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$, $, $: A Rebuttal to The Times’ Matthew Syed

On Tuesday, British journalist Matthew Syed of The Times wrote an article discussing the economics of pay distribution within professional sports (subscription required). The main thesis of the article is this: in certain sports, men are paid more than women because men generate larger revenues.

He uses professional football – or soccer as we know in the states – as his initial example:

“The reason that women are paid less than men is not because of sexism. It is not because of an unscrupulous cabal at the Premier League siphoning off money from the coffers of the female game. It is because male footballers drive bigger revenues, secure bigger audiences and command greater commercial income. It is free-market economics.”

To be clear, I have no problem with this argument as it pertains to football. It wouldn’t be possible for a local restaurant chain to pay its CEO as much as the CEO of McDonalds. There is a financial reality that just can’t be overcome just as is the case with men and women footballers in the United Kingdom.

Syed then segues into a discussion about the financials of professional tennis. It is here that he begins to tread into murky waters:

“And this, in turn, shows that the real scandal in those BBC figures is not the sports that are failing to pay women as much as men, but those where men are being forced to cross-subsidize women. This is, perhaps, easiest to see in tennis. The men’s game is in the midst of a golden age, with the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic exciting audiences around the world. On the women’s side, few could name the past four grand-slam singles champions. The additional commercial clout of the men can be seen in (among other things) the prize money at ATP Tour events being significantly higher than in WTA events. Yet in the grand-slam events, men and women earn the same prize money. The US Open and the Australian Open equalised pay decades ago, and the All England Club followed suit in 2007, one year after Roland Garros.”

Syed is absolutely correct when he says the men’s game is in a Golden Era. Led by The Big Four, it has unquestionably been one of the most compelling and competitive periods in the history of men’s tennis. Many would argue that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are two of greatest to have played the game.

What is beyond ridiculous is when he says that few could name the 2014 female Grand Slam champions:

To give you an idea of how utterly absurd this notion is, let’s review them:

  1. Australian Open: Li Na

Not only was Li Na named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine in 2013, but she was on the cover. THE COVER.

In case you still are not convinced: Li Na is a two-time Grand Slam winner. She achieved a career high ranking of No. 2 just this year. She is globally recognized. She has spurred the growth of the sport not only in Asia, but also around the world with her smooth, beautiful playing style. Need I say more?

  1. French Open: Maria Sharapova

Even if you consider yourself to be among the most casual viewers of professional tennis, it would be impossible for you to be unaware of Maria Sharapova. The Russian superstar has won every major title and won her second French Open title in May, when she defeated Simona Halep in what was possibly the best women’s match of the entire season.

Sharapova is currently the highest paid female athlete in the entire world—not just in tennis, but of any sport. As of June, Forbes reported that Sharapova earned $24 million in endorsements alone. Let’s also not forget about Sugarpova, the highly popular and, might I add, delicious candy business that Sharapova launched last year. Such a global success speaks both to Sharapova’s marketability and popularity, how turned a passion into a lucrative venture.

  1. Wimbledon: Petra Kvitova

In 2011, Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon, becoming the first player – male or female – born during the 1990’s to win a grand slam. Kvitova also won the season ending WTA Championships that year.

Kvitova has been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world and has been on the precipice of obtaining the No. 1 ranking.

During this year’s Wimbledon fortnight, Kvitova awed all those around the globe as she completely dismantled Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard in the final. Her clean and flat playing style is impenetrable when it peaks and has left endless amounts of opponents helpless.

  1. US Open: Serena Williams

It would be disrespectful for me to write anything here. Serena’s name speaks for itself.

Let’s go back to the #men.

If you were to survey any casual tennis fan – from any country – is it more likely that they would be able to name the female Australian Open and US Open champions or the male Australian Open and US Open champions?

Li Na and Serena Williams versus Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic?

No disrespect meant toward the men, but I think we all know the answer.

Let’s also address the assertion that men are receiving higher pay than women in regular tour events. We’ll start by looking at the Madrid Open, a Premier Mandatory Event for the women and a Masters Series 1000 event for the men. For both, this is the level of tournament directly below that of a Grand Slam. The winners of the tournament, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, each received €698,720. Going through the rest of the tournament, the prize money allocation is exactly the same except for the first and second round losers. For these players, the men received around €2500-$3000 more than the women.

In Indian Wells – again a Premier Mandatory/Masters Series 1000 combines event – the prize money distribution is exactly the same for the men and women, from the winners down through the first round losers. To opine that men deserve more prize money is one thing. To claim that such a practice is already widespread is ludicrous.

