Novak Djokovic got himself in some hot water with the cultural intelligentsia this week for making some comments related to the subject of equal pay in tennis. He was asked to respond to the remarks made by Indian Wells tournament director and CEO Raymond Moore last Sunday about women’s tennis:
Moore said before the finals that the WTA ‘rides on the coattails’ of the men, and ‘If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.’
In response to a question about Moore, Djokovic engaged in the following exchange:
This led to a spate of outrage from the usual suspects over the fact Djokovic did not perfectly conform to the company line when it came to equal pay, and thus was branded a sexist by many outlets. Some of the juiciest cuts of cantankerous complaining were served by Kevin Mitchell of The Guardian, who lamented the fact that while Djokovic has an ‘all-embracing cosmopolitan awareness of issues beyond his own sport,’ he also ‘has a beast button.’
Mitchell struggles with his thoughts throughout the remainder of the piece, seemingly saddened that such a great tennis player could succumb to such ‘disturbing’ points of view. He then pivots to worrying about tennis, sport, and society as a whole, wondering how much sexism there still is in society.
This concern over the wider implication of Djokovic and Moore’s words was a constant in most of the write-ups around the internet. There was an underlying fear that a top player such as Djokovic could even be capable of having such backward thinking in 2016, and the surfacing of that fact potentially threatens the work that women in sport have done to achieve equality.
The bottom line: Women should be paid exactly the same as men without question. To think otherwise in 2016 is absolutely absurd.
Out of all of the hot takes I read on the matter, only Tom Fordyce at the BBC even attempted to address the substance of Djokovic’s point, daring to look at the actual data instead of instantly dismissing Djokovic as some sort of cretin from the 1940s like everyone else did. Despite the evidence going against his prejudice, Fordyce to his credit posted it, although he tried hard to explain why the data doesn’t mean what it says on the surface.
Fordyce doesn’t believe that the fact that the men drew nearly 600 million more viewers than the women did last year should mean that the men should automatically get paid more. He writes:
That, at best, is only a selective argument. Most tennis fans describe themselves as exactly that – lovers of the game, rather than one tour above the other, with the usual partiality for a particular player more likely to be based around their character and on-court style rather than gender.
It is also only selectively true. As Serena pointed out after her final in California: “Last year the women’s final at the US Open sold out well before the men.”
Most articles on the subject were quick to point out that US Open Women’s final from 2015, which sold out in hours, much faster than the men’s did.
This is explained easily, as the US Open final was likely going to be a historic match. Serena Williams had won the previous three grand slams of 2015, and was heavily favored to do so at the US Open, making her the first player to do so in 27 years. Given that she is also an American, her completing that feat on American soil, while also embroiled in a quest to be the most decorated grand slam player of all time, that final was set to be a once in a lifetime event. It’s no wonder that tickets sold out instantly.
To be sure, when Williams lost in the semifinal, ticket prices for the final on StubHub plummeted between 40% and 75% within minutes. The interest was in Williams creating history, not in women’s tennis in general.
That raises an interesting line of reasoning to traverse. Ultimately, the interest in tennis is what generates revenue, largely via television deals. Given the aforementioned increased viewership for men’s tennis versus women’s tennis, it should follow that the TV deals reflect that. Fordyce mentions this, writing:
Men’s tennis already earns far more from broadcasting rights than the women’s game. The latest WTA media deal is worth £365m over 10 years; Stuart Watts, CEO of ATP Media, is forecasting £904m revenues over same period.
The men’s tour draws more eyeballs, which in turn equates to more advertising, ticket and television revenue, which in turn means higher prize money for the men. There is nothing wrong with this.
An important detail to point out is that there are mens-only and womens-only tournaments outside of the majors. It is here where the disparity in pay really shows itself. In the major events, pay is more or less equal as a rule, not based on the interest garnered.
Some have claimed this is understandable, given the two tours are mashed together in one setting. The biggest individual personalities, male or female, draw the biggest crowds. There are periods in tennis in which there are more star names on the men’s side than the women’s side and vice versa. There is an argument to be made, then, that in those years in which the women draw more viewers, and thus more revenue, they should command a higher prize pool to reflect that.
In fact, Djokovic was literally asked this in the original exchange, and clearly said that if female players attract more attention, they should be paid more than the men. Yet his unambiguous consistency in this regard, the complete opposite of sexism, was deemed disturbing and evidence of the ‘beast’ within.
