The U.S. Open has been as gripping as ever this year, with Novak Djokovic seeking a 24th Grand Slam win and the 19-year-old breakout star Coco Gauff set to face off against Aryna Sabalenka in today’s singles final. But as a business, tennis has been struggling for years — and faces new pressure to find a sustainable model as Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, known as P.I.F., has made major investments in sports, sloshing money around in golf, soccer and mixed martial arts.
Some deal makers wonder whether tennis, which has already confirmed initial talks with Saudi Arabia, will be the fund’s next target.
Players are ready for a change. “Of all the important sports around the world, I think tennis is clearly the one with the greatest opportunity for financial growth and the most unrealized value,” Maria Sharapova, the retired tennis star, told DealBook.
Despite the popularity of tennis, the sport brings in only 1.3 percent of earnings from global media sports rights. That’s partly because tennis is made up of myriad entities — including the Women’s Tennis Association; the U.S. Tennis Association; and independent tournaments. The independently operated organizations make scheduling tournaments difficult and diminish bargaining power for sponsorship and media deals. Erratic scheduling and long matches don’t help entice broadcasters.
Financial missteps are reflected in pay for players, most of whom earn little while having to pay for coaches, training sessions and travel expenses to play in the game.
That’s why Ms. Sharapova thinks the sport should explore bringing in outside capital, whether it be a private equity firm or sovereign wealth fund. It’s also why many believe tennis could be vulnerable to a rival sports league if P.I.F. were to repeat the playbook it used in golf, where its LIV golf tour eventually struck a deal to partner with the PGA Tour to help settle acrimonious litigation.
Could a merger solve the problem? The private equity firm CVC Capital Partners bought a stake in the women’s professional tennis this year, in hopes of capitalizing on the sport’s commercial promise. There has been speculation that CVC could merge the women’s and men’s tours. But such a deal is complex, requiring sign offs from multiple parties that don’t all share the same views.
Other private equity investors are circling with similar aims, DealBook has heard. But it’s not clear any investor or fund could compete with the deep pockets of P.I.F., which has so far shown little interest in returns.
Not everyone in tennis opposes Saudi money. Most standouts argue that accepting investment from P.I.F. could help the country reframe its tarnished reputation. But others say that tennis should be more concerned with its bottom line: The women’s professional tennis tour’s decision to suspend all tournaments in China after the disappearance of the tennis player Peng Shuai, for instance, dented the WTA’s business — and ultimately failed to pressure China into granting a meeting with Ms. Shuai.
Some players say that Saudi money could help with pay equity, a longstanding problem in the sport. Outside the four grand slam events last year, men earned about 70 percent more on average than women did during tournaments. Though the women’s tour struck a deal for pay equity this year, the new structure won’t be in place for another decade. If Saudi Arabia “could help getting us to equal prize money, though there are negatives, there’s a lot of positives that can come out of it,” Jessica Pegula, the third-ranked player, told Reuters in July.
But there is little consensus. As rumors swirled this week that the WTA would hold its finals in Saudi Arabia, the former tennis star Chris Evert pushed back. “I would be against it,” Evert said, “but I don’t have a vote.”
Those who did have a vote apparently sided with Evert: The WTA announced on Thursday it will hold the event in Cancún, Mexico. — Lauren Hirsch
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Google settles antitrust charges over its app store. The tech giant said that it had reached a tentative deal with a group of states to resolve accusations that it had monopolized distribution of apps on its Android operating system. But the company still faces a big fight with the Justice Department over search, with the trial set to begin next week.
China fears taking a bite out of Apple. The tech company lost about $200 billion of market capitalization over two days as its shares dipped on reports of a potential iPhone crackdown in China. But the stock rebounded on Friday.
Fashion and fame continue to converge. François-Henri Pinault, the French billionaire and chief executive of the luxury goods company Kering, said on Thursday his family office had bought a majority stake in one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies, Creative Artists Agency.
The I.R.S. turns to A.I. The agency announced that it had begun using artificial intelligence to investigate tax evasion at hedge funds, private equity groups, real estate investors and large law firms.
The business of gaming Spotify
This week, Universal Music Group — home of artists including Taylor Swift and Drake — struck a new licensing deal with the French streaming service Deezer. They promised it would be an “artist-centric model” that would benefit professional musicians.
In other words, less money would be paid to the kind of content that music label and streaming executives have increasingly criticized, including white-noise tracks and songs made by artificial intelligence. Lucian Grainge, chief executive of Universal Music Group, called it a “sea of noise” — but it was still by some measures a nearly billion-dollar industry.
