Forty-three years after its creation, the Women’s Tennis Association still bills itself as “the global leader in women’s professional sport.”
This is no puffed-up claim. With close to $130 million in prize money available in 2016, tennis continues to provide paydays like no other women’s sport. See the $3.3 million that Flavia Pennetta earned for winning the 2015 United States Open. The sport has also produced a steady stream of truly global stars with staying power, from Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in the WTA’s early years to Maria Sharapova, who may not play much longer, and Serena Williams.
But it is just as clear that the WTA is on borrowed time when it comes to global leadership. Women’s soccer, a still-drowsy giant, continues to stir.
Soccer is a team game with fewer barriers to entry than expensive, technically daunting tennis, and with an estimated 30 million players worldwide, it already has a larger amateur base. The money should eventually follow, even if professional leagues are still struggling for footing.
The international reach and societal resonance of the women’s game are potentially huge, and it seems symbolic that when the latest FIFA women’s soccer and leadership conference opens on Monday in Zurich, the keynote speaker will be none other than the tennis trailblazer Billie Jean King.
“It’s not like they don’t know it, but I think this is their moment of truth because of the corruption and all the things they’ve had to deal with lately,” King said of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, in a telephone interview last week. “And I am a big believer, when there’s a crisis, there’s opportunity. It’s a moment to have historic transformation at FIFA, and I will make my case.”
King intends to argue that expanding the women’s game and increasing women’s influence on the game should be a big part of that transformation. And with Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s newly elected president, expected to be in attendance, King will apparently be preaching to the converted.
“The future of soccer belongs to women,” Infantino said last month as he opened FIFA’s new museum.
King, 72, has made so many cases through the years when it comes to women’s rights: from the founding of the WTA to her battle-of-the-sexes victory over Bobby Riggs to the creation of the Women’s Sports Foundation to the continuing fight for enactment of Title IX, the United States law that provides — in theory at least — equal access to collegiate sports for women. […]