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Tennis and Sex

Once a week I thrash around haplessly on the tennis court.   This week, I’m also a tennis spectator.  While the global economy implodes, at least one event appears to be untouched – the 2009 Australian Tennis Open.    Andrew Murray’s defeat yesterday means he can’t now net the eye-watering AUD$2 million first prize for the men’s single title.   The women’s champion will earn….well, exactly the same, AUD $2million.

After a long running campaign by various groups, all the Grand Slams tennis tournaments now offer   equal prize money to both sexes:  Wimbledon fell into line in 2007.  The argument was that just as no distinction should be made between women and men in the office, so there should be no distinction drawn on the court.

But this is a very bad argument.  The demand for equal pay in the work place is that the reward system ought to be meritocratic and sex-blind.  What matters is the quality and quantity of a person’s output, not their sex.

But the same argument cannot justify the cry for equal pay in sport.    Put aside the fact that men play the best of five sets, women the best of three.   The whole point of dividing up the sexes in tennis is that the ‘work’, the ‘output’, the tennis, is not equal – men are better, the best men are better than the best women.   

Now possibly a convincing case could be made for equal prize money.  Once the categories – men’s tennis, women’s tennis – have been established, it could be argued that women’s tennis is just as (if not more than) entertaining, that just as many people want to watch, and so on.  These are empirical claims which, combined with a normative claim (e.g. prize money should be a function of market demand) justify equalising rewards once the sport has been split along sex lines.  But they do not provide us with a reason for dividing the sport along these lines in the first place.

For that you need a different argument.  And it’s not clear how it would go.  It might be said that it’s unfair that no woman would have a genuine shot at the Australian Open if tennis were sex-blind.  But women are only a part of a group constituting almost the entire population, all of whom are denied sporting riches by innate athletic mediocrity.  Why is it any more unjust that all tennis-talentless men be effectively excluded from glory?  I write with feeling…


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11 Comment on this post

  1. “It might be said that it’s unfair that no woman would have a genuine shot at the Australian Open if tennis were sex-blind.”

    If untalented men had organized political groups that were reasonably concerned about a lack of positive role models and social status for untalented men, maybe there would be a league for incompetent men. Dual-track sports are an opportunity to redistribute status, and should be evaluated in light of the broader concern to raise the status of previously devalued groups. Even though the absolute athletic achievements of the winners of the segregated track are less than those in the open track, they still get more public status and inspire more women than they would if they were much lower-ranked in the open competition.

    Group-based status redistribution can reasonably follow the lines by which people currently psychological demarcate the population, so that sex or ethnic categories matter, but not factors that are generally invisible.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Actually I suspect the real reason the sexes are separated in sport has something to do with the idea that they are Natural Kinds. If there were no imbalance between the groups in any other area, no difference in status etc., it seems unlikely that sport would then become sex-blind.

  3. There are various authors arguing that discrimination along the lines of sex in sport is not particularly helpful (see Loland’s article in ‘Values in sport :elitism, nationalism, gender equality and the scientific manufacture of winners’ (Ed. Tannsjo and Tamburrini)) and that it would be much fairer to separate sport along more relevant and specific lines such as height and weight – e.g. different high jump events depending on the height of participants. But then we get into problems about what it IS that sport is designed to test and which inequalities are fair ones (if that isn’t an oxymoron).

    Essentially though, I do agree with your previous commenter in that in the end, it all comes down to politics…

    I’ve put a link to your post on our philosophy of sport blog ( so hopefully you’ll get more discussion on this topic.

  4. thanks very much for the link. In fact some sports have picked up this ball of logic and run with it. In golf there’s a handicap system: so in theory all players have an equal chance of victory. And boxing separates competitors by weight.

  5. When the women’s professional soccer leagues commence play this summer in both the US and England, neither league’s players will earn as much as their counterparts in MLS and the Premiership. However, WUSA player salaries will be closer to those playing in MLS and more than those female players who will choose to play for English football clubs. With the exception of Beckham (who won’t be there anyway), female footballers together with MLS players will make a fraction of the footballers earning wages at Premiership clubs.

    My point? A question concerning fair pay is linked with market value.

    Female tennis stars are every bit as much celebrated as male tennis stars. Not sure if this was reflected in the television ratings of the Aussie Open (confession: I only watched part of the men’s final), but my sense is that there is greater gender equity (in terms of earnings and attention) in the sport of tennis than what you’ll find in other major professional sports.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking piece.

