Ian Ritchie, the departing chief executive of the All England Club, has told The Tennis Space that players have been given “pretty decent”, above-inflation pay rises during his time running the Wimbledon Championships.
Some players believe they are underpaid at Wimbledon and the other grand slams, and the possibility of industrial action – a strike – has been raised. In his first interview since it was announced he is leaving in February to run the Rugby Football Union, Ritchie suggested that the players have always been fairly treated by the All England Club: “It’s not as if we’ve been parsimonious. The rises have been well, well over inflation.” Ritchie, who confirmed that he had been approached by the men’s ATP Tour about the job of chief executive, said he had been flattered that the players considered “the slightly overweight bloke in the suit”, but had decided that the opportunity was “not the right thing for me.”
A number of the players are understood to be unhappy that only 12 or 13 per cent of revenues at the slams is spent on prize-money. How do you respond to the players who believe they deserve greater reward?
“I always quite like this speculation about percentage of revenue, when no one knows what our revenue is. We’ll pass on that for a minute. The other point to make is that all the money made at the slams goes back into tennis. There’s nothing that we don’t reinvest back into tennis. It’s either reinvested back into facilities here, or it goes to the Lawn Tennis Association. Do I think the players should get appropriate compensation? Of course I do. Hopefully we try here to show how important the players are. We try to look after them. They do appreciate that this is a tennis club.
“One of the highlights for me last year was after Djokovic went back to Belgrade to meet 100,000 people and he was wearing his member’s badge. I was thinking, ‘Wow’. I dropped him a note, saying, ‘I can’t tell you how thrilled everyone here was to see you wearing the member’s badge’. Of the 100,000 people there at that event in Belgrade, he was probably the only person who knew what the badge was. There was no PR person, or anyone, telling him to wear the badge, he was wearing it because he wanted to. That was a brilliant moment and a recognition that we always try to treat them with respect. When I started in 2005, the champion earned 630,000 pounds and last year the winner received 1.1 million pounds. In that period of time, it’s almost doubled. We never take for granted that the prize-money is important, and we never take for granted that the players are important. But if you look at the levels of increases over the last few years, they’ve had really good increases. I think, in the main, based on the discussions we’ve had, the players have recognised that.”
The possibility of a strike has been raised. Do you think a strike is likely?
“Honestly, I haven’t got a clue. I haven’t had any conversations about this. We recognise that we have to be in the right place with prize-money. We can demonstrate that we’ve done that. I was sitting watching the Australian Open final, and the one thing I can guarantee you is that the money never entered into the minds of Rafa or Novak when they were playing for almost six hours. Did they want to win the Australian Open? You bet they did. Did the money enter their minds even for one moment? No.
“If there are things that need to be addressed, the team here will address them. The record here has been a good one. It’s not as if we’ve been parsimonious. The rises have been well, well over inflation. What I would say is that these things can get incredibly distorted because of exchange rates. Because of where the Australian dollar is, players have received more there when that money is exchanged into pounds, US dollars or Euros. But if you look at the gross pay-outs at Wimbledon over the last few years you would think they are pretty decent increases.”
Can you confirm that you were approached by the men’s tour, the ATP, about becoming their new chief executive?
“It was very informal. They didn’t use a headhunter. Yes, there was an approach. Was I interested? I wasn’t the only person. No doubt there were umpteen others. It was from the players’ side, and I felt as though that was a tribute to Wimbledon. That was a compliment to Wimbledon, not to me, that the players would consider me. That’s what occurred. It was nothing more than that relatively informal approach. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this job has been spending time with the top players. I think they’re fantastic to deal with. It’s a real privelege to spend time with them, and it’s difficult not to be impressed by their dedication, and their demeanour.”
Why did you withdraw your candidacy?
“It’s nonsense to say I was a candidate, because it wasn’t that formal a process. It was an informal approach and I didn’t feel that it was right to pursue it further.”
Did you meet Rafa Nadal to discuss possibly taking the job?
“I had a conversation with a couple of the players about it. I was flattered that they even thought that it was a possibility that I could do it. I have the highest regard for them and I’m always very conscious of the fact that I’m the bloke in the suit. My speed about the court does not rival theirs. So for the slightly overweight bloke in a suit to be asked, ‘will you think about it?’, I took that as extremely flattering, but it wasn’t the right thing for me.”
Has there been any development with the All England Club’s lobbying to change the taxation of international sportsmen (at the moment, visiting athletes are taxed on their prize-money, appearance fees and a percentage of their worldwide endorsement and image rights)?
“No. It’s still a work in progress. Last year there were several conversations about it, and there’s still a wish to look at that. It would be good to address that. The whole country likes to see sporting events.”
Do you find it concerning that Rafael Nadal will not play at Queen’s Club this summer because of Britain’s taxation policy?
“He’s been open about his views. We’ve been trying to have discussions with the government. We’ve had the opportunity to put our views across.”