andrea Gaudenzi, the ATP chairman, Simon said the pandemic had created increased dialogue among tennis’s divided leadership and a fresh incentive to integrate, something that King advocated before opting for what she called Plan B in 1973.

“This is a unique time,” Simon said. “Crisis and challenges can sometimes provide opportunity as well.”

Approval from both tours’ boards of directors would allow a merger to proceed, but because of existing commercial contracts, a full unification could take years to complete.

“There’s going to be no shortage of accountants, tax attorneys, attorneys and everybody else that is involved with it,” Simon said. “It would take time, but conceptually it may not take as long. If you agree on the goal, you can usually get things done quicker.”

Some, including the former men’s No. 1 Andy Murray, have expressed concern that the women might not be treated as equals in a merger because of the ATP’s greater economic resources and larger fan base. In the current model, there are complaints from the women’s tour about scheduling for show courts at some combined events with the men.

Simon said he did not believe that women would be second-class citizens in a merger.

“It’s not an acquisition,” he said. “This isn’t about either tour taking territory.”

A single merged tour, he said, could build larger audiences and have more commercial appeal, yielding bigger financial rewards for everyone.

“Right now we compete against ourselves as well as all the other leagues and entertainment properties,” Simon said. “We compete for fans, partners, sponsorships as well as broadcast and data, so the alignment allows you to aggregate assets.”

Gaudenzi, who assumed his post in January, has backed pooling resources and even lobbied the four Grand Slam tournaments, the sport’s most prestigious events, to join forces with the tours. The Grand Slam tournaments all operate individually.

Gaudenzi has described the commercial value of an alliance between the WTA and the ATP as “one plus one equals four,” and the worth of an alignment between the two tours and the Grand Slam events as “one plus one plus four equals 20.”

“I like his math,” said Simon, who also said he agreed with it.

Ultimately, the deciding factor will probably be whether today’s players, particularly those on the ATP Tour, support the concept. The men have quashed merger discussions in the past, and although Federer, Nadal and Murray have all expressed preliminary support, Murray has said he knows there is real opposition.

He told CNN last week that some male players were resistant to equal prize money, even if they got a pay raise along the way.

“Let’s say the first-round loser’s check for the men went from $8,000 to $10,000 and the women went from $6,000 to $10,000,” Murray said. “I spoke to some of the male players about that who were unhappy because the prize money was equal. And I said, ‘Well, would you rather there was no increase at all?’ And they said to me, ‘Yeah, actually.’”

“And that’s some of the mentalities you’re working with in these discussions,” he continued, “where someone would rather make less money so they are not on equal footing with the female players. So there will be some challenges.”

Christopher Clarey c.2020 The New York Times Company

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