In a fleeting 15 minutes, the approximate time for which Raymond Moore met with the media ahead of the women’s and men’s championships at Indian Wells a fortnight ago, an unpredictable 2016 tennis season took a fairly predictable turn.
The reaction to Moore’s overtly sexist comments quickly descended into the arena of equal prize money, and that discussion continued as the ATP and WTA moved their focus to Key Biscayne for the second consecutive combined men’s and women’s event of the spring. As the debate continued across all platforms — on television, in print and online as players and pundits alike offered their own opinions — one website attempted to push the envelope even further by publishing a piece entitled, “The Case Against Equal Pay in Tennis” on Monday. Somewhat ironically, this piece came just six days after another, entitled “Sexism in Tennis is a Problem,” was published on the same website.
A contrarian position to a hot-button issue should not automatically be discounted, provided that position is taken up with supporting facts and properly sourced figures. This piece did not, and instead offered flimsy justifications and confusing syntax as it presented both its main points and logical reasoning.
Let’s begin with the lead, written by Jason Fernandes:
Within the past week a lot has kicked off in the tennis world regarding equal pay between men and women, starting with Indian Wells’ now former CEO Raymond Moore saying that women are “lucky” and “if I was a ladies player I would go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were born because they’ve carried this sport”.
Whichever way you want to look at it there’s no question that statement was rude, uncalled-for, and downright disrespectful–but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
Well, actually — Moore’s assertion, even while ignoring the overtly sexist language, was fundamentally wrong. A quick search of the history of the ATP over the past 20 years tells you just why.
In 2002, Sports Illustrated‘s Jon Wertheim recapped that year’s Roland Garros — in which Serena and Venus Williams contested the women’s championship, with Serena winning, and rose to World No. 1 and 2. They stood on top of the world, maybe even just as literally as figuratively, as they led women’s tennis into the new millennium and the future looked bright. Things were less ideal on the ATP side of the aisle.
If the Williamses are threatening to Tigerize women’s tennis, the men’s game suffers the opposite fate: unremitting parity. Say, what happened to Switzerland’s Roger Federer, the supposed breakout star, who won the big tune-up in Hamburg and whose likeness was splayed on a gigantic billboard outside the French Open grounds? He couldn’t manage a set in his first-round match against Morocco’s flashy Hicham Arazi. Whither Aussie Lleyton Hewitt, the top-ranked ATP player? He lost in the fourth round and left Roland Garros to jeers for having decapitated courtside geraniums with his racket. What of Sweden’s Thomas Johansson, who won the Australian Open? Out in round 2. As for Russia’s Marat Safin, the handsome, personable all-surface star, he lost in the semis and then asserted that “it’s not a big deal” if he never wins another Grand Slam event.
The men’s champion in Paris, Spain’s Albert Costa, played classic dirtball tennis, outhustling countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero in a four-set final. In so doing he became the eighth male player to win a title in the last eight Grand Slam events. “Everybody can beat anybody,” says Safin.
While this makes for highly competitive matches, it’s hard for the ATP to market and promote players who are not consistent winners. Small wonder, then, that the men’s tour has been making overtures to the WTA, inviting the women’s tour to relocate its offices from St. Petersburg to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where the men are headquartered, and looking into the possibility of holding more joint events. This interest in joining forces with the women’s game–unimaginable five years ago–has been glossed over with corporate-speak such as “building synergies,” “creating efficiencies” and “integrating resources.” But it boils down to this: 32-year-old Andre Agassi won’t be around much longer, and no other male player comes close to the international star wattage of the Williamses. Why not try to get in on the action? Says Kevin Wulff, the WTA tour’s CEO, “[Courting the women] is the smart thing to do, and they realize it.” (Full piece from Sports Illustrated here.)
That’s right: less than 15 years ago, it was the WTA that was “carrying” tennis and it was the ATP that wanted to “ride on their coattails.” The cyclical nature of individual sport — where stars have fleeting periods at the top — encourages this. While some might consider the ATP in a “better” place than the WTA at present — and Wertheim’s exact language might even read familiar in 2016 in reference to the WTA — those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. When some speculate that female tennis players should earn more “if they become more popular than men,” they discount the fact that they’ve already done it, and are in prime position to do it again when comparing the next generation of promising talent. However, they are still only superficially equal thanks in large part to the four biggest tournaments on the calendar.
From there, Fernandes’ argument turns, predictably, to economics.
With more popularity comes more sponsors and higher attendance, so there’s no question that they should be rewarded for it. […]
Both the ATP and WTA are separate entities, so why should they have to pay players the same amount? It would make more sense if both would alter their prize money based on past viewership, sponsors, and ticket sales to their respected [sic] tour. That way everybody wins and no tour is left with one gaining and the other losing out.
