Evolving the Challenger Tour…

By James Steel

Last month, the ATP released changes to the ways that the Challenger Tour (the second tier of the tour) will try to improve for next year. These changes have a purpose of making the tour simpler to follow as a fan, more financially sustainable for the players, and a wider range of events for both fans and players to experience. This article aims to evaluate each change, taking a look at the positives and negatives, and what the ATP could do to further improve the Challenger Tour.

Category Changes

The first major change would be how each event is categorized. The current system has six different levels of Challengers, these being Challenger 50, 80, 90, 100, 110, and 125. Under the new system there will now be four Challenger levels with them being Challenger 50, 75, 100, and 125. There will also be the introduction of four special Challenger 175 events that will run during the second week of the ATP Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome due to all these events spanning over two weeks.

This, from a marketing and player planning perspective, can only be a positive. The much clearer distinction between what Challenger level is will allow players to know which event would be best for them to maximize their opportunity for playing time and ATP points. An example would be a player ranked 300 in the world seeing a Challenger 50 and Challenger 100 being played in one week and then knowing that the 100 will bring more points but will have tougher opponents whereas the 50 gives a better chance of a deep run.

My one issue with this will be the impact on the players that hold Challenger points from Challenger 80 events this season. If you take a player that won one of these events, the nearest event they could enter in terms of category would be a Challenger 75 and if they were able to defend their title in that week, they will still see a real drop of 5 points from their ranking. Now for a player ranked 1-100 in the world, this is a very small change. But for a player ranked below that, it could see their ranking drop by 10 or more positions and affect their ability to get into bigger tournaments in the future.

Increased Prize Money

The next change would be the significant increases in prize money for the Challenger tour. This will see an increase from $13.2 million in 2022 to a record $21.1 million in 2023, an increase of 60%. This includes notable increases at Challenger 100 tournaments ($106,240 to $130,000) and Challenger 75 tournaments ($53,120 to $80,000). In addition, round-by-round prize money distributions will improve earnings in the earlier rounds of events.

This can only be a good thing. I’d recommend that everyone watch the linked Youtube video from the Financial Times on the financial pressures on players in the lower levels of the ATP Tours.

An increased income from Challenger events will help bridge that and enable players to play more on the tour and attend the events they wish to play, not the ones they can afford to play. Indeed, some players can only travel around Europe if they are European or North America if they are American and Canadians. This pay increase could break this and allow players to travel further and wider. It has the potential as well of bringing more working class players into professional tennis who are financially turned off by the costs of the tour.

The only negative I can see from this brilliant policy would be the finances of the Futures Tour. The ITF M25 and M15 events are the starting blocks for Futures tennis stars on the tour. They have even less prize money than the current Challenger Tour and even more restrictions on travel options. More money is needed at this level as well to enable more players to play on the tour and allow more talent to come through. I hope the ATP and ITF keep this in mind for future changes.

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Enhanced Calendar

The 2023 Challenger Tour is set to deliver a record of 195 events, up from 183 in 2022, creating more opportunities for players. Improvements to the calendar will also see it more closely align with the ATP Tour and deliver a better balance of tournaments in terms of both surface types and regions. In addition, a projected 170% increase in the number of Challenger 100 and 125 events will enhance player flow and mobility.

The advantage of this is that more players will have more chances to play high levels of tennis on the tour. As we have seen with the WTA Tour, the less tournaments you have, the more stacked the field will be for the events that do take place. This will also allow players to break through from the Futures Tour to the main tour more quickly as they won’t be facing incredibly tough opposition at every round of the Challenger tournaments. This, in turn, will generally help players build up momentum to make deep runs and better prepare themselves for the leap to the ATP Tour.

The only negative I could see from this is access to grass tournaments at the Challenger level. As it currently stands, there are only three grass court tournaments at the current Challenger level, with all three being in UK-based in Surbiton, Nottingham and Ilkley. These events are Challenger 125 events and as such, attract players ranked 75 to 200 in the world for the main draw. This then restricts access to a playing surface for the majority of the tour, with the only way to play on the surface being the two M25 Futures that are played after Wimbledon in late July. This is too late for many players who have moved back to clay for the Central European season or the North American hard courts. This also has an effect on players who break into the world’s top 200 who have no experience of grass and as such, find it a struggle for the first couple years on the surface. This is why it’s rare to see any youngsters make a name for themselves early on in their career on grass.

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What Could Be Improved?

My main recommendation for improving the tour would be the viewing experience for the fan. Currently, the only ways of watching Challenger matches would be to either rock up to the event and watch from the stands or watch the pixilated livestream from the ATP website. My recommendation for the ATP would first be to upgrade the equipment used to capture the images of the courts to sort this. Second, add more camera angles to the events to professionalize the viewing experience and make it easier to watch. Thirdly and finally, add a section to the TennisTV app or to the rights packages sold to third party broadcaster to show the live streams of the Challenger events so that people at home aren’t hunched around a laptop screen to watch the matches but can access it from a couple of clicks on their smart TV.

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