Whose serve is better? Tennis and the Case of Fe(male) Athletes

Photo by Lukáš Dlutko from Pexels

Most of the sports have distinctions between male and female games, sometimes through rules and regulations and sometimes through socio-economic-cultural perspectives, that results in a variety of implication for both male and female sport-persons. (Notice the missing “sportsman”) One can argue that the difference in rules and standards, in sports such as Track & Field and Basketball, are required to bridge the “physical capabilities” gap between men and women. In other words, it is assumed to create a fair playground for the “gentler sex”, as females are perceived to be. This may also influence the way male and women sports events / activities are “judged” in terms of social, economic and cultural lenses.

Tennis is among the handful of sports, of which both the male and female events have a wider global fanbase. Not to mention the failed attempt in the birth stages of the sport, in Victorian England, where male players attempted to create a “different” version of the game for the females. But this gendering effort was not successful thankfully due to the persistence and the determination of the likes of early female champion, Lottie Dod, considered as the Britain’s first sporting feminist.

Travelling back to 21st century, both men and female events are held parallelly, at the same locations, adhered to the same rules and with the same equipment. Perhaps the only concern would be the governance structure of separate bodies, Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

Tennis stars are famous for being worldwide celebrities with some of the major events such as US Open averaging a viewership around 1 million over the last few years. Furthermore the “industry” (everything is commercialized!) also boasts with the jaw-dropping earnings of the players, but there is a catch since it depends on the popularity of the players and their often-fluctuating rankings. Yet being under the spotlight have its own perils as well, but more on that later.

First things First; Money Talks

Let’s turn to the elephant in the room, the pay gap between male and female players. As per a study done by Adelphi University, Tennis court seems like a good place for all sport-persons, at least on average, compared to Basketball court, Football field, Golf course, and Baseball field. (Table 1) . Since 1973, when Billie Jean King, a Hall of Famer, first brought the gender pay equality issues to the “open court”, 4 major Tennis tournaments have chosen to pay equally for both Male and Female format winners. Furthermore Women Tennis “stars” (usually a handful) have multiple spots at the Forbes Top paid Athletes list, and often including the #1 spot. It is also interesting that due to the global nature of the sport, the level of diversity is high with people of different nationalities, race and ethnicities. And sportspersons that belongs to “minorities” are among the most celebrated and highest paid athletes with Legendary players like Williams Sisters to Modern Stars such as Naomi Osaka.

Source : Adelphi University, 2021

Under the shadow of stars

Despite winners get an “equal” share of the price money; others don’t get to enjoy such privileges. (Even if they are males!) However, it is true that the payout for the all the players that participate in a tournament gets a higher revenue by 2019 compared to that of 2012. Since the First-round losers received around $58,000 in 2019, up from $23,000 in 2012. Thus, unless you “make-it-big” in international Tennis, if you are lucky enough, you will only be able to earn the bare minimum to continue the sport. This illustrates the para-gender disparities and discrimination that exist as a result of structures, hierarchies, media and capitalism.

It is worth discussing some of the factors that contributes to the unequal earnings among the players. Obviously, the talent of a player is a major factor that determines their success and as a result the earnings. However, owing to the game’s wide popularity and the perceived “elite” status that it inherited through its birth, the stakeholders such as tournament organizers, sponsors, media, and fans’ attention also influence the “marketability” of a player or the gender group.

Since, in terms of the ticket prices, Cheapest and Most Expensive, there is a gap between men and female matches that range from 13% to 82% for both regular matches and the Finals.(Cepeda, 2021) This might be due to the lack of spectators at regular matches, specially less known players and women’s matches, thus as an incentive the ticket prices may be lowered to drive demand. Television broadcasting rights are another major income source for the tournaments, and audience numbers are used to understand the market value of players.(Khan,1991 as cited in Cepeda, 2021) Therefore the gap in audience between men and women tournaments, around 41% might be another factor that affect the overall lower payout for women tournaments and players (Cepeda, 2021). Simply put, all stars are good players, but not all good players are stars!

Apart from the above reasons, as pointed out by male and female player coalition that is campaigning for fair distribution of revenue, only a smaller share of the total revenue (around 12%-17% as per claims) allocated as prize money. Thus, players will have to turn towards sponsorships, often supported by their agents, to compensate the earning gap.

