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Friday, October 3, 2008
Tennis financially fair in all aspects

OK, so you're feeling a little queasy as the economy pitches downhill, like a runaway car without brakes negotiating one hairpin turn after another. The word "recession" is on everyone's lips.

At times like this, people start to toss around words like "greed" and "obscene salary," and sports stars can come into the crosshairs right behind the CEOs. Let's face it, athletes are, by almost anyone's definition, overpaid. But in the real world there's no such thing, because there's no baseline value on anything: Things are worth what people are willing to pay for them. Not a cent more, not a cent less.

When people trash overpaid athletes, they're usually asking one of two questions: Is paying individuals a whopping salary counterproductive (as in: higher salaries translate to higher ticket prices for fans, disillusion with sports, and jealousy and bickering within the sport or team itself)? And, are athletes providing good value (performance-wise) for the salaries they get? Tennis looks pretty good on both those fronts.

Ticket prices in tennis are reasonable and often lower than those of comparable events in other sports. I think it's fair to compare the U.S. Open to, say, the NFL or NBA playoffs, in degree of importance to fans and within the sport.

Remember, a grounds pass to the U.S. Open costs just $46 to $52, and some regular seats are available for as little as $22. Plus, the qualifying event, which takes place on site, right before the tournament, and features many familiar names and upcoming stars, is absolutely free. It's the best deal in sports. That's a deal that blows even minor league baseball away, plus the tennis pros are closer to the gold standard of top players.

Question No. 2 is usually more of a flashpoint for gripes about overpaid athletes. Here are some things to consider: However you feel about the amount of money offered at events, the payout in tennis is entirely performance-based in a way that can make team franchises look like they're running federal entitlement programs rather than competitive sports, and in the end, the consumer always pays.

You can't blame team sports for not being able to utterly link pay with performance, but the bottom line is that in tennis, a competitor earns (or blows) every dime with the swing of his stick, degree of dedication and workload (number and kind of events played). If players don't play because of injury or loafing around, they aren't making a dime. Some team sports stars seem more like CEOs: They don't deliver the goods but there's always someone else to blame -- the front office, managerial errors, you name it. A tennis player is like a carpenter, or a pizza parlor owner; if he doesn't make any dough, he gets no dough.

There's another huge factor here: The start-up cost for a tennis player (or golfer) is enormous, in terms of the money parents must spend in the early years for court time, coaching and equipment. Traditional team sports players are heavily subsidized (by schools, pee-wee leagues and so forth) from day one.

Are tennis player salaries out of whack? I took a quick look at the most relevant prize-money figures (those in golf) and discovered this: The top tennis player and golfer (Rafael Nadal and Vijay Singh, respectively) are in a virtual dead heat, at about $6.5 million each. But the No. 5 golfer (Kenny Perry) has earned $4.6 million so far this year. His counterpart in tennis is Nikolay Davydenko, who's earned just $1.5 million.

No. 10 golfer Justin Leonard has raked in $3.8 million, while No. 10 tennis player Juan Martin Del Potro hasn't broken the $900,000 mark. Golfer Jonathon Byrd is at the entry level of the PGA Tour's million-dollar club for the year and ranked No. 85. His counterpart in tennis is Leander Paes, who's earned a little over $310,000.

You look at those figures and you wonder if Congress shouldn't immediately come up with a bailout plan -- for pro tennis players.