HomeSportsUS Open equal pay cannot close the gender gap in tennis

US Open equal pay cannot close the gender gap in tennis

Billie Jean King won the US Open in 1972, but earned only $10,000, compared to the $25,000 pocketed by men’s champion Ilie Nastase. She stated that she would not play the following year if the prize money was not equal. In 1973, exactly fifty years ago, the US Open became the first major to pay men and women equally.

This monumental decision turned out to be way ahead of its time. The Australian Open has only consistently offered equal pay since 2001, and the French Open and Wimbledon only followed suit in 2007.

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“By being the first sport to offer equal prize money, we also made a very important statement to society at large,” UTSA Board Chairman Brian Hainline said at a press conference in August. “Providing equal opportunities and equal pay for men and women around the world.”

Well, only in a few places around the world. And not in Cincinnati.

Sixteen years after all four Grand Slams guaranteed equal prize money for the first time, women’s tennis is soaring in popularity and has spawned a plethora of young female stars. Yet the pay gap in tennis is essentially the same as it was in 2007, when the top 10 highest-earning men earned 1.44 times as much as the top 10 highest-earning women. This year, as of the start of the US Open, the disparity ratio is still a hefty 1.36.

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The pandemic, and then the inability to hold tournaments in China, where women’s prize money has increased recently, took a toll on the tour’s revenues. In 2020, 2021 and 2022, the top 10 male players earned 53% more than their female counterparts.

Last year was a prime example of how stacked the deck is against female players. Iga Swiatek had one of the most dominant seasons of any tennis player, male or female, in recent memory, claiming two of the four Grand Slams and winning 37 matches in a row. However, by the end of the calendar, Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz had both earned more money from on-court performances, despite winning just one major each and the former playing in six fewer tournaments than Swiatek.

In total, five of the top six tennis players in the 2022 prize money were men.

Some of the disparity stems from 250- and 500-level tournaments, which are less prestigious and award fewer ranking points than the majors and 1000-level events. Most lower level tournaments are men’s or women’s tournaments, not both. The total prize money available to players at the 250 level on the ATP Tour was more than three times that of the WTA Tour in 2019, 2022 and 2023.

However, many major events, where the same number of men and women play at the same time, still pay men much more. It is striking that, unlike the Grand Slams, men and women both play matches of three sets. The Italian Open paid out approximately $8.4 million to male players in 2023 and only $3.9 million to female players. The two major hard court tournaments in North America, the Canadian Open and Cincinnati Open, each awarded $6.6 million in prize money to men and $2.8 million to women.

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“It needs to be improved,” said 2023 Cincinnati Open champion Coco Gauff. “My matches have been busier or the same as some of the top seeds in the men’s division, so I don’t think it’s a matter of attraction. Of course it is at some tournaments, but especially at the 1000 events I don’t think it is necessarily an attraction problem.”

The disparity of the tournament in Cincinnati is particularly striking considering that until last year it was owned by the USTA, the same organization that hosts the US Open.

“Certainly with Cincinnati it was and still is a different player engagement system, different broadcast agreements,” said US Open tournament director Stacey Allaster when asked about the pay gap at non-major events. “We know now, together with [WTA chief executive] Steve Simon’s leadership, the CVC’s partnership, puts Cincinnati, Canada and Rome on the path to equal prize money.”

This summer, the WTA approved a plan to achieve equal pay on the tennis calendar by 2033. As part of the proposal, all 500- and 1000-level tournaments involving both men and women will be paid equally by 2027.

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However, gender equality in sports is about more than just finances. “Whether you look at participation, ratings, attendance, prize money at the US Open, we are 50/50 in the middle in every aspect,” said USTA CEO Lew Sherr. “It’s more than just equal prize money, right? If you look at how we schedule games, we are aware of who is playing in prime time, who is in Arthur Ashe.”

The same cannot yet be said of other tournaments. Just this year, the French Open came under fire after only one women’s match was included on the nightly fixture list over the course of the two-week tournament.

However, in the broader sporting landscape, tennis is an outlier – a positive one – when it comes to women’s prominence and financial success. Seven of the ten highest-paid female athletes in the world in 2022 were tennis players Sportico‘s research. In 2019, the entire top 10 list consisted of tennis players.

“I think we still have a long way to go,” Gauff said. “But I am proud to say where we are now, especially in the Grand Slams.”

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