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Equal Pay And Unequal Income in Tennis

Nearly four years ago, I wrote about the equal prize money issue in tennis. Unsurprisingly, the debate has not gone away and it hit the headlines again recently following the comments by the now former tournament director of Indian Wells, Raymond Moore. With the 12th April being Equal Pay Day this year, it felt right that I take another look at one of the most discussed issues in tennis.

Moore commented about how the 'WTA ride on the coattails of the men' and how if he were 'a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were born because they have carried this sport.' This moved from the issue of sexism to one around equal pay when Novak Djokovic stepped into the argument, stating that the 'men's tennis world should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men's tennis matches. I think that's one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more."

Novak Djokovic argued that men should receive more prize money for economic reasons

This is the argument that I made in my article four years ago - that because the men's game is more popular at the current time, they deserve more prize money than the women. Similarly, if the women's game were to become more popular, they should deserve more prize money. However, in this article, I am going to look at this from a different perspective.

In its simplest form, there are three sources of income for tennis players - prize money, appearance fees and endorsement income.

In terms of appearance fees and endorsement income, the economic arguments made by Novak Djokovic already translate into being awarded more. This is not only a men versus women difference, but a difference between each individual player. For all the arguments that the WTA is riding on the coattails of the ATP or that there are more spectators and interest in the ATP, so they should be paid more, the exact same argument could be made within the ATP itself.

The exact same argument could be made that even the likes of Tomas Berdych, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic, three players inside the top 10 of the ATP rankings, are riding on the coattails of Federer and Nadal, let alone players further down the rankings. I would suspect that the prospect of Albert Ramos playing Aljaz Bedene would be any more appealing than that of Sabine Lisicki against Kirsten Flipkens - the world number 50 against 60 on both tours. If we are making the argument solely on economic earnings for the tour, then close to 100% of prize money should go to Federer, Nadal and Djokovic with the remainder going to Andy Murray.

Indeed, if we are arguing for prize money based on the economic performance of players and of the tour, are we arguing that Andy Murray should earn more prize money at Wimbledon because he is the main reason that many British fans go to Wimbledon? Should Li Na have been earning orders of magnitude more prize money for the events in China because she was the only player that fans cared about?

Furthermore, tournament prize money is not a particularly flexible thing. Prize money generally tends to remain fairly constant or rise at a constant rate over the years, rather than having the flexibility to adjust to the popularity of a tournament. ITF and Challenger events have a set amount of prize money depending on their size and status, while the same is true of most ATP 250 and 500 events. The Masters events and Grand Slams have slightly more flexibility, but it is still not a particularly fluid market. Thus, it is very difficult to adjust prize money in an effective manner to reflect the changing marketplace, which throws a real spanner into the argument for prize money reflecting the popularity of tournaments and individual tours at that moment in time.

Instead, prize money in effect is there to reflect a payment for achieving a level of performance compared to your competitors. Players are not paid at an hourly rate, which is the strongest argument against men being paid more for playing best-of-five sets at Grand Slams, but instead are paid for winning tennis matches. At a designated level, the reward for winning a tennis match should be the same for men and for women.

If tournaments are designated at different levels, there is no issue for me in having different levels of prize money between men and women. For example, the winner of the men's event in Acapulco wins $343k compared to the winner of the women's event wins $43k. However, the men's event in Acapulco is an ATP 500 event compared to the WTA event being an International event. Conversely, the winner of the ATP event in Beijing wins $654k compared to the winner of the WTA event, who receives $973k. Here, the ATP event is an ATP 500 compared to a Premier Mandatory on the women's side. However, I feel that events at the same level should be rewarded with equal prize money.

This is not to say though that Djokovic's argument does not have some merit. If the men's tour is attracting more spectators, more advertising revenue and more interest, then there is a legitimate argument that men should be paid more than women. More importantly, this is the case in the other two areas.

We only need to look at the list of the highest earning tennis players to see that, in general, men do earn more than women at the current moment. Although, not every male player is earning more than every female player. Instead, players earn money based on their attraction to the general public and sponsors, the revenue that they are able to bring in and their popularity. This is the reason that Roger Federer was the highest paid tennis player in 2015, earning around $67m, of which a mere $8.7m came from prize money. This means that $58.3m came from endorsements and other income as a result of his success and ability to generate revenue.

Novak Djokovic was the second highest paid player at $48.2m, Rafael Nadal was third at $32,5m and Maria Sharapova is the highest paid female tennis player (indeed, the highest paid female athlete) with an income of $29.7m of which just $3.3m came from prize money. Serena Williams comes in just behind Sharapova at $24.6m, although she earned just $14m in off-the-court income compared to Sharapova's $26.4m.

Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova were two of the top ten highest paid tennis players in 2015

These off-the-court endorsement and sponsorship deals are far more flexible and fluid than prize money, which means they are far more efficient at reflecting the economic forces driving the popularity of players. If the economic argument is the one that we are pointing to in determining the 'fairness' issue of equal prize money and economic rewards, then this aspect of income already achieves the desired outcome.

In my view, prize money should be equal for events at equal levels. Prize money at Grand Slam events should be equal for men and for women, as should prize money at Masters events compared to Premier Mandatory and so on. The inflexibility of prize money to adapt to prevailing market forces and the difficulty to accurate determine the economic value of each tour, particularly at joint events, mean that while there are economic arguments for different level of prize money at different times, it is simply not feasible to do in a fair and efficient way. There is also the moral issue and the opportunity for tennis to be seen as a leader in this area to consider as well.

The economic aspects that drive different levels of income are already reflected in the other income areas for players. Djokovic argues that the men's tour, and probably himself, should receive greater 'reward' - the stats suggest that he already is. His income for last year was $23.6m more than the highest paid female athlete in history and seven of the top eleven highest paid tennis players in 2015 are men.

If there are no major stars that emerge on the ATP side in the coming years to fill the void as the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic retire or decline and we find a couple of up-and-coming stars on the WTA side, it would be no major surprise to see these female players start to fill the top spots on the earnings list. The off-the-court endorsements are where the true market forces show which players are the income drivers for the sport of tennis. On-the-court, at a set level, a game of tennis should be worth the same money, regardless of whether it is two men or two women playing that match.


  1. All of this is academic and pointless as long as there are market forces at work. Essentially, players are paid on likability: sponsorships, spectators, etc. And likability goes beyond what happens on the court (Kournikova). All this talk about pay is why businesses instruct employees not to discuss pay with each other: you will always have something to complain about (haters gonna hate).

    The problem is we're all fighting for a piece of a pie that's too small to feed everyone. How do we grow the pie? #FranchiseTeamTennis. If tennis were a team sport at the professional level like it is in college, we're dealing with problems other than equal pay. Sign a player to a contract and not only is their future more secure, but players understand what it means for a team to come in under the 'salary cap'. Plus, a roster of 10-15 per team means more players coming to the table to eat.

    "close to 100% of prize money should go to Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic"? The rich just keep getting richer, huh? Many of the world's best players are not on the tour but on college campuses. The players on the tour just have the richest parents. That has to change. #FranchiseTeamTennis

  2. screw this tma...

  3. i like this sport somuch.

    good blog post comment,thank for your sharing



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