Why equality is good for all

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Tennis has a special place in male-female relations. More than other sports, men and women play side-by-side, inspiring fans and kids across genders.

My elementary school buddies and I didn’t only emulate Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Vitas Gerulaitis.

Oh … Martina!” one guy would say, hitting a volley like Navratilova.

Oh … Evert-Lloyd!!” another guy would say, hitting a passing shot like Chris.

We couldn’t name a female athlete in other sports we played: basketball, soccer, football, baseball and hockey. When Martina and Chris were playing, or the Williams sisters years later, we studied and cheered them. It didn’t matter if they could beat men or draw bigger crowds. We admired their technique, fighting ability and personalities: Martina’s cunning, Evert’s poise, Venus’ elegance and Serena’s power.

 

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Few men in tennis don’t love the women’s game. McEnroe gushed over Justine Henin’s backhand. Andre Agassi loved Steffi Graf’s backhand, and married her. Roger Federer married a former WTA player Mirka Vavrinec. They have two sets of twins — perfect for mixed doubles.

Every other sport must envy how women and men stand aside each other in the tennis pantheon of legends. The United States national tennis center in New York is named after Billie Jean King, who helped create the Women’s Tennis Association. The center’s main stadium is named after Arthur Ashe, who helped lead the Association of Tennis Professionals, which runs the men’s tour. The Australian Open also names stadiums after Rod Laver and Margaret Court.

The meshing of men and women runs deep through the soul of tennis. Boys and girls play together at Toronto camps or Tokyo schoolyards. Adults often enjoy mixed doubles at clubs. Mr. A might serve faster, but Ms. B is more consistent and patient. Every guy at my club — including a US college player and another potential pro — knows that we couldn’t get a game off Serena. We all think Amelie Mauresmo has been a great coach for Andy Murray. 

 

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Tennis has a more progressive, non-sexist vibe than any other sport I cover. The International Tennis Federation shares Grand Slam prize money equally between WTA female and ATP male players, as do many WTA-ATP combo events. Many of the leading managers, coaches, broadcasters, writers and photographers are women. Fans enjoy paying one price to watch men and women at combo events in Cincinnati or Madrid. It’s wonderful.

Imagine if Brazil hosted the World Cups of soccer for men and women at the same time. Or if WNBA games preceded NBA games in the same arena, all for one ticket price. Or imagine Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam teaming up in golf, or Usain Bolt handing a relay baton to Allyson Felix.

Sadly, many men never watched Sorenstam or Felix, arguably the greatest ever in their sports. But they know Serena, Venus, Maria Sharapova and Genie Bouchard. This is because Billy Jean King and other reformers won battles to elevate tennis to the highest paying — and most popular — sport for women.

As Serena pointed out, the US Open 2015 women’s final sold out before the men’s final because many males hoped to see Serena make history. Evert, Navratilova, Martina Hingis and others point to eras where popular women attracted more attention than males. As Andy Murray says: “If Serena is playing on center court and you have a men’s match with Stakhovsky playing, people are coming to watch Serena.”

 

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It’s true that, as Novak Djokovic and others point out, statistics show that ATP men’s matches often generate more revenue for organizers, TV networks and other media. Thus many ATP players feel they deserve a bigger share of profits. Montreal-based writer Stephanie Myles, whose bosses at Yahoo and the Toronto Star are women, argues that some events, such as Tennis Canada’s Rogers Cup, should put more profits toward grassroots development than gender parity. Others argue that tennis is an entertainment business, driven by capitalism not socialism, and it should reward whoever — male or female — generates the most revenue.

Murray perhaps says it best by noting that “the whole of tennis should capitalize” on the current popularity of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and others. This should be true, also, if women become more popular than men.

I support improved payment and promotion of women for these reasons:

–Above other sports, tennis is a world leader in equality and promotion of women. That image is worth more than the revenue of any tournament. Tennis might lose millions of fans if it suddenly regressed away from equality. The sport cannot afford that.

–Successful events such as the Rogers Cup, which draw huge crowds for women’s tennis in Toronto and Montreal in alternating years, can set shining examples for society as a whole. That would justify increased government or private sector funding.

–Thanks to increased prize money, WTA players often hire male coaches, trainers and media reps. This is good for men. It’s a win-win for all.

–Women work as hard as men over their careers, and often overcome even greater societal hurdles, just to reach the top levels. A boy or girl, age 5, would likely spend 20,000 hours on court (3 hours per day over 20 years) plus countless hours working off-court just to play in a Grand Slam match, whether two or five sets. Even if Djokovic plays six more hours than Serena at a slam, the amount of time and energy required for their work, calculated over their entire careers, is roughly equal. In most other industries, that would justify equal pay for equal work.

–Women and men are not physically the same, but should have equal opportunities to earn income over their lifetimes. Some women can argue for higher pay over shorter periods because motherhood can shorten their careers. Henin and Li Na (two of my favorites) might still be filling stadiums if they were males like Djokovic, Federer and Murray who thrive as fathers.

–Tennis and other sports will profit longterm from funding — or even “overpaying” — women right now in order to hype women’s sports and create new revenue sources. If men are spending more on athletic gear than women, then it makes sense for Nike, Adidas, Ellesse, Under Armour and others to invest in developing the untapped potential of a market with room to grow.

Two decades ago, I wouldn’t have imagined seeing fans in Istanbul and Vancouver wearing jerseys of women’s players in packed venues for the World Cups of basketball and soccer. Imagine tennis 20 years from now.

 

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–More and more men are realizing the excitement of matches such as the USA-Canada and USA-Japan Olympic soccer matches in England. As more and more women become doctors, lawyers, engineers and executives, they’ll likely spend more on women’s sports. It’s a bet worth making, especially for proven commodities such as women’s tennis and soccer.

 

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Finally, redistributing wealth to women helps to overcome another problem facing tennis: income disparity.

Imagine if basketball players dropped out of high school or college to turn pro but never earned enough money to offset expenses. Imagine if only 150 NBA players (the starting five of 30 teams) made money, and every other player (in the NBA, Euro, China, Mexican, Brazilian and D-leagues) never made enough to cover expenses. This is reality in tennis. Only the top players worldwide have a profitable career. Last year in Madrid, I played a guy, age 21, who turned down a Princeton scholarship in order to fulfill a dream on the ATP tour. He might never profit from tennis. I might make more money in tennis than he ever will.

 

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Gabriela Dabrowski of Ottawa, who reached world number 164 (an awesome achievement) has earned 470,000 in prize money at age 23. But players also have to pay for coaches, trainers, hotels and flights as they travel the world full-time, often to lose on Monday or Tuesday every week. Some journalists covering tennis earn more than Dabrowski. That’s why many young athletes opt for the stable and higher incomes of other sports.

In my view, players such as Serena, Murray and Djokovic should push the ATP, WTA and ITF toward awarding every player a bonus when they crack the top 1000 and 500. There should also be a minimum income level for every top 1000 player. These amounts should be equal for men and women.

The redistribution of wealth toward lower-ranked players should top the agenda of the sport. Amid the recent discord over issues of match-fixing, doping and sexism, the need for higher pay for lower-ranked players is something almost everyone can agree upon.

(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson, Globalite Media, all rights reserved)

 

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