Tennis Canada was experiencing the dream. Now it must manoeuvre out of a nightmare.
It was seeing growth in tennis participation and successful professional tournaments, the Rogers Cups. Its development system was continuously producing winning players, including Bianca Andreescu, who barnstormed to titles at Indian Wells, Toronto and the U.S. Open as Canadians followed every exhilarating match.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has pro sports on indefinite hold, Tennis Canada faces more than $24-million in lost revenue for this season – even as one of its two Rogers Cups clings to life, not yet postponed. The sport’s governing body in Canada responded by slashing costs in many areas, including all tennis development for the rest of 2020. It terminated 47 of its 121 full-time employees as of June 5 and laid off an additional 38 who will return whenever tennis is back fully in swing. The remaining 36 employees accepted pay cuts of 10 per cent to 25 per cent until at least the end of the year. Even after all that, the losses still sit at $17.3-million.
“Some 94 per cent of what we spend comes from Rogers Cup revenue and fundraising, and that has made us very vulnerable,” said Tennis Canada CEO Michael Downey. “We were self-reliant and in a great situation, and now the rug has been pulled out from under us. The impact on our sport may be felt for three or four years.”
Last month, Rogers Cup Montreal – the top women were scheduled to play from Aug. 7 to 16 – was called off when Quebec’s government prohibited events through Aug. 31. Yet Toronto’s Rogers Cup, which this year was to feature the men, for the same week remains on the calendar, even as Tennis Canada announced Friday it has cancelled all other summer events, from junior and senior nationals to university and wheelchair events. Tennis Canada isn’t authorized to cancel this Rogers Cup – that’s up to a push from government, or the ATP Tour.
Downey and Rogers Cup Toronto director Karl Hale both say it’s highly unlikely that the event will take place this summer, but it will be determined one way or the other by June 1. Until then, they must explore all possibilities for a tournament with no fans – one scenario with just ATP players and another including ATP and WTA players.
A broadcast-only event would require some 600 people on-site at Toronto’s Aviva Centre over the nine days. That number would include 100 players and their coaches, medical staff, officials, broadcasters, organizers, security, volunteers for food and transportation and limited media. Imagine a Rogers Cup with no spectators, or patios, food tents, beer gardens, live music or retail vendors.
It would be special to be the first pro tennis tournament back – and Toronto could conceivably be just that. Even for a bare-bones Rogers Cup, there are enormous barriers in the way. So Tennis Canada is chewing on some very complex questions.
When might the border re-open, and how could 100 players from about 40 countries safely travel to Toronto? Would they arrive 14 days early to quarantine before coming to the grounds? How could safe physical distancing be maintained throughout the event? How many countries would players be expected to visit this season, and would Canada be one of them? Would holding a tournament without fans put Tennis Canada in an even deeper financial hole than cancelling it?
“The gate revenue is so important to our event, so it would be really tough to do it without that,” Hale said. “We had a call with the sport ministry this week and they didn’t give us any specific answers, but they said they’re working with all of the sports in Ontario. They want to make sport happen but public health is No. 1 for all of us.”
Tennis Canada is also without the global TV revenues it earns as a member of the ATP Masters series. As those events in that series get cancelled – Indian Wells, Miami, Rome, Monte Carlo and Madrid so far – broadcast pool shares go unearned.
But there is some bright news for Tennis Canada.
On Monday, National Bank is expected to announce a grant program for Canadian players suffering financially during this pandemic. It will gift $10,000 to $20,000 each to 23 deserving players ranked between 100 to 750 in the ATP or WTA singles rankings; 25 to 100 in doubles; in the Top 100 ITF junior rankings; or the Top 50 ITF wheelchair rankings.
Canada’s regional and national training centres can’t operate right now, but their coaches are meeting regularly with those rising teenage prospects, to get them to exercise by video. They’ve even had Canadian stars such as Andreescu and Félix Auger-Aliassime speak to the youngsters.
While the global nature of tennis makes it complex to re-start at the pro level, it’s an easy sport to re-start recreationally during this time of physical distancing. This week, Downey wrote to all provincial governments and 100 municipalities requesting a gradual return of rec tennis when parks or outdoor facilities re-open, along with ways to do it safely. He said Australia, Argentina and some European countries have already done so.
Tennis Canada made long lists of recommendations for recreational players and operators of outdoor courts. They include playing singles (not doubles) and wearing gloves or masks during play. Every player should use only their own tennis balls – identified with a marker – and use a racquet or foot to pick up balls. Choose continuous play over activities that use a full basket of balls. Stagger playing times or use every other court.
Canada has 7,500 outdoor tennis courts (plus 740 indoor courts). Some provinces are already planning to phase in outdoor tennis, such as Alberta, B.C, Manitoba, PEI, and New Brunswick. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Friday he will discuss re-opening recreational tennis and golf with health officials.
As government invests to help Canada’s struggling sports system, Downey hopes Tennis Canada might receive more than the $1.1-million it now gets annually from Sport Canada and Own The Podium. On Friday, federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said Canada’s amateur-sports system will receive $72-million from a federal government emergency support fund to alleviate the pressures of the pandemic. Tennis Canada is not sure how much it may get from that fund.
“These losses will seriously erode our future investment in amateur tennis activity,” Downey said. “We can make the case, ‘don’t give us money because we just lost money, but because tennis can play a role in getting Canadians active again’.”