Serena Williams is the highest paid female athlete in the world – why did it take so long?

Serena Williams is the highest paid female athlete in the world – why did it take so long?

The latest Forbes earnings puts Serena Williams at the top of the list for female earners in the past 12 months. But delve a little deeper and it’s clear that Maria Sharapova is still favoured when it comes to endorsements. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

For the last decade or so, Maria Sharapova has dominated Forbes’ list of top-earning woman athletes. This week, for the first time in 11 years, Serena Williams has earned herself that title.

Williams lost the French Open final to Gabrine Muguruza, her third attempt to make it 22 Grand Slam titles which will tie her with Steffi Graf, and was, as always, gracious in defeat. While she might not have won on the court, she is certainly winning off it. Williams earned $28.9-million over the past 12 months. Her career prize money is sitting at $77.6-million and is more than twice as much as any other female athlete.

For the last decade, Williams has dominated the tennis court. Some say she is the greatest female athlete of all time, with many more claiming she is the greatest ever. Whatever your view, Williams is one of the most recognised and most successful athletes in the world and that has been the case since she first burst on to the scene. Why, then, did it take so long for her to become the top earning female athlete, according to Forbes?

This is a debate that has been raging for years: when you delve deeper into the Forbes figures, it becomes quite clear that Williams is still lagging behind. Like Sharapova, the bulk of Williams’ earnings came from endorsements. Both women raked in $20-million in endorsements in the last 12 months and that figure is likely to nosedive for Sharapova after she got caught up in a doping scandal. Williams earned almost five times more in prize money compared to Sharapova, but the question that remains is why, despite being one of the most successful and most recognised athletes of all time, is Williams not raking in as many endorsements as some of her male counterparts?

In 2015, for example, Roger Federer collected roughly $58-million in endorsements. Novak Djokovic earned about $31-million while Rafael Nadal earned $28-million. In 2015, Sharapova was earning more than Williams in endorsements, with $23-million. While there is some argument to be made for pay gaps in on-court earnings – because men play more sets than women – there is little argument for the vast gap in endorsements between all tennis players. No currently active male or female player has won more Grand Slam titles than Williams, yet it has taken almost a decade for her to even overtake a far less successful female player. Why?

In June of 2015, Forbes looked at the reasons why Sharapova earned more in endorsements that year than Williams. “Does ethnicity and ‘corporate bias’ play a partial role in explaining the endorsement gap?” the article asked. “In all likelihood, yes.”

This is a pertinent point as many argue against racism, saying that the “same market place pays big bucks to black male athletes”. But the issue is not just being black – it’s being a black woman. On top of that, being a strong woman who has redefined what we deem as a traditionally “attractive” female form has only added to the challenge.

In 2014, Russian Tennis Federation President Shamil Tarpischev referred to the Williams sisters as “brothers” while saying they were “scary” to look at. He was forced to publicly apologise, fined and then banned for a year by the Women’s Tennis Association. Serena characterised his remarks as racist and sexist, but for Williams, this is simply the reality of life on and off the court.

In her early years playing in Compton, her coach and father Richard would pay children to hurl racist abuse at them to prepare the sisters for what would await them when they started playing professionally in front of mostly white crowds. He wasn’t wrong. Throughout her career, she has battled blatant and institutional sexism and racism on all fronts.

In an interview with Bleacher Report, Delia Douglas, Ph.D., an instructor at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus, called the phenomenon “anti-black racism in a gender-specific form”.

For athletes like Williams, this prejudice creeps in from all corners and takes many different forms. In July 2015, The New York Times published a piece by Ben Rothenberg which focused on female tennis players’ body image. Tomasz Wiktorowski, coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, told the paper: “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10. Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”

That attitude – that somehow being bigger makes somebody less of a woman – has plagued many female athletes and seemingly marketers, too. It is unthinkable that an athlete as successful as she is is not earning as much in endorsements as you might expect. Nobody blames Sharapova for earning endorsement millions. She is simply a product of the system, but that does not mean we should ignore the injustices of that system.

Yes, Williams can be controversial. Yes, she already earns a hefty sum, but there is no doubt that if she were someone else, she would be earning a whole lot more. The greatest irony of it all is that she holds tremendous influence over millions of women and has a reach to an audience marketers should be falling over each other for.

Not only is Williams a body-positive role model, but she is part of a disenfranchised group excelling in an almost all-white space, and that her off-the-court earnings still don’t reflect shows just how far we still need to go to reach true equality. DM

Photo: Serena Williams (R) of the US and Maria Sharapova of Russia shake hands after their quarter finals match on day nine of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, 26 January 2016 EPA/FILIP SINGER


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