The Income Divide in the world's most Progressive Sport

Opinion by Brian Huynh. This piece is part of Behind the Game, a series by Alexander Stoney on the intersection of sports and public policy.

A tennis court covered in tennis balls.

Tennis is without a doubt the world’s most progressive sport, but this distinction only serves to highlight the ways in which the entire sporting world still clings to traditional, conservative thinking.


To start, it’s important to determine what progress is. In this piece, progress will be examined through the advancement and equality of gender, sexuality, race and income. All four of these lenses will showcase the sport’s best and worst.


Gender


In a discussion of the greatest tennis players of all time, you’ll be as likely to hear the names of Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal thrown around as you would hear Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert.


Unlike most sports where the men’s event dominates public viewership and the women’s event is less popularly regarded , men and women share the spotlight. In fact, the most-viewed match at the 2019 US Open was the women’s final which drew 3.2 million viewers compared to the men’s final which drew 2.8 million viewers [1].


At the four Grand Slams, tennis’ most prestigious tournaments, men and women share the exact same prize money allocation with the winner receiving $3,000,000 USD and a loser in the first round receiving $61,000 USD. In the NBA and WNBA, the average male salary was $8,264,922 USD while the average female salary was $73,738 USD [2].


The fight for equal pay wasn’t complete until 2007 when, after years of backroom negotiations, Venus Williams managed to secure equal pay for men and women at the four Grand Slams [3].


This equality didn’t happen overnight. Women only have equal billing in tennis now and Williams was only able to insist on equal pay because of the unwavering activism of women who withheld their labour from major tournaments in the 1970’s and, led by Billie Jean King, formed the Virginia Slims Circuit where they singlehandedly built the reputation of professional women’s tennis on their own [4].


The fight for true equality of the sexes is still yet to be complete. Just this past week, the French Open was played in Paris. The French Open tried out a new match schedule for their main court, Court Phillippe Chatrier. They would play three matches during the day, and one in the evening, two men’s and two women’s matches. The evening match was marketed separately as “the match of the day” [5]. Of the eleven “matches of the day” that were played throughout the tournament, only two were women’s matches, sending a resounding message to the world as to which matches are more valuable to the French Open.


Race


Viewed through the lens of race, tennis has been an incredible platform for athletes to create change. Through her mere presence on the court, Serena Williams has been able to shift the narrative on motherhood and sport, redefining the birth of a child from a career ender to a reinvigorating and focusing event [6].


Naomi Osaka has used her platform at the 2020 US Open to focus the tennis world on the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests by prominently displaying the names of seven Black victims of police brutality throughout her seven matches to raise awareness. Osaka’s activism forced international media outlets to explain the Black Lives Matter protests in the US [7].


Williams and Osaka drew upon the activism of Arthur Ashe, the first and only Black man to win the US Open, Wimbledon, and the Australian Open, who used his platform to advocate for racial equality in the US and integration and equality in apartheid South Africa [8].


Despite these wonderful instances of activism and the ways racialized tennis players have managed to seize their platform to create change, a quick look at tennis’s ranking boards shows the sport as a whole remains overly European and overly white with underrepresentation of visible minorities and Africans, Asians, and South Americans.


Sexuality


Through the lens of sexuality, tennis has been a relatively welcoming environment for queer women who were able to find relatively safe and supportive spaces during times when there was little support. Women like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova paved the way for queer women to be welcomed into tennis [9].


Queerness, while much more welcome in women’s tennis, is still dormant in men’s tennis. There has yet to be an openly gay player on the male professional circuit and the attitudes expressed to the press from many male tennis players illustrate why this is the case [10].


Income


While the income gap between men and women has all but closed, the gap between those at the very top and everyone else continues to grow.


On Forbes’s 50 highest-paid athletes list of 2021, 4 tennis players, Roger Federer, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, and Novak Djokovic, appear racking in $90, $60, $41.5 and $34.5 million USD respectively [11]. The majority of their income comes from endorsements. It is clear why these four rack in huge endorsement money; they are cultural icons who hold global audiences and have revolutionized the game.


It’s not the endorsement earnings of these superstars that anger their fellow players, but their prize money earnings from tournaments.


In the first five months of 2021, Novak Djokovic, the highest ranked player, made $2,435,895 USD whereas Nikola Cacic, the 200th ranked player, made $63,844 USD [12].


In the 2020-2021 NBA season, Stephen Curry, the highest salary player, made $43,006,362 whereas Trey Lyles, the 200th player made $5,500,000 USD [13].


League salary and tournament earnings are not the same, but their staggering difference highlights the fact that the floor for earnings is much higher in the NBA than in professional tennis.


While the prize pool continues to increase and the distribution of prize money grows more equitable, only the players who qualify for major tournaments, 32 to 128 players maximum, benefit out of the 1771 ranked by the Association of Tennis Professionals. Even the players who do qualify for these tournaments struggle financially.


