is it fair for women to receive equal pay at grand slam tennis events?

Not all men are athletically superior to women, but should quality of product play a part in prize money?

The folowing is a guest post, written by Percy Pienaar.

The concept of ‘fairness’ will crop up often in this debate, so it is probably worth defining it from the outset.  However, as someone uninitiated in the philosophical arts, I am ill-equipped to do this.  Does fair mean equal?  The terms seem often to be used interchangeably.  Is it more about attempting to make equal something that is inherently unequal?  Is it ‘fair’ to even attempt this?  Should this idea apply equally to the allocation of finite resources?  Including in the case of women’s tennis?  It is apparent that fairness is a normative, subjective concept that will depend on the ‘moral dashboard’ of every individual.  While recognising that these musings are inconsequential (for what tournament organiser would have the stones to overturn what has become the norm among Grand Slams since Wimbledon folded to public pressure in 2006?); I think it is worth examining the ‘fairness’ of prize money allocation from the perspective of both players, and the sport’s spectators.

Fairness from players’ perspective

Equal work deserves equal pay.  As a generalised maxim this is fairly uncontroversial, and tends to be the bastion of those who argue against equal prize money.  Men play best of five sets, while women play only best of three sets.  If men work harder it is only fair that they earn more prize money.  Adding further fuel to this argument is the fact that a greater number of women than men play doubles (as well as singles) at Grand Slams.  Less fatigued from their shorter matches, and with less need for recovery time, many women play doubles (some even play both the women’s and the mixed) and thus have greater earning potential at Grand Slams than men.  In the 2005 edition of Wimbledon – the last with unequal prize money – the ten highest-earning female players earned more than the ten highest-earning males (http://sports.espn.go.com/sports/tennis/news/story?id=2420833).  Female players therefore have a greater opportunity to earn at Grand Slams.  Is this ‘fair’?  Should the elusive definition of fairness also cover equality of opportunity?

A purely economic view would advocate that the fairest way to remunerate players would be as a percentage of the total revenue generated by each sex (note the deliberate use of ‘sex’, rather than ‘gender’.  Just one of a host of useful things a Bachelor of Arts will teach you: the two are not necessarily the same.  In a topical example; while Francesca Schiavone’s sex is female, it is not my place to determine her gender).  Comprehensive statistics on viewership (on television and at stadia) would be able to decide this, as well as settle the claim laid by Maria Sharapova in response to Gilles Simon earlier this week: “there are a few more people that watch my matches than his”.  I have been unable to find any relevant statistics on this (not for lack of trying…), but I suspect that this may not be true.  Importantly, spectator revenue needs to be held distinct from other forms of personal revenue earned through the game.  While Sharapova undoubtedly attracts more personal sponsorship deals than Simon, this should be viewed separately from the prize money debate, as personal deals do not affect the total prize money pool.  Undoubtedly some of her star power is responsible for attracting sponsorship, TV rights packages, and even spectators to Grand Slam events, and it is this component only that should be factored into the debate.   The economic definition of ‘fair’ might therefore state that if females are able to generate as much revenue from the game as men, they should earn the same prize money, regardless of how long their matches are.  Let Adam Smith’s invisible hand decide how much each sex receives (and my invisible hand spank Ana Ivanovic’s naughty behind…).  Is it ‘fair’ to let players live and die by the popularity of their product?  Or do event organisers have a moral obligation to ensure equality?

Finally: a look at a different perspective of ‘fairness’.  From a gynocentric point of view, the fairest way to allocate prize money would be for women and men to compete together in the same competition for the same prize money.  For fear of igniting a feminist debate I will not penetrate this idea more deeply.

