Monday, November 3, 2008

US Open Series Bonus Challenge: Do Players Care?

Below is a study I recently did on the US Open Series and whether players are actually enticed by the challenge. Read ahead.

To find out whether the US Open Series is attracting more top players through its “Bonus Challenge.”

In 2004, the USTA decided to link the North American Summer Tournaments together in a marketing effort to get more people excited about the upcoming US Open. Fans would be able to watch more tennis on television, and have a short 6-week “season” that they could follow. These tournaments included:

Men’s Tournaments
Los Angeles

Washington DC

New Haven

Women’s Tournaments
Los Angeles
San Diego (discontinued after 2007)
New Haven

Fans would be able to follow a schedule of when the next tournaments were. TV schedules would be online, etc.

In addition to this, they would try to get a buzz from the players, and encourage top ranked players to play in these tournaments that lead up to the US Open. So the USTA put a point-system in place, where players would earn points based on how they finished in these tournaments. At the end of the “season,” the player with the most amount of points, would double their prize money at the US Open. The 2nd place finisher would increase their prize money by 50% and the 3rd place finisher would increase their prize money by 25%. The chance to win additional prize money at the US Open would hopefully entice top players to play in these tournaments as opposed to taking that week off or playing in another tournament in Europe during the same week. The USTA based their hope that top players would start playing in these tournaments off a simple economic principle: Incentives Matter. On the players side, if a player plays in more US Open Series tournaments, he or she is more likely to do well, and finish in the top 3 of the Series. If he or she finishes in the top 3 of the series, the player will increase their prize money at the US Open, which is the incentive to play more.

Five years later, the US Open Series has been a hit with the fans. TV ratings have sky-rocketed, and interest in these tournaments has increased. There are a number of reasons that could explain this. The biggest one is the easy access to a television schedule, more television coverage, and more consistent televised final and semi-final times on Saturday and Sundays.

One may think that interest has also increased due to top players now playing more in the US Open Series tournaments. However, you will see that this hasn’t been the case at all.

One of the biggest thing that the USTA throws at the consumer is that the players are making a real race for the prize with the Bonus Challenge explained above. The goal and end result was simple: If there are more top players playing the tournaments, more people will watch the tournaments. Top players are what tournaments use to market their event. The more top players there are, the more a tournament can attract fans, television viewers, and sponsors. So for the Men, I reviewed the top 8 seeds in each of the US Open Series tournaments in the 5 years prior to the US Open Series (1999-2003) and the 5 years since (2004-2008). For the women, I reviewed these same seeds but due to lack of data from 1999-2000, I only reviewed the previous 3 years. I then computed the average ATP or WTA ranking of the top 8 seeds for that tournament. This keeps in mind the assumption that the top 8 seeds are the marquee players that tournaments use to market the event. Fans are more likely to want to view a seeded player than a non-seeded player on TV or in person. So a logical progression should look like this:

1. Top Player sees the opportunity to win more prize money at the US Open
2. Top Player decides to play in more US Open Series tournaments as opposed to playing in a tournament in Europe or taking the week off
3. Top Player does well in US Open Series tournaments
4. Fans see top players playing in tournaments, makes sure to watch on TV
5. Fans pay more attention to other tournaments and US Open due to US Open Series marketing campaign.
6. Top player increases prize money at US Open
7. TV ratings up. More buzz and press about US Open.

So what happens when 1, 2 and 3 are eliminated? Naturally, the rest shouldn’t happen either but ironically, in the end TV ratings are up and the Series is a big hit. In the next part, you will see the statistics on how much the fields at the tournaments have improved or not. Then, I’ll explore reasoning on whether they have or not.


Average Ranking of the Top 8 Seeds at Tournaments

Pre USOS 5 years- 13.15
Post USOS 5 years- 27.55

Los Angeles
Pre USOS 5 years- 19.42
Post USOS 5 years- 24.93

Pre USOS 5 years- 18.65
Post USOS 5 years- 31.18

Pre USOS 5 years- 6.86
Post USOS 5 years- 4.90

Pre USOS 5 years- 4.68
Post USOS 5 years- 4.73

New Haven/Long Island*
Pre USOS 5 years- 14.60
Post USOS 5 years- 20.15
*Note- New Haven/Long Island are the tournaments that happen the week before the US Open. A Men’s Event in Long Island was help from 1999-2003. In 2004, the rights to this tournament were bought by New Haven where the tournament was moved.

Average Ranking of the Top 8 Seeds at Tournaments

Pre USOS 3 years- 12.71
Post USOS 5 years- 15.35

Los Angeles
Pre USOS 3 years- 8.80
Post USOS 5 years- 9.98

Pre USOS 3 years- 7.96
Post USOS 5 years- 7.43

San Diego*
Pre USOS 3 years- 6.25
Post USOS 4 years- 8.19
*Note- San Diego’s last year was 2007

New Haven
Pre USOS 3 years- 7.38
Post USOS 5 years- 11.95

As you can see, most of these tournaments not only did not get better players, but their draws worsened! The biggest gap in the men can be see in Indianapolis and Washington where their top 8 seed average rank fell by more than 10! The women didn’t see as much of a decrease, but the tournaments certainly didn’t improve either.