However, this quest for personal branding leads to its own gender implications, with mostly the Male players are targeted for Brand Ambassador deals, similar to other sports, apart from the USA since on average a US Women player in top 100 makes more than their Male compatriot.

Even though in 2019, the highest earning US Women player’s salary was 7 times larger than the highest earning Male player. (Adelphi University, 2021) Yet the conditions in US, though ideal, are hardly the norm in other parts of the Tennis world. As the research has shown that the “accumulated value of the prize money received by women throughout their careers is surprisingly lower than that obtained by men in all sections of the ranking” (Cepeda, 2021) However Cepeda (2021) further illustrates that the wage differential, maybe due to the variation in the payout for the two types of labour, but it rather suggests gender pay inequality and not dissemination.

Society with an Ace!

In Tennis, as same as in everyday life, Money is something but not everything. There are number of interrelated issues, on and off the court, that is “served” at Female players which impact their life as a professional and overall, as a human being. A recent report by International Tennis Federation (ITF), the organization that oversee world tennis, illustrates how the winning a match is not the end but a mean for a successful career of a women player.

Before diving into the Research findings, it will be beneficial to have an understanding on the background of the program. Advantage All is a gender equality strategy, initiated by the ITF to understand the gender related issues in the sport, specially in terms of media and social perception. This movement, coordinated by the Gender Equality in Tennis committee, works with five main objectives in mind. They are;

  1. Women Empowered to take-up leadership positions
  2. Balance opportunities to participate and enjoy Tennis
  3. Create an equal advantage environment
  4. Raise the commercial appeal of the women’s game
  5. Grow awareness and manage the media image of Women’s Tennis

(International Tennis Federation, 2021)

As evident from the discussion above, the five focus areas of the strategy seems to suggest the fact that Inequality in earnings is not the only issue to be solved, but a more cohesive analysis and solution framework is necessary to make an equal playground. As per a study by Cepeda (2021) only around 3% of male players and 5% of female players are trained by female coaches. Also there are controversies around the attire of Athletes and occasionally the “ball girls” , as they are often linked to sexist and discriminatory treatments. (Cepeda, 2021) Therefore the campaign by ITF, focuses on the other roles around the sport, such as Coaches, Federation Members, Referees, and Tournament Organizers, in order to reduce the discrimination at all places.

Social perception about women, not just in Tennis but in all sports, is constantly influence through factors such as historical backgrounds, gender politics, culture and communication. Media, both traditional and modern, tend to follow or “imitate” the common pulse of the society while also impacting it. Thus, the relationship between sportspersons and media is a place which generally portrays the socio-cultural influence, to and from athletes. Therefore the signaling done by equalizing the salaries in professional tennis, may even help to mitigate the dilemma between “doing the right thing” and “maximization of profit” in a capitalistic society. (Cepeda, 2021)

What it takes for a Headline

Time for some hard facts about the problem with Media. As per a report by ITF, women make up around 40% of all the athletes but they only receive around 4% of media coverage, in which they are “women first and athlete second”. This lack of coverage has an implication on the marketability of a Female athlete and her potential earnings. Which is evident by the mere 0.4% spent on Women’s sports out of the USD100 bn plus Global Sport Sponsorship value.

How does Tennis fare? Not that well. Despite being one of the few sports that shows some progress in terms of gender pay equality, it still lacks the equal “portrayal” of Male and Female players, as evident by the aforementioned ITF research. The following paragraph is perhaps a bittersweet summary of the situation.

“The report found that the conversation and coverage of men’s tennis is more focused on the sport, with a strong combative narrative and a sense of history, elite competition and achievement. Conversely, the conversation around women’s tennis is less intense and relatively more focused on life off court, from health and age to family” (International Tennis Federation, 2021)

It is surprising to observe the traces of theories such as Household Economics in a report in 21st Century, due to conscious decisions or biases that is ingrained in the Social Knowledge.