Fairness from spectators’ perspective

Fairness for the spectator revolves largely around their ability to watch the form of tennis they want.  While this is easy to reconcile in the case of live tennis; where individuals can choose (or choose not) to purchase tickets and attend tournament matches; it can be problematic for television scheduling.  Armchair pundits have no control over which matches are televised.  I personally feel cheated of a portion of my monthly SKY bill when I am forced to watch women’s tennis when there are comparatively more appealing men’s matches being played concurrently.  After years of futile letter writing to SKY TV CEO John Fellet, my thesaurus and I have come to accept that SKY purchases its tennis broadcast schedule from various global television companies, and so is unable to switch between matches based on local viewer interest (if indeed it could measure this in the first place).  I’ll come out and say it: I think it’s unfair that I pay my Sky bill and can’t control which Grand Slam tennis matches are scheduled.

Reprising the economic argument, it can be presumed that if enough spectators felt as I do, and wrote as many letters to their television providers as I do, televised tennis schedules would be amended to meet demand.  Presumably television networks make evidence-based scheduling decisions based on ratings and viewership numbers to maximise profit.  Does it therefore logically follow that there must be a large viewing appetite for women’s tennis (otherwise Sky wouldn’t show it)?  Or is this a fallacy of presumption, akin to the age-old tale of two economists returning to work from lunch?

‘In this fallacy, two economists are walking when one spots $20 in the gutter.  At first the economist is excited, and points out to his colleague “Look, there’s $20 in the gutter!”, to which the colleague replies: “Can’t be, if it was, someone would have picked it up already’.

As someone who cannot fathom how anyone could prefer to watch Sharapova shrieking and patting balls from the mid-court baseline when the alternative is the enigmatic genius of Simon, I will (further) show my bias and express my hope that I am presuming too much of television schedulers.  One day soon, they will show less women’s tennis, or at least provide me with more choice!  While it may be ‘fairer’ to the players if women played best of five sets, would this be fair for spectators?  Again this depends on the utility people derive from watching each sex play, the measuring of which would require more statistics than I have managed to locate.  Some spectators may be horrified at the thought of dull women’s tennis matches lasting even longer (and further prolonging the men’s matches they await).

However the possibility that this may provide a shot in the arm for women’s tennis should also be acknowledged.  If women were forced to play longer matches, it is likely that their athleticism would improve due to the need for greater fitness and endurance.  It is then possible that the astonishing types of rallies featuring incredible retrieving and power exhibited by the likes of Nadal and Djokovic could take place between women.  More attacking play may also occur (rather than inertial rallies patting drives down the middle of the court to each other), as players would have a greater incentive to finish matches quickly and maximise recovery time.  Many critics of women’s tennis decry the unpredictability of the sport, citing the rarity of the previous Grand Slam’s champion performing well at the following Grand Slam (although others acknowledge the excitement that an element of chance can add to sport).  Best of five set matches would decrease the likelihood of upsets in the women’s game, as longer matches reduce the element of chance and create a narrower standard deviation in results.   Could it be that best of five set matches for women would not only be fairer for the players, but also do a service for spectators?

The only firm and impartial conclusion that can be drawn without statistics is that fairness is a subjective concept influenced by the moral preferences of individuals.  However because it would be a shame to end this piece on such a non-decisive note, I will supply the reader with my two cents, just to give us all some closure (and of course stimulate debate in the comments section).  As a spectator, I find it unfair that men’s and women’s tennis are televised in approximately equal measures, and frankly feel cheated out of a portion of my SKY bill.  I am suspicious of the assumption made by SKY that spectators value the product supplied by each sex equally.  If I were a player (and it has been suggested by some that my unique blend of side-spun forehands and… run-around side-spun forehands could see me plying the tour one day soon) I would also not find it ‘fair’ that men and women, and the quality of the product they provide, are deemed equal.  Because of the subjective nature of ‘fairness’, who is to say that equality is fair?  A less biased system would set prize money as a function of the overall revenue generated by each sex, without any moral obligation on tournament organisers to ensure equality.

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3 thoughts on “is it fair for women to receive equal pay at grand slam tennis events?

  1. Good article. You dont see WNBA players making mega millions do you? Thats because far far less people watch it.

  2. Brilliant article!! You know its hard to find intelligent women these days writing on the internet . . Im glad i found this article 🙂

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