Don’t blame market forces for shortening the tennis star’s change

When the opening serve is performed at Wimbledon next week, it marks the 15th anniversary of the equal prize money being offered at all four of tennis’ major events. Both the men’s and women’s singles champions will receive a prize money of £2 million, while anyone who falls in the first round will come out with a £50,000 check.

Although Billie Jean King’s successful campaign for equal rewards went into effect in 1973, the Australian Open didn’t follow suit until 2001. Wimbledon and the French Open finally entered in 2007.

To the casual observer – the kind who holds the Wimbledon spotlight all July and always anticipates Roger Federer’s next title – it might seem that the story ends there. But professional tennis extends far beyond the Grand Slam. Unfortunately, equal pay in sports is not.

Think of the current outstanding tennis player in the world, Iga Šwijk – the 21-year-old Poland’s Grand Slam champion, the absolutely dominant world number one, and probably the best since Serena Williams. Since late February, Świątek has entered six tournaments and won each one – most recently the French Open – equaling a 22-year-old’s record with her 35-game winning streak and racking up $5.7 million in prize money.

There’s not much reason to complain, sure. Except that, had a male player achieved the same accomplishments over the same time period on the men’s tour, he would have earned close to $2 million—a 34 percent bonus.

Aside from the Grand Slams, the men’s prize money is often higher than the women’s – even in the combined tournaments – and the men are also given more tournaments to play in.

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

Combining all but the slams, the total prize money awarded on the men’s tour so far this year is 75 percent higher than the women’s tournament, the widest gap since 2001.

There are often two reasons for this discrepancy. The first is that women spend less time in court and therefore do not deserve equal pay. This is an obvious mistake, because outside of the slams, both sexes play the best of three groups. It’s also unclear why more time in court should necessarily mean better spectacle. Few high-quality Grand Slam Finals have gone to a decisive set And if time was money, Nicholas Mahut and John Isner would be the highest-paid tennis players of all time.

The second response to these numbers is that the free market has decided to forget men a more valuable product. But events at the French Open last month show the loopholes in that theory.

Explaining her decision to schedule men’s matches rather than women’s games for nine of the ten night sessions at prime time, tournament director and former Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo explained, “Now . . . you have more charisma and charisma.” [in] general, for men’s matches.” Meanwhile, women’s matches are almost always first on the field in the morning, when the numbers of spectators – both in person and on television – are at their lowest.

Far from being a free market, such subjective decisions have a real impact on players being given the best chance of penetrating a wide audience and creating a market that pays consumers.

One of the biggest fallacies in sports is that if the quality is high, the audience will come. If so, Świątek will be the biggest show in town. But in reality, sport is a TV series: we come for the people behind the rackets, their backstories, and their rivalry.

Netflix is ​​currently filming a documentary that follows the best players of both genders as they navigate this year’s tournaments. Hope it’s a sign of things to come. Give the emerging generation of female stars their share of the spotlight, give them their share of the money, and watch the sport as a whole thrive.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.comAnd the Tweet embed

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