As first appeared in Boxscore
By Aron Solomon
Canadian tennis great Milos Raonic tweeted on Monday, what I’ve been thinking since news first broke about the Saudi sovereign investment fund’s potential investment into women’s tennis:
It is clear that the only reason the WTA decided yesterday that their Tour Final would not head to Saudi Arabia this year is because the Saudis are looking for something bigger. As I have written and spoken about at length, Saudi Arabia wants tennis to be part of their sportbleaching, which is next-level sportwashing.
It makes no sense at all for the Saudis to invest in a piece of a piece – a critically important lesson they only recently learned
I’ll explain this in a lot more detail. In making their investment into LIV golf, the Saudis essentially bankrolled a part of professional golf. In bringing the war between LIV and the PGA tour slowly to a close, the Saudis will have an ownership stake in something bigger, which is their endgame.
Given the fact that the Saudis are bringing the ATP Next Gen tour finals to Saudi Arabia, and have been talking about investing in women’s tennis, it makes perfect sense from the Saudi perspective to have a unified men’s and women’s tour.
That’s what this meeting in London is going to be all about. How can tennis better present to the Saudi sovereign investment fund a unified tennis package where the men and women are playing together at the highest levels? This is the threshold question because that has to be the future of tennis if they want investment not only from Saudi Arabia but from the kind of corporate partners, who want to invest in the whole of the game, not parts of it.
Of course, this gets very complicated very quickly. If you are in that group of observers who believe that Saudi investment in sport is a good thing, you should be enthused about the possibility of a unified men’s and women’s tennis tour with Saudi money. That money would serve to increase purses for major tournaments, and potentially create some kind of expansion of the ATP’s new Baseline program to ensure that women are similarly-situated in having some kind of annual income guarantee if they are not one of the top players in the world.
But that takes a great leap of faith, given the fact that the Saudi sovereign investment fund is, plain and simple, dealing with Saudi Arabia. It is endlessly complicated, difficult, and disturbing to imagine any significant influx of Saudi money changing the look and feel of professional men’s, and women’s tennis, which it certainly has the ability to do.
Of course, we also have to remember how we got here in the first place. I have also written and spoken at length over the past months and couple of years about the lack of vision in the WTA’s leadership, and the straight-up mismanagement of the organization at the highest levels. So this is really the reason we are here now, as opposed to any kind of viable challenge for the future of the game by Novak Djokovic’s PTPA.
The problem with accepting money from any source, particularly one that is so globally and politically charged as Saudi Arabia, is that when we change something, like professional tennis, it is more than likely irrevocable. For those of us who love tennis at all levels from the competitive juniors through the professional game, how are we ultimately going to feel about a game whose business model is being driven by those with whom we feel a fundamental moral disconnect?
While it’s easy to see that as a rhetorical question right now, the upcoming meetings in London about the potential for a unified tour are a concrete first step in the direction of a far more investable business of professional tennis. It’s just important for us to understand that with every conversation, such as the mercifully failed one about Saudi Arabia hosting this year’s WTA’s tour finals, and with every meeting, such as the one about to happen in London, we find ourselves further down a path that may be treacherous to reverse.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, YouTube, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.