Over the next fortnight at The Championships, more commonly known as Wimbledon, 256 men and women will compete in the main draws, and the male and female winners will both earn just over £1.8 million. The fact that female tennis players make the same as men at the four majors—the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens plus Wimbledon—plus three other tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami, and Madrid) might seem to be a victory in the equal pay for equal work fight. But there is mounting evidence demonstrating that the equal pay case in tennis is based more on public relations rather than economics.
Last year, Raymond Moore, the tournament director of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, was forced to resign after stating that female players were “lucky” to be able to “ride on the coattails of the men.” Days later, the Serbian star Novak Djokovic insinuated that he agreed with Moore, arguing prize money should be “fairly distributed” based on “who attracts more attention, spectators, and who sells more tickets.” Ion Tiriac, the owner of the Madrid Open, joined the chorus, arguing that it made no sense for him to pay women the same when they produced so much less in TV revenue.
Then John McEnroe Told the Truth about Serena Williams
After that the contentious male/female tennis debate receded until John McEnroe told NPR this week that Serena Williams would be ranked around No. 700 if she played on the men’s tour. Johnny Mac was actually paying Serena a compliment—insisting that she was the best female player of all time—when the host, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, trapped him with a silly demand that he remove the “best female” qualifier.
McEnroe: Best female player ever — no question.
Garcia-Navarro: Some wouldn’t qualify it, some would say she’s the best player in the world. Why qualify it?
McEnroe: Oh! Uh, she’s not, you mean, the best player in the world, period?
Garcia-Navarro: Yeah, the best tennis player in the world. You know, why say female player?
McEnroe: Well because if she was in, if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world.
Garcia-Navarro: You think so?
McEnroe: Yeah. That doesn’t mean I don’t think Serena is an incredible player. I do, but the reality of what would happen would be I think something that perhaps it’d be a little higher, perhaps it’d be a little lower. And on a given day, Serena could beat some players. I believe because she’s so incredibly strong mentally that she could overcome some situations where players would choke ’cause she’s been in it so many times, so many situations at Wimbledon, The U.S. Open, etc. But if she had to just play the circuit — the men’s circuit — that would be an entirely different story.
Predictably, the media went nuts accusing McEnroe of being a loud-mouthed sexist pig. While on “CBS This Morning” the following day, McEnroe was asked if he’d like to apologize. He said “no” and doubled down, insisting the male/female debate could be settled with mixed draws at tournaments—a proposition no woman would sincerely want. The Los Angeles Times, CBS, and other news outlets ran stories with headlines like, “John McEnroe refuses to apologize for Serena Williams comments,” insinuating that anyone who doesn’t agree with the insane proposition that Williams could beat the likes of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal should apologize. Gotcha!
The idea that men can outperform women at (most) sports shouldn’t be controversial. We don’t compare female basketball and soccer stars to Lebron James and Lionel Messi, and for good reason, so there is no point in doing so in tennis. Chris Evert, clearly one of the all-time great female players, once admitted she couldn’t beat her brother, Drew, a collegiate player who never made it on the male tour, and most other elite female players quietly recognize the imbalance between male and female players.
Feminists like Garcia-Navarro can pretend that Serena is the world’s best tennis player, but the truth is that McEnroe may have been charitable in estimating Serena’s potential ranking on the ATP tour.
Since Women Aren’t As Good, Why Is Their Money?
Leaving the McEnroe/Serena dustup aside, the real debate isn’t whether female players can beat the men, it’s why are they making the same prize money at the sport’s elite events at a time when the fan interest gap between the men’s and women’s tours is growing. Federer and Nadal have returned to peak form this year, and other stars like Andy Murray, Djokovic, and Stan Wawrinka are consistent threats at the majors. The men’s game has a host of other compelling players who put fans in the seats, including a resurgent Juan Martin Del Potro, Nick Kyrgios, Grigor Dimitrov, and Gael Monfils.
On the women’s side, there’s a massive void at the top with Williams out due to pregnancy. Meanwhile, Maria Sharapova, the Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA’s) second biggest draw, didn’t qualify for Roland Garros after coming back from a doping ban, and won’t compete at Wimbledon either. Serena deserves credit for obliterating her competition in recent years, but many of her challengers have self-destructed at the majors and been maddeningly inconsistent.
Angelique Kerber, who is ranked No. 1, holds a pedestrian 19-13 record this year, and few were surprised when she crashed in the first round of this year’s French Open. Karolina Pliskova, ranked No. 3, lost in the first, second, and third rounds at Wimbledon, the Australian, and French Opens last year. Simona Halep, ranked No. 4, has been very inconsistent at the majors, and blew an opportunity to win her first major at the French, bowing out to an unseeded opponent with just eight winners in the three set final.
