It was disclosed last week that the USTA's CEO, Arlen Kantarian took home $9 million bones in 2008. Given the current economic climate and the fact that the USTA is a non-profit organization, this raised some eyebrows to say the least.
I talked to Boyfriend about it, and after a lengthy and spirited debate, we came to an agreement on the situation, which he agreed to publish if I made him some Mac & Cheese tonight. What can I say, the big lug loves his powdered cheese.
I'm just as astounded as anyone to find out how much Arlen Kantarian made, and I work for a USTA state office. Here in our office we take home salaries on the low end of the non-profit scale (my equivalent job at the local Girl Scouts chapter would increase my salary by 30%, a job with the state would increase it by 50%). On the local level the USTA is almost entirely volunteers, so I find it very disheartening to find out that while budgets are being cut in State and District offices, we're paying out so much on the upper level. If you print this in your mailbag, please don't use my name or town as I'm not comfortable with my boss, or the bigwigs in N.Y. reading my comments.
• Lots of questions and rants about the USTA salaries that were publicized last week. This is a complex issue that goes beyond "Tennis is struggling to stay relevant, while the fat cats in White Plains are paying themselves millions." Still, it's a public relations challenge and it's clearly incensed a lot of you.
I think a lot of the problem stems from the way the USTA chooses to define and market itself. Most of the USTA's funds come from, of course, the U.S. Open, a wildly successful sporting event that generates hundreds of millions in revenue. USTA executives have been sensitive to questions about compensation. As they've seen it, they are negotiating television contracts and major sponsorships, overseeing an international brand.
Kantarian, for instance, transformed the Open into a wildly profitable brand -- a brand, as we saw this year, that is largely recession proof. USTA revenues have increased nearly $100 million, or 57 percent, from 2000. (Of course, if you and I had been given a new $300 million stadium, flush with suites and improved seating, we could probably boost revenues pretty significantly too.) Why shouldn't he be paid accordingly? No one, after all, complains about the millions David Stern or Bud Selig earn; why is Kantarian any different?
The problem is that, unlike other sports leagues, the USTA positions itself as a not-for-profit. We're constantly told that its mission is "to grow and promote tennis." Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe and themes of diversity and altruism and community are constantly invoked.
The NFL isn't tasked with developing junior football players; Major League Baseball doesn't run Little League or hire youth coaches. The USTA, however, is an all-encompassing organization for the sport. It seems to me you can't have it both ways. If you insist on paying private sector compensation, it's disingenuous to play up the "good of the game" function. If you're serious and sincere about being a not-for-profit, you can't, in good conscience, have this kind of payroll. (Play around on guidestar.com and check out the salaries at comparable 501(c) executives.)
Maybe the USTA could have avoided this unpleasantness by drawing sharper divisions between the business arm and the non-for-profit arm. For years, it tried to have it both ways. No more. It will be interesting to see what sort of fallout this creates. For one, the top players are constantly agitating for more prize money at the Grand Slams. If I'm Federer or Serena Williams (i.e. the ATP and WTA) and I know that the USTA has the capacity to pay a single employee in excess of $9 million for one year, I'm rethinking my leverage.
But, judging from your mail, the real soreness is coming from grassroots folks. A few months ago I spoke with some avid players in Knoxville, Tenn. The local courts at West Hills Tennis Center were filled with cracks and crevices. Players would retrieve a ball in the corner and risk impaling their arms on loose, rusty tongs of fencing. League play was cancelled on account of dangerous conditions.
Players formed a group, the "West Hills Tennis Center Rescue Project." One member owned a gravel company and offered to provide supplies below cost. A tennis-playing architect volunteered a rendering of the project. They held a benefit tournament and applied for grants with the state and eventually raised $400,000. "We're just regular folks who just wanted a nice place to play tennis," a member told me.
At last check, they were working to fund Phase II at the facility, constructing a clubhouse, a meeting room and four extra courts. It's a great story, a testament to the power of a passionate and organized group of ordinary citizens. Knoxville's mayor now tells other groups to study the West Hills Rescue Project as a model for forming a public-private partnership.
I couldn't help thinking of these guys last week. Wonder how they felt knowing the leader of the national organization "to grow and promote tennis" could have personally underwritten their entire campaign with a few weeks of his salary?