The time is ripe for men's and women's tennis to merge and vindicate Billie Jean King

Simon Briggs
The Telegraph
Members of America's Wightman Cup Team are pictured as they practiced at the All England Club at Wimbledon. - Bettman
Members of America's Wightman Cup Team are pictured as they practiced at the All England Club at Wimbledon. - Bettman

A month ago, Roger Federer sparked debate around the world. “Just wondering,” he tweeted, in a studiedly casual tone, “Am I the only one thinking that now is the time for men’s and women’s tennis to be united and come together as one?”

The social-media response to Federer’s big idea was enthusiastic – although not exclusively so. Nick Kyrgios rejected it outright and other dissenting voices accused Federer of virtue-signalling, even mansplaining. After all, Billie Jean King, the Women’s Tennis Association founder, and other leading ladies have made the argument for decades.

“People always listen to men more than women,” sighed King in an interview last week with Racquet magazine. “It’s hilarious.” And yet she still sounded glad to have such an influential voice on her side. Why would she not, after almost half a century of striving towards this very goal?

Even in her 77th year, King’s work is not yet done. Although tennis is the most gender-balanced major sport – supplying every one of 2019’s 10 highest-earning female athletes – the men’s and women’s tours remain disparate bodies. They even compete for sponsors and broadcast partners.

But now, as the sport contemplates a total write-off of the 2020 season, there is a growing appetite to join hands at last. “I don’t think the men need to feel threatened by women, or by coming together,” said Donna Vekic, the world No 24 and a member of the WTA player council. “If they really think about it, in the long term it can only help us be better and stronger.”

Was Federer just thinking out loud, as a result of having too much time on his hands? Unlikely. As was once said of Samuel Johnson: “He never drinks tea without a stratagem.”

There are two reasons why the time is ripe for this. The first is the crisis-equals-opportunity theory, which would position a merger as the buried treasure brought to the surface by the earth-shaking cataclysm of Covid-19.

“This is our best chance yet [to get a merger done],” said Pam Shriver, the commentator and former world No 3. “When you have a pause like this, something so monumental and traumatic for both tours, it forces you to think about how to be smarter, stronger, more streamlined, and more efficient. I really think this one is finally going to happen.”

American tennis player Billie Jean King (right), President of the Women's Tennis Association - Archive Photos
American tennis player Billie Jean King (right), President of the Women's Tennis Association - Archive Photos

The second factor is the receptive attitude of Andrea Gaudenzi, the new president of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals). Having worked on various digital start-ups since he retired from the tour, Gaudenzi came in with a plan to shake-up TV rights via a single “over-the-top” package, sold directly to fans. If this included WTA matches as well, it would look twice as sparkly.

“I am privy to a lot of [the ATP’s] plans,” said Max Eisenbud, agent for Maria Sharapova, on the Beyond the Baseline podcast. “Do I think they mean ‘Let’s join tours?’, maybe not now, for the short term. What they mean is ‘Let’s try to pool our TV rights, let’s try to pool some marketing, let’s try to have some more bigger combined events’.”

Eisenbud hit upon the biggest of many unresolved issues: the fact that the very word “merger” is highly imprecise and could apply to all sorts of things. The light-touch version – and also the most likely given the inertia in the system – starts with TV, sponsorship and ­packages for data-streaming. You then move to more ambitious goals, such as the running of tournaments and, ultimately, a unified governance.

“The devil is in the detail,” said Anne Worcester, who was the WTA’s chief executive in the late 1990s and is now president of Universal Tennis. “But if you think about those two budgets, those two boards of directors, those two rule books, there are incredible efficiencies and economies of scale to be found in combining it all.”

Who would hold the power in this partnership? The imbalance between a growing ATP and a stagnating WTA – in accountant’s terms at least – fuels speculation that we could be talking about an acquisition, rather than a merger.

Even before the pandemic, the WTA was struggling commercially – as is underlined by its failure to find a new title sponsor since Sony Ericsson pulled out in 2012. Its accounts for 2017 showed net revenues of just $6 million, and assets of only $5 million. The ATP’s equivalent figures were $19 million and around $160 million.

It is a similar story on TV rights, where the WTA’s one-off deal with Perform is worth around 60 per cent of what the ATP makes through the Tennis Channel, Amazon Prime and other partners. Increasingly, the WTA relies on Chinese government fees, for which it stages no fewer than 10 events in China every year.

 Billie Jean King, Jane "Peaches" Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Judy Tegart Dalton, Julie Heldman, Kerry Melville Reid, Nancy Richey, and Rosemary "Rosie" Casals, - Mary Chastain
Billie Jean King, Jane "Peaches" Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Judy Tegart Dalton, Julie Heldman, Kerry Melville Reid, Nancy Richey, and Rosemary "Rosie" Casals, - Mary Chastain

The WTA does, however, have huge symbolic value. This is, and has always been, the world’s biggest female sporting operation. Here is tennis’s trump card – and one that has been so underplayed.

“More and more, companies will have to spend on entities that have equal opportunity,” says Shriver. “A merged ATP-WTA could access sponsorship dollars that the ATP tour hasn’t even considered.”

Of all the many obstacles still to be addressed, the largest surely lies in the men’s locker room, where everyone knows the rough figures: the women earn perhaps 75 per cent of the prize money they do. While Federer can afford to be generous, others fear a combined tour would redistribute cash to their sisters across the hall. Plus – as Andy Murray often observes – they tend to have little respect for women’s tennis anyway.

The eight women who sit on the WTA player council, by contrast, are highly enthusiastic. “The discussions have been going on between Andrea and [WTA chief executive] Steve Simon,” Vekic adds. “When I heard how much work has to go into it, it’s crazy, it’s gonna take time. I said, ’Let’s speed it up, do it as soon as possible’. But there’s a lot of paperwork. I hope they won’t get discouraged.”

Even here, there are differences of emphasis. Vekic agrees with the point made by Simon in a recent Telegraph interview in which he suggested parity of pay should be a long-term goal. “We have to do baby steps. Start with the smallest platforms, more combined events. If we’re playing without spectators, everyone is gonna have to accept pay cheques to be lower.”

Johanna Konta, another council member, took a tougher stance this week. “It would have to be a merger of equals because that’s what we are,” she said. “I wouldn’t see how, in today’s age, it would be allowed to be called anything else. Would it be us literally saying we are worth less than our male counterparts?”

To repeat Worcester’s point, the devil is in the detail. It is notoriously difficult to go from Federer’s big-picture thinking to the granular detail of making a merger happen.

For example, few know that the idea of a combined TV rights package has been around the block before, most recently in 2014. It was the WTA – then under Stacey Allaster’s leadership – that backed out of the proposal and opted to strike that 10-year, $525 million deal with Perform instead.

What would really grab the broadcasters’ attention would be if the four grand-slam events also agreed to pool their rights. This might seem like stargazing, given the extent to which the majors dominate the landscape. However, if the ATP and WTA were to end a half-century of mutual suspicion, perhaps the age of miracles could soon be upon us.

“We are at a critical time for sport, any sport,” says Craig Tiley, who runs the Australian Open. “Anything we can do to improve the global appeal and reach of our game, we should seriously consider.”

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