Of course, one would be remiss in overlooking the most eye-catching quote of the article:

“To deprive Federer of prize income by handing it to female players is not short of daylight robbery.”

I mean…

Perhaps it might have been wiser to choose a less obscenely wealthy player as your disenfranchised subject.

In any event, Syed concludes with this:

“The campaign that feminists ought to be embracing is that of getting more women (and men) through the turnstiles to watch female sport. Twenty years ago, most fans preferred women’s tennis matches to men’s, which were dominated by serve and volley, with few rallies. Steffi Graf and Navratilova, on the other hand, offered marvelous, compelling contests. Their superstar status was reflected in annual earnings that, in many cases, eclipsed the men. There was nothing sexist about this. There was nothing underhand. In fact, they deserved every penny they earned.”

This is an impossible claim to make without substantial evidence. It’s no secret that there are plenty of people who like both men’s and women’s tennis. There are stars in both game that fans can embrace. There are people who will pay more to watch Roger Federer than almost any female player, but at the same time, there are people who will pay more to watch Serena Williams than almost any male player.

He also implies that women today don’t presently deserve every penny they earn on the court. He provides no argument as to why, only saying that women ought to be obliged to cross-subsidize. It is enraging that Syed wants to write such a long-winded article, much of which marginalizes women’s tennis players, without providing any type of valid reason or evidence as to why women’s tennis should be treated as inferior to men’s tennis.

It’s only right to end such a rebuttal with a quote by Billie Jean King, the woman who pioneered equal prize money in tennis, and whose words still ring true today:

“Equal prize money is the message, not the money.”
About Nick Nemeroff (66 Articles)
21-year-old NYU student. Passionate about playing tennis, coaching tennis, and writing about tennis. Feel free to contact me at any time!

11 Comments on $, $, $: A Rebuttal to The Times’ Matthew Syed

  1. It’s simple he marginalizes women’s tennis because it’s the only sport that affords women the opportunity to compete for the same level of prize money and recognition as men.

    I remember reading this about him during the 2012 Olympics,

    Matthew Syed, Times sportswriter and former table tennis international, had this view of Games life:
    “I am often asked if the Olympic village is the sex-fest it is cracked up to be. My answer is: too right it is. My first games was Barcelona in 1992, and I got laid more often in those two and a half weeks than in the rest of my life up to that point.”

    He sees women as women and not athletes. So how could they possibly expect to earn anywhere near real ‘male’ players. Perhaps there’s a reason Serena Williams is a 4 time Olympic champion and he’s best regarded as a flop.


  2. Until the women play best out of five at Slams, I’ll never understand how they can receive the same prize money at the same event where men often slug it out for 3-5 hours.
    It is more physically and mentally taxing, and men must train on their fitness to go the distance.I think it’s an insult to the men that women receive the same paycheck at Slams.


    • The women have no problem playing best of 5. It’s the tournament organizers who don’t want to change this, as it will give them major scheduling problems. You take money away from women when they have no control over this decision.


      • Fred, it’s not a question of taking money away. It was giving them equal pay for unequal work to begin with. Before that happened, some format should have been worked out.
        I don’t think I’ve seen a statistic regarding the women players supporting the idea, anyway.


  3. kickserve misses the point. Women earn as much as the men in tennis but Matthew has raised a valid point in how many sets women play is significantly less than the men. Women probably should not get equal pay as the mens champions in grand slams if we are to go on the old feminist debate that equal work should mean equal pay


    • But they have equal pay now. What happened decades ago is water under the bridge. To change it now is taking away money.

      As for rather or not the women are willing, read this:

      Granted, it’s not a consensus, but when the tour CEO and several top players endorse it, it is clear there is willingness. And I’m sure if you asked men, a large number would not like that they play best of 5, either.

      And having women play best of 5 isn’t even the only option. We could start having men play best of 3. Or a mixed format, with early rounds best of 3, and later rounds best of 5 for both genders.

      It also ignores the slippery slope. If we are paying based on match length, shouldn’t pay be based on actual match length? Shouldn’t then a women get paid more for a grinding 3 set 6-7 7-6, 6-7 loss than a guy that goes out quickly in a straight set, 2-6 1-6, 2-6 loss? Of course, this is ridiculous.

      Anyway, before we start using such match length criteria to define a pay disparity, let’s at least give the WTA the option of match length rather than punishing them for decisions of tournament organizers.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Syed’s comments in comparing tennis to football assumes that when you take the men away, the women are left playing on public courts with a couple of hundred people, if even, supporting them.

      Most of the people that read his article already have their assumptions on women’s tennis because they only watch Wimbledon each year and believe that this makes them a tennis fan and that all women’s matches resemble that of the past two finals. His article just gives them the justification that all women in sport are unequal to the men, which for the WTA is not the case.

