Feb 12

The Challenges of Challengers – Alison Lee Interview

Alison Lee, Queen of Challengers (photo: ATP Tour)

Alison Lee, Queen of Challengers (photo: ATP Tour)

It’s scattered over virtually every continent, taking in plenty of towns and cities you have never heard of without tennis (Granby, Canada, this means you) and is a vital pathway in player development, as well as being a spectacle in its own right via streaming, and in the current climate, lest we forget, a popular medium for betting.

Although it is the second tier of tennis, there are still hundreds of Challengers, with hundreds of players all competing for millions in prize money and ranking points to propel them up the tennis food chain.

At the end of 2014, ATP CEO Chris Kermode said he wanted to give a boost, financial and otherwise, to the Challenger circuit.

Alison Lee is part of the ATP’s Management Structure, and the former journalist is head of the Challenger Committee as part of her Executive Vice-President role. It’s part of her job to keep to make sure the Tour is in robust health, catering to the conflicting demands of schedules, players, sponsors and tennis’ myriad other interests.

It can’t be that easy to keep so many balls in the air, but she is hopeful that tennis second tier is making progress, when we caught up with her earlier this month via an e-mail interview.

The place to begin seemed to be the efforts to boost prize money on the circuit, which had stagnated as the elite players saw their finances rise on the back of Big Four Fever.

“This is a long-term plan but we can already see vast improvements with the investments the ATP is making. It is also encouraging receiving regular and positive feedback from the players.” Alison told us, before crunching the numbers.

“Most of the minimum prize money level Challengers moved up from US$40,000 plus Hospitality (H) to $50,000 + H in 2015. There were about 50 at this level in 2013 and only six last year. Next year, $50,000 + H will be the minimum prize money at Challengers which is a 100% increase at the minimum level in ten years. Last year, there were 162 Challengers (150 in 2014) and prize money increased to $10.5 million which was up by almost 12%.”

The first fear raised is that the challenge of finding increased prize money would cause a contraction in the numbers of events, and places willing to stage them, but this seems not to be the case.

“Even with the increased prize money, we are seeing more applications to stage Challengers in 2016. However, our focus is not on increasing the number of events, but making sure the ones we do have are in the right weeks and the quality of these events is improving. The challenge is to ensure that the enhancements are sustainable and gradual.”

So, the Tour is at least in a position where the prospect of staging a Challenger seems appealing enough to sustain the current calendar.

Alison Lee

“It’s very easy for people to say there needs to be more money in the Challenger Tour.”

But while the prize money rises are noticeable and a welcome commitment, the Challenger Tour has lagged behind the ATP Tour in terms of percentage increases – and it’s a seductive assumption to believe this a part of the ageing process of the top 100. While this may benefit the Tour in keeping loyal fan bases of familiar names captured. Alison says the disparity is not unnoticed, and her view on the ranking system is perhaps one to keep in mind.

Inigo Cervantes was among those benefitting from more Challenger cash (photo: FSOT)

Inigo Cervantes was among those benefitting from more Challenger cash in 2015 (photo: FSOT)

“We’re conscious that prize money on the Challenger Tour has not increased at the same rate as the ATP World Tour in recent years. We view the Challenger Tour as a stepping stone for players to get on to the ATP World Tour. It’s important that we see mobility up and down the ranks and that players are able to get an opportunity to make that step up onto the main ATP World Tour where prize money is greater. Just as much as prize money, the rankings points structure is critical in that regard as we look for a structure that offers players the opportunity for upward mobility.

This leads on to the question as to what is the number of players who should be able to sustain a professional career, but Alison is coy on any figures.

“Defining what makes a professional tennis player is a complex issue. How much a player should earn, and the costs of what it takes to get there obviously varies from one country to the next. There are more than 2000 players on the Emirates ATP Rankings. Not all these players should expect a successful career in professional tennis. Being able to draw the line as to where that distinction lies is the challenge.”

One assumption I’ve always made about the Challenger Tour is that scheduling the tour with any coherence is an almightly cat herding exercise. Local heroes emerge, such as Victor Estrella, and sponsorship money suddenly springs up in the Dominican Republic, where tennis has not been a big deal. There is no guarantee that impact can last (see Paradorn Srichaphan and Thailand) And Alison says there is an effort to create a globally consistent schedule in among financial realities.

Victor Estrella took the ATP's "best hat worn during a trophy ceremony award" in Quito (photo: ecuadorquitoopen.com)

Victor Estrella Burgos’ success brings forth Dominican Challengers (photo: ecuadorquitoopen.com)

We’ve made a concerted effort to work with national federations and local promoters, providing subsidies where necessary, in order to ensure that we create as many playing opportunities at the right times and in the right places.

Creating swings that complement playing patterns on the ATP World Tour is always a goal. An example of this is the impact of the reduced qualifying draw sizes (from 32 to 16 players) at ATP World Tour 250 tournaments, which were introduced this year. In the first two weeks of January, we had five ATP World Tour 250s with 80 fewer playing opportunities for players in the qualifying draws and therefore more of a need to have Challengers at this time.

We made a big effort to put on more Challengers in those first few weeks in Asia, Australia and South America, to try to make sure players had somewhere to play.

But she adds Any investments need to be taken into consideration with a long term view, and be sustainable. Therefore, the Challenger tournaments certainly have to be able to survive on their own.

It led on to two final points on the benefits of the extensive streams of Challenger Tournaments. The vast majority are available to watch, in one camera format, which offers a basic, but useful, viewing experience.

The coverage has also been taken on a step by the United States Tennis Association, who have added multiple camera TV quality broadcasts with commentary from Mike Cation that frequently puts some media members with a higher profile to shame.

So far, the ATP view on all of the broadcasts is positive.

Alison says: “The revenues generated from live streaming at challengers has played an important role in enabling us to invest back into the structure. Anything we can do to help increase the exposure and promotion of the Challenger Tour is positive. The USTA Challengers do a very good job with commentators and multiple cameras and this is certainly something we are looking at in our long-term plans, perhaps with the top-level prize money Challengers.”

It also seemed a good time to address whether or not a side benefit of the streaming was a deterrent to potential fixers, who’s efforts have to survive the scrutiny of the viewing public. It was perhaps the one area that Alison was reluctant to directly address, commenting “In terms of tennis’ anti-corruption efforts, this is an area that has been widely reported on since the beginning of the season. We take the recent allegations in the media relating to corruption in the sport very seriously. The recently announced Independent Review into the Integrity of Tennis will ensure that we are doing everything we can to protect the integrity of our sport.”

I do have to admit it’s difficult to quite get the feel of your subject via an e-mail conversation, but there clearly is attention being paid to the prize money and profile of the Challenger Tour and the role it is designed to play as the last stop before the main ATP Tour. And of course, it’s nice to see a former journalist move into doing something constructive with their career instead..

Thanks to Alison Lee and the ATP Media Department for giving their time to Foot Soldiers of Tennis.

Have a view on what you’ve read? Use the comments section! They are moderated, but only for spam, not for opinion.


1 comment

  1. Craig TSV

    Increased prize money on the Challenger tour is vital. It’s so hard for those without sponsorship to make it on tour financially never mind on court.

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