Garbiñe Muguruza, ranked No. 5, was hailed as the next great female star after winning at Roland Garros last year, but she has struggled mightily since, losing in the second round at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, and losing in the fourth round at Roland Garros this year, although her opponent double-faulted 16 times.
Ticket Prices, Ratings, Revenue Tell the Same Story
The lack of rivalries and recognizable stars who can be counted on to go deep into the draw at majors has hurt the women’s game, as we can see in the disparity in ticket prices, television ratings, and revenue. At the French Open, tickets for the women’s final sold for one-third that of the men’s on the secondary market.
The ticket price disparity is even greater at Wimbledon, where the cheapest seat for the men’s final is going for £3,750 on Stubhub compared to just £960 for the women’s final. Stubhub and other secondary resellers also show a stubborn ticket price gap for the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, where the men’s days go for three to four times what the women’s days are priced at.
One element of this dynamic can be attributed to the fact that women play best of three sets at the majors while the men play best of five. Fans understand that the women’s match could be over in an hour or less. For example, fans at the Serena vs. Venus final at this year’s Australian Open saw an hour and 21 minutes of tennis, while those who had tickets for the Federer vs. Nadal showdown enjoyed a three hour and 31-minute match. Equal pay advocates argue that women should be paid the same, but the men have to work longer playing best of five to earn the same paycheck as the women.
That women are required to play less tennis while getting the same paychecks at the majors also gives them an opportunity to make more money in two ways. First, many more top female players compete in doubles at the majors but very few of the top men do because they need to save their energy for the best of five singles matches they play.
Women also regularly compete in warm-up tournaments in the week preceding major tournaments while most men sit the week out to preserve their energy. For example, most of the top women are playing this week at an event in Eastbourne, while only one man (Djokovic) ranked in the top ten is competing, and even he entered at the last moment because he hadn’t played since the French Open and needed the practice.
The men also typically draw higher TV ratings, even in the United States, although Serena has won 17 majors since 2004 while no American man has won even one during this time span. Ratings for the men’s final at this year’s French Open on NBC were 45 percent higher than for the women (1.6 million average versus 1.1). U.S. ratings for the Federer-Nadal Australian Open final this year were 19 percent higher than for the Serena-Venus final, and more than double, 4.4 million versus 1.7 million in Australia.
The ratings gap for American audiences at this year’s Miami Open was 48 percent, while at last year’s U.S. Open it was 13 percent. Last year’s men’s Wimbledon final attracted 9.7 million viewers in the United Kingdom, with the women’s final at just 4.3 million. According to statistics compiled by the BBC, 395 million fans watched WTA Premier events on TV and online in 2015, compared with 973 million for Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) events.
While we don’t exactly how much more money the men bring in in TV revenue, Steve Simon, the WTA’s CEO, admitted last year that the ATP makes more in TV revenue than the WTA does.
Those who advocate for equal pay for women’s tennis players can’t or won’t explain why women make far less than men in nearly every sport, save for a few of the Olympic sports. The number 100 ranked Professional Golf Association pro, Derek Fathauer, has made $686,000 this year, while his female counterpart, Becky Morgan, has made $27,000. Nneka Ogwumike, the reigning MVP of the Women’s National Basketball Association made $109,000 last year, while Lebron James made $30 million. If female tennis players deserve equal pay, why don’t female golfers, basketball, and soccer players?
The Women Aren’t Always Doomed
The point here isn’t to denigrate women’s tennis. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that the women’s tour was more interesting than the men’s. In the early aughts, post Sampras-Agassi and pre-Federer, men’s tennis was dominated by dull players who did little to capture the public imagination, while women’s tennis flourished with a host of talented players like the Williams sisters, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati, and Lindsay Davenport, who formed great rivalries.
Back then, women could have made a case that they deserved to be paid more than their male counterparts. But times have changed. If female players generate more revenue than men, they should make more. But right now equal pay for female players is an unfair redistribution of revenue in the sport.
The fact that women have equal pay makes little difference to the star players who make millions, but most professional tennis players, particularly those outside the top 100, are barely breaking even. They rely on whatever they make at the majors to fund their year of travel on the tour. In fact, several players who made it through the qualifying rounds and into the main draw of Roland Garros this year have grossed less than $50,000 this year and a few have made less than $10,000.
For these touring pros, prize money at the majors is a huge issue. The four majors should hold their events separately and distribute prize money based on dollars and cents, not political correctness. Tennis fans could binge on a full month of high-caliber tennis at the majors, and everyone would be paid what they’d earned.