Tennis data reveals earnings deficit in the sport

FiveThirtyEight, a website started by Nate Silver, known for his statistical work during elections, produces data journalism galore for the public to take in. Carl Bialik, the website’s lead writer for news, took a look at the world of tennis and what exactly the landscape of prize money looks like in a piece he wrote back in December.

His findings in short were that even though there are thousands of professional tennis players, only a small fraction break even, with even fewer making a nice living for themselves.

How did he find that out? He used data.

One of his first pieces of information was a press release from the International Tennis Federation, which broke down the number of players who played a professional tournament along with average expenses and relevant statistics.

The bottom line, as Bialik pointed out, is that only 589 men and women made enough on tour to break even in 2013. Considering 13,336 players competed during the season, it is shocking that only four percent of them finish with the same or more money than when they first started.

Keep in mind, that is not making money, merely getting back to even.

The piece used a graphic that showed just how large the disparity in the sport’s funding between the top-tier and everyone else is.

The data shows that the top levels in the sport may make money to survive, but the lower tiers make next to nothing. (Credit to FiveThirtyEight)
The data shows that the top levels in the sport may make money to survive, but the lower tiers make next to nothing. (Credit to FiveThirtyEight)

This season, as the chart shows, there will be about $100 million worth of prize money on the ATP World Tour, where only the top-100 or so, usually more exclusive than that, are able to compete. On the ITF and Challenger circuits, the minor leagues in the tennis world, there is only about $10 million up for grabs.

Someone out there very well could have taken all of the same numbers and put together an entirely-written piece hitting on the same point’s Bialik did, but it would not be as effective. Millions of dollars is millions of dollars so the difference between the levels of professional tennis may have seemed big, but not huge. That is where the graphic really hits home.

Bialik did the same thing when taking a closer look at the funding for lower-level tournaments specifically. “Futures” tournaments, the lowest of the low-level events, provide the least reward for performance. But, those held in Europe have more money to give the players. Now, look at the graph:

ITF Events in Europe have a far higher prize fund than the same level event anywhere else. (Credit to FiveThirtyEight)
ITF Events in Europe have a far higher prize fund than the same level event anywhere else. (Credit to FiveThirtyEight)

Describing it is one thing, but numbers put into graph form makes the information used in data journalism that much more appealing.

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