In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, in 2018 Noah Rubin, who was ranked 125th at the time, made $225,000 USD in prize money, yet took home only $15,000 USD “after accounting for travel, food, equipment, lodging, and the salaries of his support staff,” [14].


Income fairness and equity isn’t just a moral issue, it has resounding performance impacts. As the most prolific tennis players have been able to gain increasing wealth, they have been able to reinvest that wealth into their most important asset: themselves.


Top players are able to hire a coach, a sports psychologist, a trainer, a physiotherapist, a hitting partner, a manager, and a chef and nutritionist to travel with them full time, ensuring that their bodies are in peak condition to prolong their careers. Roger Federer and Serena Williams are able to afford all of that, plus nannies and tutors in order to bring their families around the world with them, easing the mental effects of a lonely life on the road [15].


To say that these services aren’t beneficial to performance would be a lie, and the fact that these services aren’t available to all players is obvious. The only question that remains is this: what should we do, if anything?


A group of men’s tennis players says this needs to change. Vasek Pospisil, a Canadian tennis player ranked 65th said “Most players are breaking even or losing money. It shouldn’t be like that,” so he did something about it [16].


In 2020, Vasek Pospisil and Novak Djokovic teamed up to create the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) in order to collectively demand for increased prize pools and support for lower-ranked players from the professional circuit and tournament organizers [17].


The PTPA has experienced setbacks in its development. No women have signed on to the organization, the organization has yet to define its core goals or how it would implement them, and Pospisil’s emotional meltdown during a match at the 2021 Miami Open after a meeting with key tennis executives have portrayed the PTPA as a chaotic and amateur attempt. It will be a long time before the PTPA is able to effectively cause change [18].


Conclusion


When we look more closely at gender equality, sexual representation, racial equality and income equality, it’s clear that tennis is not as progressive as it might seem at first glance. It is still, however, the most progressive and equal professional sport we have.


This speaks volumes to the issues that remain across the sporting world and reminds us that there is still much work to be done to make the sporting world a more safe, secure, and welcoming environment for all.

  1. Nagle, Dave. “US Open: Most Watched Ever on ESPN,” ESPN Press Room. Sept. 10, 2019.

  2. Baker, Elle. “A Comparison of NBA and WNBA Player Salaries,” Kennesaw State University: Undergraduate Research Fellowship Working Paper Series. 2019-2020.

  3. Kapetanakis, Arthur. “Be Open: How Venus Williams finished Billie Jean King's fight for equal pay,” US Open (New York, NY), Aug. 18, 2020.

  4. WTA Staff. “Looking Back on the Original Nine,” WTA Tour (St. Petersburg, FL), Jan. 1, 2019.

  5. Pretot, Julien. “Azarenka lashes out at French Open over favouring men for night session,” Reuters, Jun. 6, 2021.

  6. Haskell, Rob. “Serena Williams on Motherhood, Marriage, and Making Her Comeback,” Vogue (New York, NY), Jan. 10, 2018.

  7. Thompson, Nevin. “Japan reacts to tennis star Naomi Osaka’s protest in support of Black Lives Matter,” Global Voices, Aug. 31, 2020.

  8. Arsenault, Raymond. 2018. Arthur Ashe: A Life.

  9. Moore, Elliott. “LGBT Pioneers Abound in Women's Tennis History,” GLAAD, Mar. 14, 2013.

  10. Eccleshare, Charlie. “Tennis’ last taboo: Why no openly gay male players?” The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, Australia), Jan. 9, 2019.

  11. Knight, Brett and Justin Birnbaum. “Highest-paid Athletes: The Top 50 Sports Stars Combined To Make Nearly $2.8 Billion In A Year Of Records,” Forbes, 2021.

  12. ATP Tour “ATP Prize Money Leaders (US$), Rankings Date: May 31, 2021,” ATP Tour, May 31, 2021.

  13. ESPN. “NBA Player Salaries – 2020-2021,” ESPN, 2021.

  14. Yaffe-Bellany, David. "The Missed Business Opportunity That Is Pro Tennis,” Bloomberg Businessweek (New York, NY), Mar. 24, 2021.

  15. Clarey, Christopher. “Roger Federer Seeks New Experiences to Sustain His Career,” The New York Times, (New York, NY), Mar. 9, 2015.

  16. Yaffe-Bellany, David. "The Missed Business Opportunity That Is Pro Tennis,” Bloomberg Businessweek (New York, NY), Mar. 24, 2021.

  17. Wertheim, Jon. “Mailbag: What the ATP Players' Group Controversy Reveals About the Entire Sport of Tennis,” Sports Illustrated, Mar. 31, 2021.

  18. Associated Press. “Canadian Vasek Pospisil blasts ATP Chairman in Miami Open tirade,” SportsNet, (Toronto, ON), Mar. 24, 2021.