March hasn’t been an ace month for tennis. First Maria Sharapova, the highest-paid woman in the sport, revealed that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open. Now, the boss of a tournament has quit after saying women players should get on their knees to thank the men like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal who have carried the sport.
The comments from Raymond Moore, chief executive of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California, were obnoxious and small-minded. But even world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who said Moore had spoken out of turn and that women had fought for the equal treatment they deserved in tennis, contradicted himself by implying that the men should get more prize money because they attract more fans.
Yet star power and rivalries move between the men’s and women’s game, and outside interest shifts too. More generally, tennis is one of few sports that attract a broad constituency of both sexes as fans and amateur players. That’s where the money, be it Federer’s $67 million a year by Forbes’ reckoning or Sharapova’s $30 million, really comes from.
In the United States, for example, 18 million people played the sport in 2014, according to the Tennis Industry Association, with the more regular players breaking 52 percent female and 48 percent male. Attendance at the U.S. Open is balanced, too, the U.S. Tennis Association said. Professional tennis broadcasts last year including cable TV averaged 681,000 viewers, also about half women, according to Nielsen.
While some sponsors are now deserting Sharapova, the trend seems to be that women are catching up. Serena Williams made $25 million last year, according to Forbes, more than Andy Murray’s $22 million and not far behind Nadal’s $33 million. Tennis and lifestyle brands sponsor both individuals and tournaments, with the four grand-slam events able to pay out $140 million in prize money last year – split equally between men and women.
No wonder Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, who owns the Indian Wells tournament, went into damage-limitation mode and talked about great players like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. Tennis attracts men and women in fairly equal numbers, and it’s ahead of other sports in narrowing the pay gap at its top professional levels. The jerks who think that’s unjustified are missing the point.