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Serving up more economic empowerment


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

It started with Billie Jean King’s famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against Bobby Riggs in 1973. The imperial sport of tennis has now been infiltrated with its own version of economic empowerment. An opinion piece likely to result in me being pelted with tomatoes - rotten ones.

I absolutely love tennis. I love the one-on-one duels played out on diverse surfaces, with no two courts ever playing the same and no outcome ever guaranteed. The rivalries that at times became bigger than the individual themselves is another part of the appeal of the game. Growing up, I can still vividly remember the riveting battles that unfolded on either side of the net. Edberg vs Becker, Agassi vs Sampras, Wayne Ferreira vs himself. Even the European mercenaries like Thomas Muster, who lay in wait for the poor Americans each clay-court season, were a joy to watch.

My memories of women’s tennis, on the other hand, are mostly dominated by the image of the greatest set of legs to grace women’s sport – Steffi Graf – and the sweat-drenched top of Gabriella Sabatini, as she was once again expedited from the lawns of SW19. Sure, women’s tennis had great rivalries and great players, like Navratilova vs Evert, but let’s face it, if the major tournaments didn’t have both sexes competing during the same tournament, the number of eyeballs following women’s tennis would be a fraction of what they are now.

The irony of women’s tennis is that as the standard of play and the entertaining rivalries have faded, the level of compensation has increased.

In 2007 the All England Club succumbed to women’s lib pressure and agreed to award the winner of the ladies tournament prize money of £1.1 million, equal to that of the gentlemen’s winner. An utterly nonsensical notion based mostly on the misguided idea that we could apply workplace equality theory to the world of tennis.

You see, while the theory has merit in the workplace where the result of one’s labour, of similar quality, can be achieved by either sex, the theory simply cannot transfer to the tennis court. From a gender point of view, it doesn’t really matter who drafted a legal document or created a fancy spreadsheet with macros and pivot tables. But out on the court, the quality of the play generated by men and women varies significantly.

Feministas will argue that both the men’s champion and the women’s champion have achieved the same result in beating the rest of the competitive field of entrants.  And, as such, should be remunerated accordingly. But professional sport is no longer just about competitions with an eventual winner. Sport has evolved and the ultimate objective is to now create an entertainment product that TV stations and merchandisers around the world can sell to advertisers and consumers. And therein lies the basis of my argument. Economics 101. The law of supply and demand.

This is why our bruised and battered rugby players, who put their bodies through more abuse than any other sport, simply won’t earn as much as their football counterparts. The facts remain that more people watch football across the globe, which in turn allows TV stations to charge more for advertising, which means footballers can justify higher wages. Even if those exorbitant wages may in time prove to be unsustainable, footballers will continue to earn more than rugby players for as long as the football audience exceeds that of rugby.

So that principle should apply to ladies tennis, but clearly does not. The quality of the entertainment of women’s tennis simply does not justify the same reward as that of the men’s game. The true economic value of the entertainment is to be found in the commercial side of the game, where the corporate vultures circle seeking famous faces and bodies, upon which to plaster their logos. It’s an indictment on the quality of the women’s game that the highest paid female tennis player is remunerated according to her good looks rather than her achievements.

Forbes magazine  points out Maria Sharapova, currently 6th in the world on the WTA rankings, earned $24 million in 2010, eclipsing every other female tennis player (and even Rafael Nadal). This was largely due to a seven-year endorsement deal, signed soon after her 2004 Wimbledon triumph. 

Anna Kournikova, the butt of many poker-hand jokes, (looks good, but wins nothing) for a long time epitomised what was wrong with women’s tennis. In her case, her short lived, yet highly profitable tennis career, was packed up as she rode off into the sunset on Enrique Iglesias’ chopper.

What this tells us is that some blonde hair and a set of long legs will get you further in the world of tennis than actual talent. Conversely, the men’s game, and its endorsers, will always reward the best talent with the most compensation.

A further example served up by the state of the women’s game is that three recent WTA number 1 ranked players had yet to even win a Grand Slam.

Tennis is the only sport in which prize money at the majors is the same for ladies as it is for men. And where some might call this progress, I call this economic empowerment of the mediocre. 

Last year’s women’s British open golf winner took home less than a third of the $1.6 million purse that Louis Oosthuisen received for winning the men’s equivalent tournament.

Good female basketball players in the USA command princely earnings of several hundred thousand dollars, while their male counterparts are well into the millions.

It just doesn’t make sense that female tennis players are paid the same, not from an audience-size point of view nor from a quality-of-entertainment point of view.

If we use the arguments feministas bandy about to get their ladies tennis players equal pay, does that mean officials are now discriminating against the doubles team winners? Together, they only receive a quarter of their single’s counterparts. DM


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