The post-“The Tennis Racket” literature on match fixing on the men’s professional tennis tour has, among major tennis writers, been quite insightful. The New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg provided a telling first-hand look about the world of tennis match-fixing, while FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik reported on the recklessness of fixing a match at a Grand Slam, written in the wake of the suspicious betting that surrounded the first round mixed doubles match between Andrea Hlavackova and Lukasz Kubot and Lara Arruabarrena and David Marrero. But the best piece on the whole scandal is the one that digs deepest into the numbers on multiple levels of the tour, “The Cost of Fixing a Tennis Match” by Jeff Sackmann on the Heavy Topspin blog section of his website TennisAbstract.
The piece creates a metric of a monetary “expected value” per match, and while statistics are given for the median expected value of all ATP matches ($9,667), Sackmann notes that “[m]ost fixing allegations these days pertain to the Challenger level and below”, and these levels are where this piece will focus on. Obviously if the problem is as pervasive as the pieces written in the last couple of weeks have made it sound, then a single solution does not exist. But if the lower levels find ways to lessen corruption, any percentage is progress in the right direction.
The most obvious and probably easiest fix is there if one knows where to look. In an illuminating profile in Forbes, journeyman Michael Russell estimated that “To break even [in the Challengers], 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.” Earlier in the article, he put the yearly travel expenses at $35,000. While sponsorships are exponentially less lucrative on the Challenger Tour than they are on the ATP Tour, Challenger tournaments still do have their sponsors. If tennis is serious about cleaning itself up, then so, too, should be their sponsors.
For the large entities sponsoring these events, covering the 32 main draw singles players found in Challengers for travel expenses would cost in the thousands of dollars per tournament. Relative to the fiscal capacity of a lot of these sponsors, the price would be well worth the knowledge that they are working towards cut down on corruption in the sport. As Sackmann correctly noted in his article, going the route of even doubling the prize money found at Challengers would not be an effective deterrent relative to how much players could make from engaging in match fixing. But if such a costly part of their tour life was no longer a financial burden, that could drastically reduce the incentive for players to throw their matches.
There are no perfect solutions, and hopefully the measures taken by the Tennis Integrity Unit over the course of this season beyond find meaningful results. Their stated focus on talking to younger players is a smart strategy, but what happens when those youth become immersed in the financial realities of playing professional tennis? This is where footing the bill for travel becomes a convincing proposal – no matter the age, it will allow players at the lower ranks to simply aim towards winning matches and ascending the ranks, and not so much about breaking even on a week-to-week basis.