Granted, the WTA’s branding and calendar structure does it little favors outside of the four Grand Slams. By abandoning the Tier system in 2009 in favor of branding tournaments as Premier Mandatories, Premier 5s and Internationals, it became even easier to degrade WTA players at combined events — as three of the highest-profile combined events are not mandatory, and are WTA Premier 5s. However, it is outside of the biggest stages in tennis — at events where all things are ostensibly equal — where the disparity is the most shocking, and where the economic argument falls flat.
While many of the combined events in tennis host the ATP and WTA tournament simultaneously, there are a handful that do not. The annual WTA event in Bastad, Sweden is typically held on clay in the weeks after Wimbledon, with the men’s event following in the next week. Each of these events are at the “lowest” level of their respective tours, with the ATP event branded as a 250 and the WTA event as an International. In 2015, the ATP champion, Benoit Paire, and the WTA champion, Johanna Larsson, each played five, best-of-three set matches — and each won all five in straight sets to take home the title.
For his victory, Paire — ranked World No. 62 at the time — claimed €80,000, which approximates to $91,000. For her efforts, Larsson — ranked No. 72 last July — took home a purse of $43,000.
At the same level, Larsson made over 50 percent less than Paire for the same amount of work. In fact, when considering that she and Kiki Bertens also won the doubles title in Bastad to take home an extra $6,150, she still made a little more than half of Paire’s earnings, yet played four more matches and won two trophies. One might even argue that Larsson’s value — when discussing ticket sales as well as fan and media interest — to the tournament was far greater than Paire’s, as she 1) was a Swedish player competing in Sweden, 2) made a run to the final for the third time, having been runner-up twice, and 3) became the first Swedish woman in nearly 30 years to win the event.
Nonetheless, the author continues:
Of course there will obviously be exceptions where the women’s sport attracts more viewers, but overall there’s no doubt the men’s events are more popular.
To support this, he references the 2015 Wimbledon final — where he states that peak viewership of the men’s championship in the United Kingdom attracted 9.7 million viewers to 4.3 million for the women’s final — with no sourcing for that information, which can be found on Wimbledon’s website. Nowhere does he note, however, that the viewership difference in the United States was just about 300,000 viewers — with the men’s final peaking with 2.7 million viewers and the women’s final drawing 2.4 million. Furthermore, Sports Media Watch stated that ratings for the men’s championship actually declined in the United States for the second straight year in 2015, down 3% from the 2014 men’s championship and 11% from 2013. In Australia, despite a gulf in the number of total viewers, the women’s final saw a 28% increase in total viewers from 2014, while the men’s final only increased by 9%. How were these Australian viewers drawn in? How many were more intrigued by Serena Williams’ quest for history, or by Garbiñe Muguruza’s blazing run through the women’s draw, than they were by another meeting between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic? In a global sport such as tennis, choosing to ignore other major television markets paints an incomplete picture.
The “free market” approach in tennis of both genders is problematic, as the popularity of a few players drives the whole sport; in its truest sense, all of the prize and sponsorship money in tennis would be tied up amongst a small percentage of its players, essentially rendering everyone else unable to make a living. However, what Fernandes fails to even examine — or even suggest as a possibility — is why “men’s events are more popular.” When discussing said “free market,” profit shares and revenue, as the only “fair option” to determine men’s and women’s prize money across all sport, one needs to recognize that the market itself is not fair across gender lines either. It’s inherently and systemically tilted and biased towards men’s sport as a superior product, purely because — throughout the course of its history — sport made itself a global industry by showcasing and celebrating the accomplishments and achievements of men.
The crux of this argument is revenue, whether it be from television, advertising, ticket sales or otherwise. In recent decades — as sport began to build itself as a billion-dollar, international empire — men’s sport was showcased as the only legitimate form of entertainment. Therefore, it received the television rights, the advertising dollars and the media attention. It sold, and built its base — and the stakes only grow higher as more money is thrown around. Women’s sport — as both a profession and a global spectacle — does not have this same luxury.
What gets prime television slots, and by extension, the most eyeballs? Men’s sport, just as it always has.
What gets more advertising dollars? Men’s sport, because it’s televised in prime times and reaches all those eyes.
What gets talked about by the media the most? Men’s sport, because it’s set up systemically to make profits for television networks and sell newspapers.
What makes viewers tune in to the next game or match? A compelling story presented by the media.
This is a vicious cycle, and as long as it remains as such, women won’t win. When the public, the media and the industry already treat them as second-class, they should — in a perfect world — have their sporting organizations to fall back on. While the WTA exists for this express purpose, it does not deserve to constantly have its status, and its players, undercut by its partners, with whom they are tasked to grow the sport. Players and pundits might make the argument that the equal pay discussion “has never been between men and women due to their sex,” but in reality, their sex is what drives the economics — and that needs to change.