Tennis has long trumpeted the fact that its biggest events pay equal prize money to male and female performers. Yet this impression of equality is being maintained only via a secret subsidy of almost £25 million from the Women’s Tennis Association.
The hidden investment is propping up female prize money at the four biggest combined events below the slams: namely Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing. The Association of Tennis Professionals, which runs the men’s tour, makes no equivalent direct contribution towards event prize money.
The hidden subsidy is not the creation of WTA chief Steve Simon, but dates back well before his appointment in 2015. Each successive head of the WTA must have hoped that the societal march towards gender equality would eliminate the pay gap, by levelling up the market value of the women.
In the event, the opposite has happened. The ATP has been able to grow revenues off the back of the golden generation of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Yet these combined events have not lifted the pay offer commensurately for the women. In a classic example of tennis’s dysfunctional governance, the ATP is setting the level for prize money at combined events, but the gap with the WTA is only growing larger.
This places the WTA in a potentially unsustainable position over the long term. The sums are most significant at the four Premier Mandatory tournaments. The owners of these events – who include Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison for Indian Wells, and super-agency IMG for Miami and Madrid – are paying only 38 per cent of prize money.
The WTA is stumping up the other 62 per cent, which comes to almost £4.4 million per tournament. Six other significant events – Doha, Dubai, Wuhan, Rome, Cincinnati and Toronto/Montreal – are also being subsidised in a similar way. Here is the background for a scathing editorial published last week by John Millman, formerly a member of the ATP Player Council, on the news.com.au website.
“Equal prize money between men and women in tennis can be put to bed,” wrote Millman. “It won’t be happening. Principles and tennis equality have been thrown out the window thanks to some poor decision-making by the WTA.”
Millman did not mention the hidden subsidy, but he did list the relative incomes of the tours from 2021, which found the ATP on £142 million and the WTA on £71 million.
For purposes of comparison, the ATP’s golfing cousin at the PGA generated £1.28 billion in revenues in 2021, but then it runs events itself, whereas the tennis model involves leasing franchises to third parties. The WTA’s ongoing commitment to equal prize money at the big events has placed a huge strain on its finances.
On signing a four-year, £64 million deal with new sponsor Hologic last year, it front-loaded its income, receiving £40 million at once to help with cash flow. It then sold off 20 per cent of its commercial operation to private equity firm CVC in March, in return for another £120 million of ready funds.
The subsidy was particularly useful for the recent Mutua Madrid Open, which stood accused of discriminating against female players on scheduling and other issues. The criticism would surely have grown far louder had it been generally known that the tournament was supplying less than £3 million of the £7 million prize money received by champion Aryna Sabalenka and her rivals.