Household Economics 101, both traditional and new theories of the Household consider it as a firm therefore the firm level theories such as Division of Labour is applicable. Thus, as per Economists such as Gary Becker, men and women inside a household will take rational decisions in terms of their labour allocation of which the end results would be specialization. In other words, women would have a comparative advantage in household work solely decided on their role in reproductive system.

Hence the themes such as “life off the court”, “Age”, “Family”, frequently seen in the conversations around Women’s tennis are subtle connections to the traditional socio-economic view on Female as Household or Non-market workers. Whereas the Male players are praised for their warrior like nature and “achievement” which is expected from them, at least on theory, as specializers of the Market activity, with a higher “Bargaining Power” within the Household. This perspective may also explain why the labour of women in Tennis, performance and winning, is underrated in the market despite their equal effort.

If the above example was not enough to depict the “internalized” gender and feminist discrimination in the sport, some of the findings from the same research given below should be persuasive enough.

  • Women’s tennis content is twice as likely to reference a player’s age
  • Men’s tennis content is twice as likely to refer to ‘battle’ terminology
  • Men’s content is 70% more likely to mention a player’s physical prowess
  • G.O.A.T was mentioned 50% more in men’s tennis content than women’s
  • There were 40% more references to ‘making history’ in men’s tennis content
  • Women’s tennis is over 2x more likely to mention health and medical treatment
  • Women’s content is 30% more likely to refer to players’ family

(International Tennis Federation, 2021)

So, what are the takeaways?

First and foremost, there should not be any debate to find the best version of Sport, not only in Tennis but in any other sport. At the end of the day, everyone is doing what they are passionate about by giving their best effort, which should not be valued merely based on viewership or any other metric. Another would be that compared to other sports, Tennis players tend to have a higher salary and a smaller gender pay gap. This does not mean that the situation can’t be further improved. Third point is that around the Tennis court, as commonly seen in other Women’s sports, there is a gendered attention from Media, Society and Culture. Female Tennis players are subjected to a “premium” of pressure as they become successful.

One recent example for this would be the Mental Health issues that Niaomi Osaka, arguably the face of Women’s Tennis at present, has being faced as a result of the hostile nature of Media and Press Conference. It will be incorrect to say that they criticisms she faced as a result of prioritizing her mental health were surprising given the imbalance portrayal and recognition of female tennis and other athletes, First as a Women and Second an Athlete.

What is the most important but missing ingredient? Human.

References

Adelphi University. (2021, June 8). Male vs female professional sports salary comparison. Adelphi University Online. https://online.adelphi.edu/articles/male-female-sports-salary/

Berry, D. (2021, July). The workers’ Wimbledon. Jacobin. Retrieved July 29, 2021, from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2021/07/workers-tennis-wimbledon-uk-england-labour-party-feminism-working-class-egalitarian-clubs

Cepeda, Isabel (2021). Wage Inequality of Women in Professional Tennis of the Leading International Tournaments: Gender Equality vs Market Discrimination?. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 22(5), 407–426. Available at: https://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol22/iss5/25

Clarey, C. (2019, October 11). In Tennis, Men and Women Are United in Looming Prize-Money Fight. The New York Times. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/11/sports/tennis/grand-slam-prize-money.html

International Tennis Federation. (2021, April 12). ITF unveils new research into gender equality in sport | ITF. ITF. https://www.itftennis.com/en/news-and-media/articles/itf-unveils-new-research-into-gender-equality-in-sport/

International Tennis Federation. (2021, July 5). Our gender equality programme advantage all | ITF. ITF. https://www.itftennis.com/en/about-us/governance/advantage-all/

International Tennis Federation. (n.d.). Gender Equality Facts and Key Messages. https://www.itftennis.com/media/3639/facts-and-key-messages.pdf

Mayers, N. J. (2013, August 24). The Open’s Breakthrough of 1973. The New York Times. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/26/sports/tennis/the-opens-breakthrough-of-1973.html

Osaka, N. (2021, July 8). Naomi Osaka: ‘It’s O.K. Not to Be O.K.’. Time. Retrieved July 27, 2021, from https://time.com/6077128/naomi-osaka-essay-tokyo-olympics/

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An Economic Undergraduate that is curious about everything else

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Ashen Hirantha

Ashen Hirantha

An Economic Undergraduate that is curious about everything else

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