Obviously this was not supposed to happen at all. Players were supposed to respond to an economic incentive! And why did the average rank drop in some tournaments. Here are some reasons and factors to consider for each gender.

Men’s Reasoning’s and Factors

Before reading below, let me explain the different Tiers of ATP Tournaments:

Master’s Series (MS) Tournaments - The ATP requires the top 10 players in the world enter these tournaments. Their draws are bigger, they give out more prize money and ranking points.

International Series Gold (ISG) Tournaments- No players are required to enter these tournaments. Ranking points and prize money are below what MS tournaments give out, but above IS Tournaments.

International Series (IS) Tournaments- No players are required to enter these tournaments. Rankings points and prize money are below what ISG and MS tournaments give out.

1. Cincinnati and Canada- These two tournaments are Master’s Series Tournaments, so they are naturally going to have the best draws of the year. The best average rank for the top 8 seeds that a tournament can have is 4.5 (the top 8 players in the world playing). As you can see, they come pretty close over the post-5 year period. Cincinnati was even better beforehand too! These tournaments don’t benefit from the US Open Series as much as the ATP’s requirement of the top 10.

2. Time of Year- This plays a big factor with top players playing. From 1999 through 2002, Indianapolis and Washington actually took place during the same week. So they competed against each other for top players. Even so, they had great draws. The reason may have been because there were no European tournaments and that these tournaments happened 2 weeks before the US Open started. Top players were already in the US playing Canada and Cincinnati, so why not get in another tournament in before the Open starts. Since then, these tournaments have been moved to separate weeks in late July, as opposed to when they were before in late August. Players need time to recover from Wimbledon, and may want to play in tournaments still going on in Europe (discussed below). Los Angeles actually happened around the same time of the summer in both pre and post US Open Series, and as you can see, their draws were not as affected as much as Indianapolis and Washington. Canada and Cincinnati were moved a week closer to the Open to only allow (except for Olympic years) a week between these events and the start of the Open. New Haven/Long Island always takes place the week before the Open, so the time of year does not affect this tournament.

3. The Olympics- In 2000, the Olympics took place after the US Open Series, so there wasn’t too much affected. You still have to keep in mind the Olympics for 2004 and 2008. In 2004, the Olympics took place the same week as Washington, and in 2008 they took place during Los Angeles and Washington. Consequently, they had some of the worse draws in their tournament’s history.

4. Competition From European Tournaments. For the most part, you can take Canada, Cincinnati, and New Haven/Long Island out of this factor. Except for 1999, these tournaments had no competition from Europe. So let’s take a look at Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Washington.

a. Indianapolis- As I said above, Indianapolis and Washington took place from 1999-2002 during the same week, so there was no competition from Europe during this time. Starting in 2003 though, the tournament had to compete with 2 other tournaments during the same week- 1 IS Tournament and 1 ISG Tournament, both being played on clay. Post USOS, these tournaments drew an average of 29.74 (IS-Gold) and 44.27 (IS) for their top 8 seeds. Indianapolis, being only an IS tournament, actually did a better job drawing better players for their tournament with their average of 27.55. Even so, this doesn’t match the 13.15 they got before the US Open Series started.
b. Los Angeles- Los Angeles (an IS tournament) competed with 2 other tournaments during the same week before and after the US Open Series started- 1 IS Tournament and 1 ISG Tournament, both being played on clay. Here are the averages before and after

Los Angeles (Int Series)
Pre- US OS (99-03) - 19.4
Post-US OS (04-08) - 24.9

Int. Series Gold
Pre- US OS (99-03) - 18.88
Post-US OS (04-08) - 19.47

Int. Series
Pre- US OS (99-03) - 43.73
Post-US OS (04-08) - 34.69

The numbers for Los Angeles aren’t as staggering as for Indianapolis and Washington, but there is still a 5 pt. average drop, and doesn’t do as well as the International Series Gold Event.

c. Washington- Washington has only competed with European Tournaments from 2005-2007. This tournament was Sopot, another International Series Tournament. In 2004 and 2008, it also competed with the Olympics, which is a pretty big event to compete with as well, so we’ll just look at 2005-2007.

2005- 19.9
2006- 22.3
2007- 29.9
Average- 24.01

2005- 31.13
2006- 31.25
2007- 25
Average- 29.10

In the beginning, Washington had a better draw than Sopot, but over the past couple years, it has declined. This could be due to the rise of clay court specialists, as discussed below. Before the US Open Series, when it only competed with Indianapolis, it’s average was 19.4, so it’s been declining ever since.

