Don’t blame market forces for female tennis stars getting ripped off

When the opening serve is hit at Wimbledon next week, it will mark the 15th anniversary of the same prize money being offered at all four Grand Slam tennis events. The men’s and women’s singles champions will each receive £2m in prize money, while whoever falls in the first round will walk away with a check for £50,000.

Although Billie Jean King’s successful campaign for equal prize money came into effect at the 1973 US Open, it wasn’t until 2001 that the Australian Open followed suit. Wimbledon and the French Open were finally incorporated in 2007.

To the casual observer, the guy who watches the highlights of Wimbledon every July and always looks forward to Roger Federer’s next title, it might seem like the story ends there. But professional tennis extends beyond the Grand Slams. Unfortunately, equal pay in sports does not.

Consider the current outstanding tennis player in the world, Iga Świątek, the 21-year-old double Grand Slam champion from Poland, absolutely dominant number one in the worldand most likely the best since serena williams. Since the end of February, Świątek has participated in six tournaments and won all of them, most recently the French Open. equaling a 22-year record with his 35-match winning streak and amassing $5.7 million in prize money.

Not much cause for complaint, surely. Except, if a male player had accomplished the same feats during the same time period on the men’s tour, he would have earned nearly $2 million more, a 34 percent premium.

Apart from the four Grand Slams, the men’s prize money is usually higher than the women’s, even in joint tournaments, and the men also have more tournaments to play.

As an example, last February’s tournaments in Dubai, although nominally of equal value for the men’s and women’s tours, awarded $523,740 to the men’s champion and only $104,180 to the women’s. And in April, while the two biggest women’s tournaments offered a little over $250,000 in prize money, the men’s offered almost $1.4 million.

Combining all tournaments except the Slams, the total prize money awarded on the men’s circuit so far this year is 75 per cent higher than on the women’s, the widest difference since 2001.

Chart showing that prize money may be equal at Grand Slam events, but women earn much less than men at most other tournaments and the gap is widening

Two justifications are often given for this disparity. The first is that women spend less time on the court and therefore do not deserve the same salary. This is totally wrong, as outside of the Slams, both genders play the best of three sets. It’s also unclear why more time on the court should necessarily mean a better show. Few of the highest quality Grand Slam finals have gone to a deciding set. And if time were money, then Nicolas Mahut and John Isner would be the highest paid tennis players of all time.

The second response to these figures is that the free market has decided that men’s tennis is a more valuable commodity. But the events of the French Open last month show the holes in this theory.

Explaining her decision to schedule men’s rather than women’s matches for nine of the 10 evening primetime sessions, tournament director and former Wimbledon champion Amélie Mauresmo. explained“Right now . . . you are more attractive, attractive [in] general, for men’s matches. Meanwhile, women’s matches remain almost invariably first on the pitch in the mornings, when the number of spectators, both in person and on television, is the lowest.

Far from being a free market, subjective decisions like these have a real bearing on which players have the best chance of reaching a mass audience and creating a market of paying consumers.

One of the great fallacies in sports is that if the quality is high, the audience will come. If that were the case, Świątek would be the biggest show in town. But really, the sport is a soap opera: we come for the people behind the rackets, their backstories, their rivalries.

Netflix is ​​filming a documentary following the best players of both genders as they navigate through this year’s Slams. I hope it’s a sign of things to come. Give the rising generation of female stars their share of the limelight, give them their share of the money, and watch the sport as a whole prosper.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.com, @jburnmurdoch

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