The amount of content on music streaming platforms is exploding. Last year, 34.1 million new audio and music video tracks were uploaded, according to the research firm Luminate. That’s more than double what was uploaded in 2018. (This year may be even higher: 20.2 million tracks were uploaded in the first six months of 2023.)
But just over 3 percent of the tracks uploaded this year came from major-label artists. That has left many in the music industry worrying about what they call spam. Spotify has sought to crack down on producers of such content on multiple fronts, including both audio tracks and, more recently, podcasts. But platforms have also sought to crack down on A.I.-produced content, amid allegations that bot activity is artificially boosting their listening numbers.
“These things are growing at a terrifying rate,” Rob Jonas, the C.E.O. of Luminate, told DealBook.
How much money is at stake? Though big labels produce just a fraction of the content on these platforms, they collect most of streaming’s cash: About 95 percent of Spotify’s royalty checks last year went to roughly 200,000 professional or aspiring professional acts, analysts at Goldman Sachs calculated this summer. But the remaining 5 percent left for so-called long tail content still amounted to about $900 million.
Executives say that’s still too much. “It should be obvious to everyone that the sound of rain or a washing machine is not as valuable as a song from your favorite artist streamed in HiFi,” Jeronimo Folgueira, chief executive of Deezer, said this week.
Critics of the current system, in place for about a decade, say that it incentivizes the creation of spam, forces streaming platforms to manage increasingly unwieldy content caches and leaves less money to be paid to actual artists.
The Universal-Deezer deal is meant to change that. It will pay twice as much in royalties for tracks by professional artists, defined as those with a minimum of 1,000 streams a month from a minimum of 500 unique listeners. Those tracks would get a further boost if they were actively searched for by users.
The effect is likely to be limited for now — Deezer had 9.4 million subscribers as of Dec. 31, compared with Spotify’s 220 million — though Universal has said it’s in talks with other platforms.
The counterpoint: Mark Mulligan, an analyst at the research firm Midia, questioned whether worries about the “sea of noise” are overblown, noting that the streaming business had grown to nearly $18 billion last year.
To him, the push to devalue these tracks is a form of snobbery and gate-keeping by music labels, meant to make it harder for new forms of content to emerge. (It’s also worth noting that streaming platforms are working on creating essentially their own royalty-free, long-tail content.)
Mr. Mulligan warned that if streaming companies make it harder to find, say, white-noise tracks, consumers could instead turn to alternative platforms like YouTube and TikTok. “If you want to find underground artists or weird sleep noises, you’ll turn to other options to meet that need,” he told DealBook.
An A.I. pioneer calls for a rethink
Mustafa Suleyman is one of the world’s leading artificial intelligence entrepreneurs, and is a co-founder of not one but two start-ups at the cutting edge of the most transformative technology since the internet.
Mr. Suleyman is the chief executive of Inflection AI, a chatbot company he started last year with the LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, which was reportedly valued at $4 billion in its funding round that closed in June, raising $1.3 billion. And Suleyman is also a co-founder of DeepMind, an A.I. pioneer that was acquired by Google in 2014.
This week, Mr. Suleyman, now a partner at the venture capital firm Greylock Partners, released “The Coming Wave: AI, Power and the 21st Century’s Greatest Dilemma.” He spoke with DealBook about the book, which calls for an urgent shift in how we think about and “contain” A.I. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why do you describe the book as a “love letter” to the nation-state?
We have invented a system of noncommercial checks and balances, which holds centralized power accountable in the public interest. That system has evolved over many years away from monarchy, dictatorship and authoritarianism toward free and open liberal democracy. It means that we can do sensible taxation and redistribution to prevent inequality. This is the best tool we have so we should stick with it and keep trying to defend it.
How have your peers responded to your ideas?
There are lots of different clusters in Silicon Valley. People like Satya Nadella, the C.E.O. of Microsoft, are very forward-thinking about these things and definitely lean into the responsibility that the companies have to do the right thing.
But there are definitely skeptics. Marc Andreessen, the venture capital investor, just thinks that there’s not going to be much of a downside. It’s all going to be fine and dandy. I’m as much of an accelerationist as Andreessen but I’m just more wide-eyed and comfortable talking about the potential harms, and I think that is a more intellectually honest position.
How do you see the state of relations between democratic governments and Silicon Valley?
Tech companies are meaningfully engaging, and governments are starting to get proactive. This hasn’t always happened, so we are already going in the right direction. Truth is this is only just the beginning — a lot more hard work is needed — but the foundations are starting to come into view.
Thanks for reading! We’ll see you Monday.
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