So the debate about equal pay has raised its ugly head again. Shame really. I’ve thought a lot about it over the years. Should the women play 5 sets. Should the men play 3!!!! I know, I know; we love the mens game. It’s not broken. Why fix it.
Then I concluded that we shouldn’t change anything. Except how we view the game. My view is that we prefer quality over quantity. The issue is that the womens game just isn’t high quality compared to the mens. Back in the day the mens was a long slog with variable quality. The womens was comparatively much more interesting. Now; mainly at the really top level it’s high quality every time.
So the idea of pay according to quality is a hard thing to administer, let alone judge objectively. In reality I’d argue that that pay according to interest is taken care of by sponsorship. Most players, particularly those at the top make most of their money from sponsorship, not prize money.
So tournament prize money isn’t a pay check. It’s just mistaken as one. In reality it’s a nominal value marking the importance of each event to the calendar and tour. The Slams give the highest prize money and so on down the tier of events. So are we saying that either event should be more important?
Lets look at Athletics to get a little perspective. Athletics has so many different events that you can make a similar comparison yet take gender out of the equation. Take the 100 metres and the marathon. Mens or womens. Which competitors do more work or are remembered more by fans?. You could easily argue that, particularly for the mens events, the marathon runners do infinitely more work yet it’s the 100 metre champion that everyone remembers. Usain Bolt anyone.
While I expect Usain will make more in sponsorship deals should Athletics say the 100 metres is more important by offering more prize money. I don’t think so. The 100 metres is in fashion right now but all athletes work equally hard at their event. The difference is more about appeal of the event to spectators. The athletes can’t do so much about that. Different cultures follow different events and the wide range of events is what makes athletics a strong product as a whole. So each event is important and it’s important that prize money reflects that.
This is my view. I had a quick google. Couldn’t find reliable numbers on prize money in Athletics. The point is more about equality. Sponsorship reflects the fashions of the day and will never be equal. But prize money can be. I think it should. You wouldn’t say the 100 metres is more important than the marathon. Even though it’s not as fashionable to the average spectator. In the same vein you wouldn’t pay people differently based on aspects such as culture, ethnicity or height. So why do so on gender? It makes no sense, except in the by gone days we’re trying to move on from.
A deeper debate
So you can probably tell that I feel this is a much deeper debate. Not as simple as money. You’d be right. I don’t know all the details but I would say that womens sport has been the poor relation to mens sport pretty much across the board. Except for sports like Gymnastics and Syncronised swimming, mens sports have been around longer, funded better and watched by more people.
Most womens sports are relatively young. In fact Tennis is rare. One of the only sports to have women competitors playing pretty much the same game as the men right from the start. Think about it. Womens football, how long has that been around. Particularly at the top level. Athletics is a good example. Compare the Olympic medallists for the mens and womens events. For all events the men have been competing for far longer. The men have been competing in the 5k 84 years longer than the women. For the 10k it’s 76 years. For the marathon it’s 88 years.
What to do
This reflects the second class citizens that women have been in sports for many decades, but what to do? For me I’m more interested in quality. I watch tennis because I love the game. I want the pros to play a game I want to watch. I want them to attract me. So I don’t care about 3 or 5 sets. It’s much easier to watch a 3 set match in my busy life. 5 sets requires much more dedication. The difference in the products can be a strength. Much like long distance events like the marathon fascinate us all. Think about the many marathons across the world. We only see the 100m sprints in Athletics meets but the marathon has a life outside athletics. It’s also part of triathlon.
So I see both products as having great strengths and I’d like to see them play to those strengths. Right now the mens event has the high quality rallies. Amazingly consistent and competitive players at the top. It’s weakness is how long it takes to watch a match. Fitting it in is hard. American football is like that. Yet it’s one of the richest sports in the world and thrives in a market of time poor and easily bored spectators. The drama is already there.
With the women I see their strength in the short length of their matches. It’s a sprint event. In the mens you can come back from 2 sets down. in the womens you can’t. Far fewer mistakes are allowed. It’s much more intense. So I expect faster turnover between points. The women don’t need time and rest as much as the men. There’s less need to make spectators wait like there is for the mens game.
A shorter match should feel like a sprint. Yet currently most women players run slower and cover less distance than the men do over the same number of sets. They should be doing the opposite. They don’t have to save their energy. The williams sisters particularly epitomize this sprint idea. Their games are strong and fast. They expect to be equal to the men. The trouble is that few players have been able to match them. I blame that on the infrastructure behind the womens game.
I also see that the women can and should play and expect to win both doubles and singles. Doubles is bottom of all tennis tournaments. I’d argue it’s because we don’t see it often and so haven’t got to love the event and its players. It also never seems to have the same quality. High ranked doubles players don’t fair well on the singles tours. What if there were competition to be number one in singles and doubles. It would make me more interested. I followed the doubles earlier in the year at indian wells when nadal and federer were involved. Nothing against the doubles specialists. It’s just about watching the best players play. It’s hard to respect the doubles tour if it’s clearly not as good as the mens. With the men playing 5 sets they can’t do this at the slams. The womens tour could and should. By winning both singles and doubles a woman could truly claim to be the best on that surface that year. That would be a strength of the womens game and raise quality for spectators.
That’s just one idea. One thing the men really get right is their marketing. They present themselves so well. The mens tour seems friendlier and more relaxed than the womens. Whether it is or not isn’t the point. They’re likeable and make the effort to connect with their fans. The men seem more united with a clearer purpose than the women. I think that’s why their tour is growing so much more than the womens. Spectators like that more.
Equality through unity
What I’d prefer to see is the mens and womens games to become more united. Each is a valuable product which needs to understand its strengths and weaknesses and its market. Together I’d prefer to see the WTA and ATP each have targets set which relate to growing tennis year on year. If the mens game is higher quality than the womens then they should work together to raise the quality of the womens game. That shouldn’t mean the women copying the men. It should be more about finding the right incentives to encourage the womens game to focus on the right aspects that complement their tour.
I’ve suggested a few things here. I haven’t explored the potential of social networks or teality shows following players around the tour. Showing the behind the scenes dramas we don’t normally see. There are lots of options.
The point is about being equal and united. Growing both tours together. instead of dividing through in-fighting.
I’ve said plenty already. I’m sure this topic will raise its head again. I hope I’ve made you think. Please join the debate if you have your own opinion.