The Debate That Won't Go Away: Equal Prize Money at Wimbledon

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The Debate That Won't Go Away: Equal Prize Money at Wimbledon
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Before the All England Club finally relented in 2007, the subject of Wimbledon’s allocation of prize money had become something of a millstone hanging around the necks of all those associated with the tournament.

While hardly on the same level as Augusta National—host of the Masters golf tournament—which singularly refuses to allow female members, Wimbledon's payouts that reward female winners of the tournament with smaller financial rewards than their male equivalents led many to accuse the Club of being archaic and misogynistic.

In fairness to the Club, for many years the situation had been improving, albeit at an unsatisfactorily slow pace.

In 1968 the men's singles champion, Rod Laver, won £2,000 for his triumph, while the ladies' winner, Billie Jean King, received just £750. But by 2006, Amelie Mauresmo was taking home just 5% less than Roger Federer’s £675,000.

But the fact that there was any difference at all still rankled with many.

Fortunately, that nominal difference finally disappeared in 2007 as Wimbledon officials announced that competitors would receive the same amount of prize money—at all stages of the tournament—regardless of sex.

This put the tournament on par with the US and Australian Open, and ahead of Roland Garros—which quickly fell into line).

Despite this, however, some have continued to criticize Wimbledon, arguing that female competitors do not deserve their new-found equality, for a variety of reasons.

It is a debate that is set to run and run.

It is perhaps both ironic and unfortunate for the Wimbledon committee that in the years immediately following their decision to award equal pay to both victors, the quality of the female game has tailed off dramatically.

At the same time, the excitement surrounding the men’s game has reached a level not seen since the days of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.

While Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer seem to be contesting the world’s grandest tennis match as they rally trophies and titles back and forth across the globe, the top players in the female game seem to have become entrenched in an uninspiring battle to see how many of them can become world number one without actually winning a Grand Slam title.

As a spectacle, there is simply no comparison between the two.

But is that a reason against equal prize money?

It cannot be doubted that female tennis players put in the same amount of effort and dedication to the honing of their craft as their male counterparts.

The fact of the matter is: prize money for sports stars is not calculated on the hours they have put in on the training ground, but rather on the interest and attention they manage to garner from sponsors and, most importantly, spectators.

In this respect, male tennis players have a clear advantage.

"There are not many opening-round matches in the women's draw of grand slam tournaments that I would cross the road to watch,” said former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash. “Predictability has always put me off [the women’s game] and things aren't too different from ten or 15 years ago."

Cash’s sentiment is one echoed by most casual fans. On television, men’s finals are more widely viewed than women’s. In 1999, a Wimbledon survey revealed 70% of spectators come to the tournament first and foremost to see men’s singles matches.

For better or worse, the men’s game is most often what fans will pay to see.

Even the most casual of fans can name upwards of 20 top male players, based primarily on their abilities on the court.

But could they name more than five or ten top female tennis players? Of those named, are most not known more for their looks than their devastating forehand smash?

If that constitutes equality, then somewhere the rulebook has been mislaid.

Some, however, see nothing wrong with such a situation—even within the game. For example, the Women’s Tennis Association seem to be enthusiastically employing the maxim that “sex sells” to boost their sport, regardless of the message that may send out.

“I actually feel that one of the great strengths of the tour, is the personalities off the court twinned with these great athletes on the court," said Larry Scott, the out-going chief executive of the WTA Tour, this week. “Our players are very comfortable with that positioning [the Tour’s advertising focus on looks], and I think they are great role models for women showing that, you know, you can be gritty and determined on the court and go out to win, and still be a feminine celebrity off the court.”

For some, such an attitude is the core problem for the respectability of women’s tennis. The fact that Anna Kournikova is arguably the most famous exponent of the sport—a result of her good looks rather than her tour titles, or lack thereof—is a saddening aspect for many.

Due to the reduced emphasis of power compared to the men's game, some neutral tennis viewers may prefer the women’s game as a spectacle.

But on the whole, it is not what many viewers would choose to see.

If TV companies could get away with it—or, indeed, were only able to show a limited number of matches—then they would undoubtedly show coverage of men’s games at a far greater frequency than anything involving women, at least until the later stages of the tournament.

So if fewer spectators pay to see females play compared to the men, and broadcasters tolerate the women’s game rather than actively promote it, then how can they justify the equal prize money that some of them—most notably the Williams sisters—lobbied so forcefully for?

After all, many male players think it is an equality that isn’t really, well, equal.

“I don't think [equal prize money] is really fair,” said professional men’s player Tommy Haas when the change was announced. "I think the depth of men's tennis is much tougher than the women's, plus we play best of five sets.”

To earn their equality, then, should women play five set matches too? As Ian O’Doherty of the Irish Independent noted, apparently not:

“In the spirit of equal work for equal pay, should the female game not also adapt to best of five?

Erm no. Because as top female player Jelena Jankovic whined last week at the prospect of playing best of five: ‘What, you want to drive us into oblivion?’

So, we want the same money because we're women. But we don't want to do the same work. Because we are women.

But only a sexist pig would point out that absurdity, of course.”

O’Doherty may well have a point, but to penalize women for their physiological shortcomings would hardly be a great demonstration of equality. As Dinara Safina’s victory over Amelie Mauresmo showed, it is still possible to pack a lot of enthralling tennis into a three-set match.

But, on the other hand, the reduced interest in the women’s game means that outside the four Grand Slams, prize money is markedly reduced for women’s events, making it impossible for top women to earn as much as men from their craft.

Not to mention that at many events, the men also play best of three sets games. The difference for the men being that the prize funds are far greater than at women’s satellite events.

Similarly, sponsorship deals are more apparent in the men’s game. Women can sign multi-million pound deals to wear a certain brand, but again this is often based as much on the looks of that player as her ability from behind the baseline.

At least the Grand Slams allow women to earn well regardless of appearance. Perhaps economic equality there is not such a bad thing, after all.

At such high profile events, equal prize funds for both sexes sends a message to young girls—and, perhaps more importantly, boys—that equal pay is a basic requirement of a civilized society.

Such an example is undoubtedly an important one.

Still, once those young minds start to develop and they begin to appreciate the two tours and the difference between three sets and five, many might begin to question the situation.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of individual arguments, the reality is that the All England Club’s decision to move to equal prize money is one that can never be rescinded. The backlash that would come from any reversal would be such a PR disaster that it could never be beneficial to the tournament.

At Wimbledon, equal pay is here to stay.

But that will not stop the discussion from continuing to run and run.

Female players might just be happy to reflect that they are playing in the modern era where, in the Grand Slams at least, their presence is rewarded as handsomely—if not more so—than they deserve.

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