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From Billie Jean to Serena: How women’s tennis won


From Billie Jean to Serena: How women\'s tennis won

This week, Indian Wells tournament director Raymond Moore stepped down from the dual-tour event after making comments about his perception of women’s tennis as inferior. He was swiftly rebuked by Serena Williams, the USTA and other professional female athletes.

But his comments, and the reactions of Novak Djokovic and the ATP tour itself questioning the equal-pay structure at Grand Slams, have again raised the idea that women somehow don’t pull their own weight in the sport. Djokovic later apologized for his comments.

Women in tennis fought for equal prize money for almost 40 years until 2007, when Wimbledon became the last of the four Grand Slams to grant the same-size awards to men and women. While women still struggle for equal billing and have to combat the occasional undercurrent of resentment when discussing equal pay in dual-tour events, tennis has become the most lucrative sport for women.

And it isn’t even close.

Women in tennis win more prize money, are more likely to land big-money endorsements and enjoy more media coverage than their female peers in golf, basketball and even soccer. The only two women on the Forbes list of the 100 highest-paid athletes last year were Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams.

And women’s tennis has never been healthier. Prize money has more than doubled to $130 million since 2009. The WTA agreed to a lucrative new television deal worth half a billion dollars over the 10-year life of the contract, and all main-draw matches will be available on TV or stream online, according to the WTA. The ATP offered approximately $186 million in prize money last year, according to ESPN’s Stats & Info.

As a comparison, the LPGA has roughly $63 million in prize money, making it the No. 2 sport for women. The PGA Tour offers $325.2 million. Last week, the PGA Tour and LPGA announced a new alliance, which could mean joint events in the future.

But equal prize money for men and women in tennis isn’t simply altruism. TV ratings and ticket sales for women’s Grand Slam finals in the U.S. — especially in the age of Williams — are often on par with those of their male counterparts. Sports Business Daily’s Wimbledon records show that women’s finals often pull ratings nearly even with the men, but can lag significantly depending on the matchup.

“Clearly the ability to have both the best female and male tennis players in the world is one of, if not the main reason for our sponsorship, viewership, attendance and all the other categorical successes,” said USTA CEO and former WTA player Katrina Adams.

However, there’s an alchemy to the success of women’s tennis that may be hard to duplicate.

It started in 1970. Billie Jean King, who would later go on to defeat Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” in 1973, had the idea for a women’s tour — a pitch that neither the ATP nor the USTA wanted to back when King approached them. So she and eight other women, now known as the Original 9, each signed a $1 contract to compete in their own tour. A sponsorship from Phillip Morris (then Virginia Slims) and a television contract gave them some financial breathing room. […]

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