Women's Tennis, Money, and the Uphill Battle for Equality

The WTA just banked a record-breaking TV rights deal, which shows just how much other women's sports leagues can learn from the trailblazing association.

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Dec 12 2014, 3:20pm

Photo by Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

This week, the Women's Tennis Association continued its trailblazing ways when chief executive Stacey Allaster announced a 10-year, $525 million television rights deal with their current partner, PERFORM.

This is huge step up for the WTA. The organization's former agreement is worth about $21 million per year and only provides coverage of about one-third of its matches worldwide, which has been endlessly frustrating to loyal fans of women's tennis. The new deal will more than double the broadcast dollars flowing into the sport and ensure that all 2,000 annual main-draw WTA matches will be shown by 2017.

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"This is a defining moment not just for women's tennis, but for women's sport in general," said the WTA's Heather Bowler.

Standard corporate announcement hyperbole? Not so much. Not only is the media deal the largest in the history of women's tennis, it's also the largest in the history of women's sports. And that matters. A lot. Because in a sports and media environment where the competitiveness, marketability, and economic viability of female athletes and leagues are forever being questioned, the WTA deal is the strongest signal yet that yes, women's sports are worth investing in.

For comparison's sake, the WNBA currently has a $12 million per year contract with ESPN, which is expected to grow to $25 million per year in 2016-17. The WTA's new deal more than doubles that.

It's no surprise that of all leagues, it's the WTA that is once again setting the precedent. The tour has Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, two of the planet's most popular athletes—male or female—sitting at No. 1 and No. 2 in its rankings, and is the world's largest and most profitable women's sport.

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How did this happen? First and foremost, thank Billie Jean King. In a world where female athletes are seen as lesser-than by default, King has always demanded equality and respect from male counterparts, spectators, and sponsors, and has never apologized for doing so.

In 1970, King and eight other women became so fed up with the 12:1 prize-money ratio between men and women in tennis that they decided to split off on their own. Famously signing $1 contracts, the nine players formed the Virginia Slims Circuit, which would eventually become the WTA.

From the beginning, King was the lead trailblazer for equality, a maverick ahead of her time. The defending U.S. Open champion in 1973, she refused to play in the tournament unless it offered equal prize money for women. Organizers eventually complied. You may have also heard of a famous "Battle of the Sexes" match she played against Bobby Riggs that same year, a cultural phenomenon that transcended sports and came to be seen as definitive moment not just for women's tennis, but for women's rights across the board.

Of course, financial equality in tennis wasn't something that was accepted swiftly—Wimbledon didn't offer equal prize money for men and women until 2007, and the very idea of doing so still comes into question every time a major tournament comes around. Nevertheless, the WTA continues to grow. According to its website, the tour now includes "more than 2,500 players representing 92 nations competing for a record $118 million in prize money at the WTA's 54 events and four Grand Slams in 33 countries."

Not too shabby. In comparison, the also-growing LPGA will have 33 tournaments in 2015 for a tour-record $61.6 million in prize money. In the WNBA, 12 teams play 34 games between May and September, and the average salary is only around $72,000.

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One of the benefits that the WTA has had is time to develop, a luxury that many women's sports leagues aren't given. Only the LPGA, founded in 1950, has been around longer than the WTA. The WNBA was launched in 1997, and women's professional soccer leagues have had a hard time staying afloat in the United States—the Women's United Soccer Association existed from 2000-2003, and Women's Professional Soccer from 2009-2012. The current women's pro soccer league, the National Women's Soccer League, has only been playing matches for two years.

This is something that King addressed last year when holding a press conference to discuss the 40th anniversary of the WTA:

The resources available to men's sports compared to women's sports is just night and day, okay? Men are willing to spend billions of dollars and lose billions of dollars, long?'term thinking, on men's sports. Here's what happens with women's. Let's say you start a soccer league. If the women don't make money in two years, the guys say, "See, they're not making any money." But no one ever says to them, "How much money are the guys making?"

