Ireland’s top doubles player, James Cluskey, was traveling the globe, climbing the men’s tennis rankings and running out of money.
Playing in tournaments from the U.S. to Slovenia, Cluskey ended 2013 at a career-best ranking of No. 153 on the ATP World Tour doubles rankings. His bank balance went the other way. Cluskey, who once was the third-ranked National Collegiate Athletic Association doubles player for Louisiana State University, found himself back home in Dublin in December, with no money to travel to tournaments or practice abroad during the offseason.
He turned to Irish crowdfunding website Pledge Sports. Within six weeks, Cluskey’s “Road to Wimbledon 2014” effort had raised 13,080 euros ($17,944), or 30 percent more than his target. It will pay for travel to Asia to play on his best surface, hard courts.
“I would have quit if it wasn’t for crowdfunding,” Cluskey, 27, said by telephone from Gimcheon, South Korea, this month. Prize money at the lower levels is so low, “it’s pretty much impossible to be making a good living, especially at doubles,” said Cluskey, who has made $2,935 this season.
Cluskey’s current doubles ranking of 167 is too low to gain entry into next week’s French Open, which starts May 25 in Paris. Spain’s Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams of the U.S. -- who both won more than $12 million last year -- are the defending champions.
With a lack of prize money in the lower ranks and the annual cost of playing professional tennis at $143,000, according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Tennis Association, players such as Cluskey are increasingly turning to the Internet for financial support. Tennis Ireland doesn’t have enough money to support its players on the road.
Although crowdfunding -- when money is raised for a project by getting a large number of people to contribute small amounts -- is well established in the arts, it’s just beginning in sports. U.S. ski jumper Lindsey Van and the Jamaican bobsled team used it to get to the Sochi Olympics. Depending on the amount of cash given, donors may be rewarded with a signed shirt, personal thank-you e-mail or a tennis lesson. Typically, most crowdfunding websites take a 10 percent fee from each successful campaign. If the target isn’t reached after a set deadline, the athlete receives nothing and the money will be returned to the donors.
Pledge Sports has raised 50,000 euros from 10 completed campaigns since it began in March, according to founder and chief executive officer Richard Pearson. He’s targeting one million euros in the first year as he expands into the U.K. and the U.S.
“Crowdfunding will revolutionize sports funding,” Pearson said. “This will be the norm in sport in two to three years’ time,” he added.
“It’s certainly got momentum,” Alan Seymour, a professor of sports marketing at the U.K.’s University of Northampton, said.
Amy Bowtell, Ireland’s top-ranked female singles player, raised 13,785 euros, or almost 40 percent more than her target, on Pledge Sports with her “Grand Slam Dream” campaign. Just like Cluskey, Bowtell used her social media network and connections in the U.S. to get her story out and drum up support.
“Tennis is a very expensive sport,” said world No. 650 Bowtell, who estimated traveling to tournaments 30 weeks a year may cost as much as 21,000 euros. “Irish players are getting literally next to nothing, so crowdfunding was the only option for me really,” said Bowtell, who has earned $4,088 this season.
She’ll use the money to play events in the U.S., Asia and Australia on her best surface, hard courts, to try to boost her ranking after missing part of last season following knee surgery.
Although Bowtell, 20, is only at the beginning of her career, her campaign attracted some corporate backing. Eight companies donated money, including Irish travel website GoHop.ie, which gave 1,500 euros and Luxembourg-based glass and metal producer Ardagh Group, which donated 2,000 euros.
The campaign not only raised her personal profile and “opened a few doors,” to potential future sponsorship deals, it also led to success on the court. “So many people wanting me to do well gave me so much confidence,” said Bowtell, who won a tournament in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, last month shortly after reaching her funding target.
Crowdfunding in sports not only engages sports fans with their favorite athlete or team, it also taps into companies’ corporate social responsibility practices, Seymour said. Associating themselves with an unknown athlete who’s had to overcome hardship gives companies a “feel good factor,” he said.
Since starting in July, Dutch site Wijzijnsport.nl has raised more than 137,000 euros from 19 successful crowdfunding campaigns including one for a tennis player. It initially aimed at 100,000 euros in the first year, according to co-founder Paul Dirkse.
Not all crowdfunding efforts are successful.
None of the 40 campaigns on U.S. website Involvedfan.com have reached their target since the site started in March 2012.
Junior U.S. Open tennis finalist Tornado Alicia Black has raised $1,800 out of $25,000 while her sister, Hurricane Tyra Black, has raised $895 out of $15,000. Still, that’s better than 18 other tennis players on the site who haven’t raised a single dollar.
Unlike Pledge Sports or Wijzijnsport.nl, none of the campaigns on Involvedfan.com have a set deadline.
“It’s not easy to reach a target,” said Involvedfan.com founder Dan Nagler. “Part of the issue is having the proper functioning website. I’m more of an idea person, I’m not a web person,” said Nagler, who works as an attorney at a Miami Beach, Florida, law firm and runs the site in his spare time.
“Success reinforces success,” Dirkse said. “It’s important to get the meter running from the beginning. No one wants to be part of a failing campaign.”
Telling the athlete’s story well is crucial to succeeding, Dirkse and Pearson both said. Both Pledge and the Dutch site educate all of their athletes on the best ways to conduct a campaign.
“Why should people join your team?,” said Dirkse. “Don’t say ‘I have no money.’ Don’t try to gain sympathy. Instead, tell your story, explain what your dream is. What did you have to overcome to make this happen? What’s the proof you are headed for the top of your game? Be prepared to spend time and energy on it.”
“I had nothing to lose, everything to gain from giving it a go,” said Cluskey, who added he spent two hours a day on his campaign. “And now, I’m following my dream.”
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