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On the same weekend Rafael Nadal won a record 11th French Open title, the world’s No. 1 men’s tennis player made headlines, telling an Italian magazine that the question of whether women’s players should be paid equally is “a comparison we shouldn’t even make” because of the viewership disparity.
Nadal’s argument invoked the discrepancy in pay between male and female models:
“It’s a comparison we shouldn’t even make. Female models earn more than male models and nobody says anything. Why? Because they have a larger following. In tennis too, who gathers a larger audience earns more.”
Do men’s tennis players outdraw the women?
Television ratings for the French Open finals have yet to be published, but the men’s final at the Australian Open in January between Roger Federer and Marin Cilic drew almost 25 percent more viewers than the women’s final between Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep. Both aired on ESPN.
This has not always been the case at Grand Slam events, where the Williams sisters and other stars have often been the bigger draw in recent years. At the U.S. Open, for example, the women’s final drew more television viewers than the men every year from 2010-14, according to Sports Media Watch.
On average, though, the men’s ATP World Tour events have generated significantly larger audiences and more revenue than the women’s WTA Tour. According to statistics compiled by BBC, the ATP drew 973 million viewers in 2015 compared to the WTA’s 395 million, both excluding Grand Slam events.
How do the ATP and WTA tours operate?
The two entities are separate businesses, and last year the WTA left the Tennis Channel for a deal with beIN Sports. Additionally, the WTA ended an online streaming partnership with the ATP to create its own service in hopes of generating revenue independently. Prize money is reportedly determined by each tournament’s sponsorship deals, TV rights packages, ticket sales and on-site concession sales.
All four Grand Slam competitions — the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open — have paid men and women equally since 2007. (The U.S. Open was the first to do so in 1973, and Wimbledon was the last more than a decade ago.) A handful of other high-profile events follow suit.
The same cannot be said about the prize packages at dozens of other tournaments worldwide every year. The ATP World Tour scheduled 68 tournaments this year, while the WTA Tour will feature 58.
According to a FiveThirtyEight.com study on tennis income inequality in 2014, “only 336 men and 253 women made more than they spent playing tennis” in 2013. “The ITF estimates that the 4,978 men who won some prize money last year but weren’t in the top 1 percent earned, on average, a little over $13,000. The bottom 99 percent of the 2,650 women who earned prize money averaged about $22,600.”
Novak Djokovic made similar comments in 2015
Nadal isn’t the first high-profile men’s player to argue that viewership should determine prize deals. In 2015, after Indian Wells tournament director Raymond Moore said, “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport” — comments that led to his resignation — former men’s world No. 1 player Novak Djokovic called those remarks “not politically correct,” added of equal pay for women:
“I applaud them for that, I honestly do. They fought for what they deserve and they got it. On the other hand I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more. Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve.”
Nadal’s comments, interpreted through an Italian magazine profile, weren’t so expansive, but the gist of them — that whoever draws more viewers should earn a higher salary — seems to follow what Djokovic said in 2015, when he clarified that women should be paid more if they outdraw the men.
The history of the equal pay debate in tennis
Billie Jean King famously established the WTA in 1973, securing equal pay for women at the U.S. Open that year, and the topic has been hotly debated since. This is especially true in recent years, when more attention has been paid to the wage gap between men and women in other professional fields.
An argument could be made that the societal framework that led to King’s revolt — higher pay for men and a greater marketing focus paid to men’s players — established a stigma of inferiority in terms of the aesthetics of women’s tennis from which it and other sports are still fighting against. This would be one of many cases for equal pay for equal work, regardless of who draws the greater TV audience.
Still, there are those that will argue, among other things, that if prize packages are split evenly among men and women, regardless of who generates more revenue, then doubles and wheelchair champions should also be paid equally. Arguments for and against equal pay will inevitably be made in circles.
In 2015, when Moore’s sexist comments reopened the debate about equal pay to a national audience, women’s No. 1 player Serena Williams had a more forceful response than Djokovic at the time:
“Obviously I don’t think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that. I don’t think that is a very accurate statement.
“I think there is a lot of women out there who are very exciting to watch. I think there are a lot of men out there who are very exciting to watch. I think it definitely goes both ways. I think those remarks are very much mistaken and very, very, very inaccurate.
“Last year the women’s final at the US Open sold out well before the men. I’m sorry, did Roger play in that final or Rafa or any man play in a final that was sold out before the men’s final? I think not. There’s only one way to interpret that. Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and thank a man, which is not — we, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”
A year later, when the United States women’s national soccer team filed a wage discrimination lawsuit seeking equal pay to the men, King said of tennis to The New York Times, “We have a chance to continue to lead. To have equal prize money in the majors sends a message. It’s not about the money, it’s about the message.” Nadal’s latest comments ensured that message continues to be a mixed one.
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