When including all of the tournaments, men earn more in prize money because they entertain more eyeballs. Fordyce tries to explain this away, as many do, by saying that it is because of a bias in marketing, and a cultural preference for male sport:
It reflects too a historical cultural predisposition to male sport, the way sports broadcasting is frequently marketed at a predominantly male demographic, how the rest of the mainstream media devotes so much more coverage to men’s sport than women’s and so influences demand.
If only marketers were even-handed in their efforts, the argument goes, people would flock to women’s sports more. The simple truth is that the men offer the better product. That is, men are on the whole better at tennis than women.
In 1998, both Serena and Venus Williams were convinced that they could beat any male player outside of the top 200 in the men’s rankings. Note, already off the bat, they themselves estimate that their vastly superior, all-time great talent in the female game only translated to the equivalent of 200th at best in the men’s game.
They were given an opportunity in the shape of Karsten Braasch, who was ranked 203rd at the time. Preparing for the match with a round of golf and a few beers, he quickly dispatched of both sisters, beating them over two sets while only losing 3 games. The thorough beating led to the sisters calibrating their claims, to perhaps only being able to challenge men outside of the top 350.
This phenomenon has been seen in other sports as well. The US Women’s soccer team, another team who many have highlighted as being injusticed compared to the men despite generating less revenue, regularly lose friendly matches to teams made up of above average 15 and 16 year old boys. These boys are in no way elite on the global stage within their own age group, let alone amongst older players. Yet they have no issue besting the best female players in the world.
The reality is that people flock to the better of two products when both are on offer. The men’s game is better than the women’s, which fully explains the higher draws to the former. I’ve seen remarks in comment sections that this matter could be settled once and for all by not segregating men and women, just having one tournament which all professional tennis players can enter.
This would be disastrous for female players. The current set up for majors for example, is a men’s tournament of the top 32 players, and a women’s tournament of top 32 players. A combined event of the top 64 players would simply be the top 64 men, given the most dominant female player perhaps of all time can’t last with a marginal men’s player.
For the record, I enjoy watching the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and other top women, but the only reason they are afforded the opportunity to earn millions in prize money and endorsements is because of the very recognition of gender differences that some all of a sudden pretend is sexist when it comes to equal pay.
In other words, by segregating men’s and women’s professional tennis, the women are benefited by not being judged to the same exact standard as men are. And this is correct, because men and women are fundamentally different physically. This fundamental difference affects how each gender plays the game, and in turn how much they can draw in terms of revenue. Such realities will never be changed on the basis of baying about equality. Reality always comes out on top.
Speaking of Sharapova, Fordyce points out another inequity – the difference between Sharapova and Williams’ endorsements:
If there is an argument about who is paid what in tennis, it might more profitably be focused on the more jarring incongruities – how Maria Sharapova, who has won a grand total of one set in her past 14 matches against Serena, could nonetheless have yearly earnings that dwarf those of the 21-time Grand Slam singles winner.
In light of Sharapova’s impending drugs ban, those endorsements will surely diminish. However, the disparity in endorsements between Williams and Sharapova is painstakingly obvious to those who deal in reality, versus being caught up in feelings. Observe the following image:
Sharapova endorses products such as Porsche, Avon, Tag Heuer, and Tiffany & Co. In other words, high end glamour products. Her body type, which is far more feminine than Serena’s, is more conducive to such advertisements, given they heavily rely on image and visual cues. There’s no other reason for it, and it is totally appropriate.
Serena’s unquestionably superior CV doesn’t matter a jot in this instance. You’re buying into an image with respect to these products, not a track record.
In the end, Fordyce points out that sport is one of the few industries which is a true meritocracy. He is right, and that is why at the end of the day, Djokovic is right as well. Whoever draws the biggest crowd should be paid according to that revenue which is garnered. His comments were not sexist, and his subsequent apology tour as a result is unnecessary.
That backtracking is telling, however. Djokovic likely still feels the way he felt in his original comments, but owing to the climate in which he works, standing by them might mean calls for a boycott, pressures on sponsors, and strained endorsement partnerships. His livelihood could be threatened by such overt deviations from the politically correct narrative.
This highlights the fact that the current outrage culture is more controlling and oppressive than anything that came from Djokovic’s mouth last Sunday. The fact that the direction of this oppression is towards the shunning of reality is what should cause worry, not the reality itself.