5. Location of European Tournaments- Many Europeans may prefer to stay in Europe rather than go to America to play tournaments. This raises a “home-court” advantage.

6. Clay Court Specialists- Clay Court players have been on the rise over the past couple years, and invading the top rankings lately. These players, usually coming from European and South American countries, prefer to play in clay court tournaments over hard court tournaments. Since the US Open Series started, these tournaments have started to compete more with European clay tournaments, so the clay court specialists now have an option. Since they would rather play on clay, they choose to not play in the US Open Series tournaments. Also, they could have had a busy clay court season and just chose to take a break during the US Open Series. Even still, many clay court players chose to play in the US Open Series tournaments before 2004 rather than in Europe. These include Gustavo Keurten, Magnus Norman, and Marcelo Rios.

7 .US Open Series Winners- Looking at the players who won the US Open Series, it doesn’t appear that they changed their schedule from previous years, to win more prize money. Let’s take a look at a few:
2004- Lleyton Hewitt- typically plays hardcourt tournaments anyway over the summer.
2005- Andy Roddick- American who plays these tournaments anyway
2006- Andy Roddick- same as above
2007- Roger Federer- only played in 2 tournaments- Cincinatti and Canada, both of which were required for him to play in. He won 1 and went to the final in the other. These tournaments give out more points as well, thus giving him the Series title with him not playing in any other tournaments.
2008- Rafael Nadal- again, only played in 2 tournaments, Cincinatti and Canada. Even bigger was the fact that Juan Martin Del Potro was only 5 points behind and instead of trying to win by winning 2 matches in New Haven, he pulls out of the tournament, finishing in third.

Women’s Reasoning’s and Factors

1. Improvement- It’s tough to improve on having top players in the draw, when they were already drawing top players. The biggest difference in average rank of the top 8 seeds was 4 points in New Haven. Compare this to the 13 point drop in Washington, and it doesn’t seem that bad. The fact is that these tournaments were already drawing the top players. While you can’t expect these players to play every week, for the most part they were filling out the draws in a lot of the US Open Series tournaments.

2. Competing Tournaments- Unlike the ATP, the WTA doesn’t load up their summer schedule with other tournaments in Europe. The WTA goes by Tiers for their different level of tournaments, using these to determine prize money and ranking points. Tier 1 is the best, followed by 2, 3, and 4. All of the US Open Series tournaments are 1 or 2. The tournaments that compete with them in Europe are either Tier 3 or Tier 4 events, which aren’t likely to attract the top players at all. Plus, there aren’t as many women clay court specialists as men. For example, in the 5 years after the US Open Series began, the top 8 seeds in Los Angeles (Tier 2) averaged a rank of 9.98. For the same week at a European tournament (Tier 4) it was 50.03.

3. Tournament Geographics. While the men have to take cross-country trips to continually play in these tournaments (Indianapolis to Los Angeles, to Washington DC to Toronto), the women’s tournaments are better geographically. The first 3 tournaments of the series happen in California (Los Angeles, Stanford, and San Diego). So the women don’t have to make that far of a trip to play.

4. Olympics- The WTA doesn’t schedule tournaments during the Olympics, so this doesn’t play a factor.

5. US Open Series Winners- Looking at the players who won the US Open Series, they didn’t really change their schedule from previous years, to win more prize money. Let’s take a look at a few:
2004- Lindsay Davenport- is a California native and typically played in these tournaments anyway.
2005- Kim Clijsters- Played in almost all these tournaments even before 2004.
2006- Ana Ivanovic- Lower ranked player at the time, probably not gunning for top prize money at the open anyway.
2007- Maria Sharapova- Usually plays in these tournaments anyway.
2008- Dinara Safina- Only played in 2 tournaments


The US Open Series definitely works for the fans. The buzz has increased, and TV rating are up. However, it’s not because the tournaments are getting better players. The Bonus Challenge is supposed to give an incentive for top players to play more, but this is obviously not working from the points above.

The main reason that the average rank of the top 8 seeds in Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Washington has decreased is because of the change in the calendar that the ATP made to adjust for these tournaments not to conflict with each other. When Indianapolis and Washington took place on the same week two weeks before the tournament, they were getting great draws. Players were already in America after Toronto and Cincinnati, and there was no competition from Europe.

The women had a great deal going before the US Open Series started anyway, and top players were already playing these tournaments. The average rank of the top 8 seeds in their tournaments didn’t increase either mainly because there were doing so well as it was. There was hardly any competition from Europe, and they’re better located geographically.

The USTA should keep the US Open Series, but get rid of the Bonus Challenge. If they want to have better players on both sides, they could either buy out the tournaments from Europe or convince the ATP to move the calendar back to what it looked like before.

Otherwise, they’re just wasting their money, which could be spent in better ways, such as promoting and growing the game of tennis on the community side. They’ve wasted enough money so far that the players don’t need. Let’s put it somewhere that it can count.