      There is a big difference between 728 average attendance for the F.A. Women’s Super League and the more than 180,000 that attended the Rogers Cup in Montreal this year for example.

      He uses Sergio Aguero as an example as to why women don’t deserve equal pay. Manchester City pay him £10.4 million a year, which is less than what Serena, Maria and Li Na earn in endorsements each year, he never mentions that part.

      Unfortunately all the points he makes will be taken as fact by people who want to view women’s sport as inferior.

      In truth the WTA has 39 years of experience on the F.A. Women’s Super League, they can generate millions each year in prize money and sponsorship independent of men’s tennis. When he attacks the WTA, the most successful women’s sport there is, what chance do newer women’s sports like football or rugby etc have of ever attempting to achieve the heights of their male counterparts.

      Women play three sets because that’s the way the tournaments and television networks want it. For the women to play five sets more courts are going to be needed and fewer matches will be on the main stadiums or broadcast. You can’t refuse to give women equal pay if you don’t allow them the chance to earn equal money, by not having enough facilities to allow them to play best of five in the first place.


  4. How many of the “equal pay” supporters would like to have every one play on one tour?

    If women are equally talented athletes, that should not be an issue, yes?


  5. @kickserve

    “It’s simple he marginalizes women’s tennis because it’s the only sport that affords women the opportunity to compete for the same level of prize money and recognition as men.”

    Affords is the correct word because the women do not earn the prize money they get by drawing in the revenue. Ultimately its the mens game that affords women their prize money.

    “why women’s tennis should be treated as inferior to men’s tennis”

    What do you mean treated? Its up to the women to generate their own revenue. Players deserve to the revenue thats generated from the fans that come out to watch them. How can this be argued?

    Notice how the author consistently frames the question as what women deserve or how we should treat them. These are all terms are about provisioning for women rather than letting them act on their own to generate their own revenue by what they offer. Its the same type of thinking as expects husbands to provide for wives… because, ya know, women shouldn’t have to earn their own revenue; they should just get what the guy gets.


  6. Let women play best of 5 sets and then give them equal prize money!

    If women want equality to men then let them train as hard for best of 5 sets rather than 3.

    Women nag alot for nothing but wanting to be men rather than Women then be like men and give the fans more than 50 minute matches.

    Women need to stop trying to be like men and be women its not like they were paid pennies in Tennis even before their prize money was equalized.

    atm womnen put in less time in tennis and get paid more than men for doing less


  7. Some assertions are blatant lies, but to label them as such won’t change anything in the mind of those who utter them. Do they read the answers ? Do they understand the point ?

    Anyway, here I go again, as some has already done in vain in this thread :

    – You DON’T want any player being paid to the prorata of his hard work ; because the relevant unity of effort isn’t the set. It’s either the time of effective play, either the point – or rather, the shot count. So if you maintain that you want a strict reward for the effort, you have to accept that a serve-and-volleyer, and also his opponent, won’t be paid as much as a grinder, most of the time. (But if you chose another base unit, as the game, big servers will be better paid, as they go to TB much often…)
    You can’t have that, because even if it make sense in a labor perspective, and for the show, it’s counter-productive in a competition perspective : the one who dominates more is playing less long… If you reward him less for it, well…. will he play his best ?

    Sport competition isn’t a salary situation, so the equation time/apy isn’t relevant. Or we can go further in non-sense : male sprinter run faster, then women run longer, then they must be pay better, isn’t it ?

    – the market economy point : “men generate more income”… Really ?
    Most of the income in the tournament comes from investments from sponsors (either directly, either through TV – that means, ads) ; not attendance. Do the sponsors earn more money when showing men’s tennis ? That would be “market fairness”. And that’s not sure… Because they have to promote women tennis, casting women, to influence women who are playing tennis – which is the sport registrating the most women in the world…

    In business, you have also to take into account things that aren’t sport related, or even show related : nationals identity is as much relevant. Sponsors prefer to promote Na li, who can touch chinese market, even more than a very entertaining showman such as Monfils.
    Glamour potential is also a valuable dimension for advertising.

    Anyway, it is certainly not proven that men’s tennis generates more income for the ones who really pay the prize money….

    A differing thing is obvious : everybody who want women prize money to be decreased finds that present women tennis is less attractive. But not all who find it less attractive – as I am – think the same !
    They want to objectify through money a subjective value.
    It’s not fair, because it’s hard to estimate (even in a statistical point of view), but most at all, because it is a shifting reality… As Mr Syed himself has aknowledged it.


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