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Crowdfunding helps to finance life on tour

While Novak Djokovic and Flavia Pennetta both pocketed more than $3 million after winning the US Open, beyond the Grand Slams the stark reality is that most players are struggling to make a living on the tour.

A 2014 review1 found that in 2013 only 3.7% of men and 5.2% of women made a profit from travelling on the professional circuit. It reported that despite a combined prize money pool of approximately $282 million ($162m for men; $120m for women), most players struggled to make ends meet, with the top one per cent (the top 50 men and top 26 women) earning more than fifty per cent of the total prize pot.2

In an increasingly global sport, players’ expenses were calculated at $38,800 for male players and $40,180 for female players (this included flights, accommodation, food, restringing, laundry, clothing and equipment, airport transfers but not coaching).

“There was only one tournament where I walked away with more than my expenses and that was Wimbledon 2013,” says Britain’s Nicola Slater, currently ranked No.235 in the WTA doubles standings. “I have won six titles, among those a $75k and two $50k but expenses outweighed winnings.”

Slater, 31, has been based in the USA for 13 years since taking a tennis scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi before transferring to Florida State University, where she graduated before becoming a semi-professional, earning money as a coach to subsidise her life on tour. 

She is not alone in struggling to fund her tennis career with the annual expenditure estimated at around $50,000 a year. And following the LTA’s decision to focus primarily on grass-roots tennis and streamline its high-performance programme, more British players will look to alternative sources of funding.

“The cost of becoming a pro tennis player are very inhibiting,” says Richard Pearson, chief executive of Pledge Sports, a crowdfunding platform which helps raise sponsorship for sports people, clubs, teams and brands. In return for financial support, the beneficiary offers rewards ranging from a mention on social media to signed photos and even personal tennis lessons for the most generous supporters.

“We do a lot of work with tennis players from Europe, USA and even Africa and have now helped different players raise over £60,000,” said Pearson. Slater used Pledge Sports to raise $5,300 in April 2015 to help keep her on tour for two-and-a-half months, during which time she reached the final of the Aegon Trophy in Surbiton with Tara Moore.

While approximately 85 per cent of that funding came from friends, family and colleagues, Slater was still overwhelmed by the support, receiving donations from 68 different supporters, some of whom were total strangers.

“Every single donation was a surprise,” said Slater, who was coached at times by Judy Murray while growing up in Scotland. “I asked my family to help by sharing my campaign as long they didn’t donate as they’ve done so much for me growing up already, so even getting it from family and friends is a surprise.

“I was laid back about the whole process because I saw besides the Irish tennis players, others raised a very small amount in comparison. So I hoped to raise a little.

“It gave me a big boost to know I had that support. People not necessarily caring about you winning but just wanting me to follow my dream and go for it and that they believed in me.”

Of the total amount raised, Slater was able to keep almost 90% after Pledge Sports take an 8% commission and a 2.4% cut for the payment processor.

“Crowdfunding has worked very well for tennis players as it gives them a great chance to reach out to their fan base for support,” explains Pearson. “Raising money is the most important part but you also get to build your profile and fan base, all of which is very important if you want to ever secure commercial sponsorship. And indeed some players on our site have gone on to secure small commercial sponsors directly as a result of the publicity received.

“Nicola had a really successful campaign with us. She is a popular girl and really put the effort in. She was a great to work with and I became a big fan. She had what it takes to succeed; you can’t be shy when doing a crowdfunding campaign.”

Pearson predicts that crowd funding will become an increasingly mainstream way for aspiring professionals to help them fund their dream as well as tennis clubs looking to raise money for new projects.

“Sports people, teams and clubs have always had to resort to fundraising,” he explains. “With traditional methods of fundraising, you only reach a small number of people. But through crowdfunding you have a link to that can be sent anywhere in the world, and reach tens of thousands of people through clever use of social media.

“Throw in the other benefits of publicity, raising your profile and a chance to increase your fan base and crowdfunding has a very bright and powerful future in sport and especially tennis.

“We look forward to helping many other tennis players and indeed clubs and tennis governing bodies over the coming years.”

Tennis Ireland is currently running a crowd funding campaign with Pledge Sports, with a target of €10,000 to raise money for its elite juniors.

1. ITF Pro Circuit Review, December 2014 in conjunction with Tennis Australia and Kingston University (London) http://www.itftennis.com/procircuit/about-pro-circuit/pro-circuit-review.aspx 

2. In 2013 total men’s prize money was approximately $162m. In that year the top 1% of male players (top 50) won $97,448,106 (60% of total prize money). The total women’s prize money was approximately $120m. The top 1% of female players (top 26) won $60,585,592 (51%). (Source: ITF Pro Circuit Review)