After years of offering larger prize money increases to early round losers, the U.S. Open is putting more money toward the brightest stars this year.
The 2023 tournament has the largest purse in its history at $65 million, an 8% increase over last year for an event that has long paid the most of tennis’ four Grand Slams.
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But not all prize money increases are created equal. The winner’s payout jumped from $2.6 million in 2022 to $3 million in 2023, a 15.4% raise. The runner-up distribution increased by the same percentage, while the compensation for players reaching the semifinals is up 9.9%. In contrast, the winnings for the other 124 players in the singles main draws is just 2% higher than last year, and the money given to players who lost in the qualifying rounds was bumped up just 3%.
The significantly larger increase in prize money for players at the higher end of the earnings spectrum is notable given that it’s the exact opposite of the U.S. Open’s approach in recent years. From 2019 to 2021, compensation went up 29% for first-round losers and 66% for qualifying-round losers, while the winner’s prize dropped from a record $3.85 million in 2019 all the way down to $2.5 million in 2021 after COVID.
“A few years ago when I was here, I remember that it was the highest-ever prize money for the winner, and I know that there was a lot of focus on that,” Novak Djokovic said in an interview with Sportico. “This is a narrative shift I’d like to see in the future, where the tournament is proud of sharing information that there is a significant increase in the earlier rounds and the [qualifying rounds], rather than for the winner.”
Now with the winner’s prize back up to $3 million, the 112 players who lose in the qualifying draw split only slightly more than $3.23 million. Losers of the first qualifying round only earn $22,000. For many of them, the U.S. Open is by far the most lucrative tournament they play all year, and yet they pocket only a small chunk of that after travel, hotel and coaching expenses.
“Most of these guys are flying from South America or Europe … You’re coming with at least a coach and friend or family member, so at least two people. Three flights, round trip,” Vasek Pospisil, co-founder of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) with Djokovic, said in an interview. “You have 64 guys and 64 girls that lose in the first round of [qualifiers] … that’s 128 of the top 500 players coming here and basically breaking even.”
The USTA did announce in a press release that it would provide greater financial assistance to all players across the board. This includes the introduction of a $1,000 travel voucher per participant, free racquet stringing, an extra hotel room and an increase in meal allowance for all competitors, including those in the doubles and wheelchair events.
It’s still not enough to ensure a comfortable living for lower-ranked players. “The 150th player on the planet struggles,” Djokovic said. “People don’t realize how expensive this sport is.”
Directly related to player expenses is inflation. Between 2018 and 2022, the total prize pool went up from $53 million to $65 million (+23%). CPI inflation was +21% over that same time span, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while U.S. Open revenues increased from $380 million in 2018 to $472 million in 2022 (+24%) over a four-year period.
“Players, when they see the numbers and the prize money increase they think, ‘Wow this is great, this is amazing,’ but one of the many things we don’t discuss is inflation,” Djokovic said. “We’re actually not really getting that percentage that is presented. If you put inflation in the discussion, you realize the reality is different.”
The USTA is proud that the total U.S. Open purse declined by less than 10% during the pandemic-riddled year of 2020, despite no fans in attendance and revenues being cut by more than 50%. The distribution of payouts changed drastically, however, and the winner’s prize increase this year is a partial undoing of that change.
Champions used to be allotted an even larger share of the purse. At the 1973 U.S. Open 50 years ago, the first with equal pay for men and women, each competed for a total of $100,000 with the winners taking home a quarter of that entire total: $25,000. Relative to the overall pot, the winner’s cut now is about half of what it was then.
The PTPA believes tournament prize money is often viewed as a zero-sum game, when it doesn’t have to be. “I would like to see the lower-ranked guys have more, but at the same time the issue is the revenue share,” Pospisil said. “There should be enough there that the top guys are also getting very well compensated for winning Grand Slams.”
Tennis tournaments have a responsibility to properly pay the stars who drive the most fans and revenue to the sport, something that golf was unable to do for decades. It’s not hard to connect the dots from the LIV Golf situation—in which a sovereign wealth fund with a large amount of money shook up the sport by creating a rival tour—and a tennis tournament increasing pay for its top talent.
Although the ATP and WTA tours may be feeling pressure, the majors should be well insulated from such a threat. “I wouldn’t say tennis is vulnerable” to an LIV-style upheaval, Djokovic said, citing the sport’s history and tradition.
Pospisil is ranked 158th in the world in men’s singles, but Djokovic, who will reclaim No. 1 following the U.S. Open and has made $172.3 million in career prize money, is also concerned for the little guys. “Whatever happens in the future with the prize money increases,” Djokovic said, “I really hope that there is going to be a larger number of players living from this sport, because that’s the goal.”
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