The [Anschutz] family was willing to go for 30 years to invest [in Major League Soccer]. I have never seen anyone in women's sports really say, "We're going to invest, I don't care what it takes for the next 10, 20, 30 years, we're going to put X on the map."

I have never heard that about women's sports. For men's sports, I hear it all the time. That is discrimination. That's just the way it is.

King is right. Granted, part of the reason why the WTA has enjoyed the benefit of time and support is that it has regularly shared the same stage as men's tennis at places like the All England Club and Roland Garros, an undeniable benefit unavailable to, say, the Los Angeles Sparks.

Still, her point stands. Again, consider history: It wasn't until Title IX was passed in 1973 that gender discrimination in sports was eradicated in educational institutions, allowing girls access to sports in schools. Boys and men have enjoyed quite a head-start—which is the story of human history, too—and even though so much progress has been made today in regards to equality, men are still the perceived default when it comes to the majority of sports. They receive the bulk of the money, and perhaps even more importantly, the majority of the media attention. Which actually are often one and the same.

When women's sports share a stage with the men—like they do in the tennis Slams and at the Olympics—they also get to share in those perks. Suddenly, with the cameras recording and journalists digging, the storylines in women's sports are exposed to be just as interesting—if not more so—than those in men's sports.

Has the United States men's national soccer team ever generated as much excitement as their female counterparts did during the 1999 Women's World Cup? Was the ATP Tour of the early 2000s half as intriguing as its WTA counterpart, which featured Martina Hingis, the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, and the famous-for-most-of-the-wrong-reasons Anna Kournikova? With apologies to Bart Conner, has men's gymnastics ever been the must-see TV of the Summer Games?

Looks, I'm not saying that women's sports need men's sports to be competitive or entertaining, but they do need a share of the attention so they can be properly showcased. When they are, fans usually stick around due to the compelling theater.

The WTA doesn't just create great tennis, though—it creates superstars. Many of the most successful and recognized female athletes in the world have come from tennis: King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Hingis, Monica Seles, Venus Williams—the list goes on and on. This year, according to Forbes, seven of the top 10 highest-paid female athletes in the world are tennis players: Sharapova, Li Na, Serena, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, Agnieszka Radwanska. and Ana Ivanovic.

It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg phenomenon: Does the success of the WTA create more stars, or do the stars create the success of the WTA? The answer, most likely, is "yes." You can't have one without the other. Tennis is an individual sport that forces you to get to know the players. It gives its stars plenty of face-time—there are no teammates getting in the way—which is something that sponsors, particularly those that make female sports clothes, love.

The WTA also does a great job promoting its stars, pushing rivalries, and encouraging athletes to showcase their personalities, whether it be on the court, through social media, or in interviews. It doesn't always do this perfectly—the "Strong is Beautiful" campaign has, in my opinion, put too much of a focus on makeup and fancy dresses for my liking, and I abhor on-court coaching—but at least the organization is willing to take risks in order to stand out and command attention in a fragmented entertainment marketplace. That's a lesson that other women's sports leagues can borrow.

Unfortunately, it's not always enough for the on-court product to be great. For great financial success, female athletes have to be so much more than just athletes. Recall Kournikova. Women in the public eye are still judged by sex appeal first, talent second, and that's something that not even Wimbledon champions can escape.

Moreover, it often seems that said on-court product has to be twice as great to enjoy half a chance. As King said, women's sports are on a short leash, 24/7. Even the WTA's credibility is publicly questioned every time there is a low-quality match on a big stage or a notable upset. Female athletes have to prove themselves, over and over again, and know that they still might not get the widespread respect their performances have earned.

But progress is being made. The WNBA's ratings are rising dramatically—this year, the WNBA playoffs saw a 90% increase in viewership. The LPGA is also coming off of a season that saw record ratings and increased prize money. With the Women's World Cup coming up next year, women's soccer is poised to make gains as well.

And out front, leading the way as usual, is the WTA—a maverick operation turned standard bearer, still showing that women's sports can not only survive, but thrive.