  6. Maybe different prizes for men and women would make many people feel unhappy. Or maybe discrimination here sets a bad example for other cases. If so, is this not reason for equal prizes?

  7. I’ve never understood the case for equal pay for women in tennis’ Grand Slams. Why put aside the fact that men pay best of five and women pay best of three? It took Serena less than an hour to win the women’s final and Nadal over four hours to win the men’s final. Nadal finished with something like 18 hours on-court time to Serena’s 6. Is this because Serena is better (vis-a-vis her field)? Partially, but that’s because there’s no depth in women’s tennis. But also because she’s asked to do less. Does the fact that Federer/Nadal have won 17/18 of the last men’s finals mean there’s no depth in men’s tennis? Not really because Nadal/Verdasco, Federer/Berdych (Australian Open five set matches) show that, while Nadal and Federer win, they’re at least challenged. So, first, men play more tennis and do so against better competition (again, cf., 59 minute finals).

    And, second, people pay more to watch the men play. Here’s an experiment: sell separate tickets to the men’s and women’s matches and calculate prize purses off of the revenues generated by the respective sessions. Does anyone think that the women’s purse would be close to the men’s? What you effectively have is men’s tennis *subsidizing* women’s tennis, which is terrible; it’s unfair for the men–why should Nadal have to earn prize money to pay Serena?–and degrading for the women.

    I should do more research on this, but I can’t think of any other sport that would have equal prize money. Or at least any “major” sport (i.e., one that has a visibile season outside of the Olympics). I see no reason why tennis should be any different.

  8. What about the obvious point that the “sport” of tennis, insofar as it is professional and players are paid to play it in public settings (on TV, etc.), is evaluated according to its entertainment value, i.e. the prizes would seem to be roughly dependent on the popularity of viewership, which appears (to a large degree) dependent on “entertainment value” which sometimes–but often does not–correlate with the actual skill level vis-a-vis the sport.

    Though I recall enjoying men’s tennis greatly in the 80’s (particular the McEnroe-Connors thing), I found that women’s tennis exceeded men’s in entertainment value in the 90’s and in the current decade (Kournikova, the Williams sisters, etc. are far more interesting than Federer and Sampras).

    Based on this reasoning, I would say that women’s tennis players should be paid more than their male counterparts.

  9. Thanks to David, T, Fritz and Mark for their interesting comments. It is of course true that in practice the main factor in determining sporting prize money is the market. And it may well be that there’s more interest in women’s tennis than men’s. That’s an empirical claim. It still doesn’t explain why tennis has been divided along these two lines.

    It’s almost impossible for men under six feet tall to break into the NBA. So how about a league for those under six foot tall? Maybe the market would support this, maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe (admittedly, difficult to believe), it would prove even more popular than the NBA.

    How does one then resist the absurdity of the infinite regress. For even smaller men mights still feel excluded and demand the creation of another division; for those, say, under 5 foot six.

  10. Women are less talented than men at tennis – if ‘talent’ = power and stamina, then men have a greater capacity for talent. If ‘talent’ = accuracy, court sense and strategic thinking, then this is no longer necessarily the case. For example, McEnroe once said that Lindsey Davenport was the best striker of the ball in the game, regardless of sex. Sex segregation is a rough and ready way of controlling for natural physiological inequities.

    Prize money should be linked to audience popularity – then prizes should be weighted according to the popularity of each tennis player: Federer’s first prize is thus at least 50% greater than Djokovic’s, as Roger is the most popular. Furthermore, when someone knocks Federer out, people stop watching, the competition’s overall value is reduced and the prize pot is adjusted downwards.

    Prize money should be linked to ‘work’ done on the court – therefore a three set walkover in the final pays out less than one that goes the distance. Similarly, players like Borg, who pretended to feel no fatigue, are paid less.

    Men subsidising the women prize fund – given that the vast majority of the paying public’s interest is focused predominantly on the very best players, I would say that most of the men’s game is itself subsidised by a small tranche of the competitors involved. Scrap the 128-man draw in Wimbledon and replace it with a 16 man tournament, with a handful of unknowns qualifying through un-televised preliminaries, in the spirit of UEFA’s Champions League.

  11. simple matter of the fact:

    Women’s MAXIMUM number of sets is the Men’s MINIMUM!

    How does it seem fair that they get the same money? That argument is enough in its own.

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