Listen to this article
There is only one man in the world who can compare, with complete insider’s authority, the relative merits of tennis and golf at the professional level. You might remember him as the bouncy, curly-headed, two-handed member of the Two Macs doubles combination that won Wimbledon twice in the early 1980s.
There was Peter McNamara and then there was Paul McNamee, and it is the latter who has gone on to establish himself as one of the world’s leading sports administrators.
First he created the Hopman Cup in Perth in 1988 and the success of that international tennis team event led to his appointment as tournament director of the Australian Open in 1994. Then, in a switch few have attempted, McNamee became tournament director of both the men’s and women’s Australian Open golf championships last year.
Not surprisingly, the curly hair is grey now but the eyes still sparkle and the energy in undiminished. McNamee never left his live-wire personality behind on court and, despite the odd personality clash with more conservative officials, his ideas and instinctive nose for how to sell sport helped the Australian Open rise from its position as the poorest of the four tennis majors to become the single biggest sporting event in the country.
He comes bustling into the media restaurant at Melbourne Park, ready for a nostalgic return in the veterans doubles event with Pat Cash, to tell me that last November’s Australian Open golf at the Royal Sydney club saw television ratings soar 61 per cent.
“Golf’s a far bigger sport,” he says. “A McKinsey report we had done for tennis may have shown that there are more eyeballs watching tennis than golf – you get over 40,000 a day here at Melbourne Park while we were getting 10,000 in Sydney – but, financially, the two sports don’t compare.
“The entire golf industry in Australia last year was worth A$2.8bn. Tennis can’t compete with that. The money in golf comes from all the equipment sales, sponsorship and designing of golf courses and ranges.
“Golf is a male hobby. The guys like cars and toys and golf is their toy. They are prepared to spend money on it. Tennis is more orientated to the women and, although they might spend more in the shopping mall, they don’t spend on their favourite sport like the men do on theirs.”
McNamee has found that financial imbalance goes right to the top of the professional game and affects the earning power of each sport’s stars.
“Tennis has got its core structure wrong,” he says. “Top golfers earn far, far more money than tennis players. The reason is simple. The golf tours are regionalised. Virtually every week you have a winner on the PGA Tour and then three more on the European, Japanese and Asian tours.
“Of course there is a difference in standard between Asia and the PGA but no one out here cares. An Asian Tour winner is a star and earns millions because he becomes hugely well known in his region. When Nikolay Davydenko played in Sydney a couple of weeks ago, people asked me why they had never heard of him. Yet
he’s the number three tennis player
in the world. He’s not known because he hardly ever wins tournaments people hear about. He’s a semi-finalist every week while Roger Federer grabs the headlines.”
The disparity in earning power between the two sports is eye-opening. The Asian and Japanese golf tours
are offering US$70m combined this year – more than the total amount of money available on the worldwide Association of Tennis Professionals circuit, which totals $63.5m, excluding the four majors.
And the PGA Tour, which produces a total of $270m in the US, serves up close to $1m to its tournament winners virtually every week. This enables a player such as David Toms, to pick just one example, to collect $170,000 for finishing equal eighth at Kapalua on Maui.
Meanwhile, a sweat-soaked tennis professional who has battled his way through to win one of the 57 events on the ATP circuit that lie outside the big nine Masters Series earns, on average, less than $90,000. To have reached the quarter-finals in these tournaments – the equivalent of Thoms finishing eighth – a tennis player would be lucky to take home $20,000.
“I just feel sorry for fringe players like Rohan Bopanna, who played on the Indian team I had in the Hopman Cup this year,” says McNamee, who is still in charge of the Perth event. “He’s as good a tennis player as many of the golfers doing well out here and could be huge in India if he had more than a couple of tournaments in his region that he struggles even to qualify for because his world ranking is 290.
“That wouldn’t happen in golf. He’d be fine on an Asian tour, making a decent living. People don’t realise how incredibly difficult it is to make it financially in tennis compared with golf or, of course, sports like soccer and baseball.”
Once again, the figures back him up. Tiger Woods won $11.1m last year compared with Roger Federer’s $8.3m but that’s not where the problem lies. The 100th prize-money earner in golf last year was Ted Purdy who earned $1.2m. His tennis equivalent, the Russian Igor Kunitsyn, managed just $250,000. Marco Dawson, a PGA Tour player who never finished higher than fifth equal in any event he played, still earned $545,000 while finishing 200th among the money earners.
This will not come as news to Etienne de Villiers, the ATP’s executive chairman. He has already boosted the 2007 prize money by 10 per cent and plans a 35 per cent increase by 2009. But tennis still has a long way to go.
McNamee finds life in golf less volatile when it comes to dealing with the stars. Although he kept a lid on their differences, he and Lleyton Hewitt were at loggerheads by the time he left tennis.
“Golfers tend to be older and, therefore, more mature,” says McNamee. “Although tennis players are becoming much better at fulfilling their promotional obligations, golfers see it as part of their job. When I first came into the game, Stuart Appleby, for instance, was an enormous help in promoting the Australian Open for me.”
However, McNamee admits they are a bit conservative. “Watch out for a change in dress style,” he says with
a twinkle in his eye. “Tennis has
the march on us as far as fashion is concerned. Too many golfers are
difficult to identify. We’ll have to work on that.”