The women’s professional tennis tour took another step toward closing the gender pay gap on Tuesday as players and tournament officials committed to bringing their prize money in line with the men’s for the most significant tournaments, even though the shift won’t be complete for 10 years.
The move came after months of negotiations within the WTA Tour, which includes tournament organizers, as well as years of complaints from players and foot-dragging from tournament officials, who for decades have paid female pros a fraction of what they pay the men themselves in tournaments where they play the same best -of-three-set format.
In Rome in May, the men competed for $8.5 million, while the women competed for $3.9 million. The Western & Southern Open, the main tuneup to the US Open, paid men $6.28 million, while women competed for $2.53 million. The National Bank Open in Canada offered the men $5.9 million last year, compared to $2.53 million for the women.
“More and more players are getting restless with this,” said Jessica Pegula, the world’s fourth-ranked player and a member of the WTA Players’ Council. “Equal pay started with the Slams and I think a lot of people thought that meant every tournament.”
Women and men have received equal prize money at all Grand Slam tournaments since 2007. As part of this agreement, organizers of the next two tournament levels – the 1000-level tournaments, which are the largest competitions outside the Grand Slam, have received. and the 500-level tournaments – have committed to pay equity as well.
All men’s and women’s events at these two levels will pay prize money equivalent to that of the men’s tour, the ATP, beginning in 2027. By 2033, all events at these two levels will offer the same prize money.
Tour managers and tournament officials say the phased-in approach is essential to raising the extra revenue to fund the salary increases, but it hasn’t gone down well with all players.
“I don’t know why it’s not right now,” Paula Badosa of Spain, who has been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world, said last month.
Sloane Stephens, another player council member, said she understands the impatience of players who don’t want that benefit to kick in until they retire, but there are many existing contracts that prevent an immediate switch.
“It might not be the fastest way, but we’re getting there,” she said. “If I wasn’t on the council, it would be difficult for me to understand. This process takes time.”
In an interview this spring, Steven Simon, CEO of the WTA Tour, said the time frame is needed to allow the market to catch up with players’ sentiment as the tour expands its marketing and renegotiates existing media contracts. Tournament organizers will also be able to take advantage of new rules that will make player participation essentially mandatory at the biggest tournaments.
Tournament organizers have long used the lack of a mandatory attendance requirement and a small difference in the number of placement points earned by players as excuses for not providing equal pay. All men’s and women’s tournaments will now also offer the same ranking points for both, making the competitions equal in every way and less confusing for fans.
But while the pay parity agreement offers a possible solution to an old problem for tennis – and in all sports – it is hardly a panacea. With Wimbledon set to begin on Monday, women’s tennis continues to struggle with challenges.
Most immediately, the tour has yet to announce the location of its season-ending tournament in November. That question should have been resolved after the tour announced earlier this year that it would end its 18-month suspension of operations in China over the country’s treatment of former player Peng Shuai. In a 2021 social media post, Shuai accused an official of sexually assaulting her, and tour officials were subsequently unable to contact her.
Simon said its boycott proved ineffective. But when the tour released its autumn calendar earlier this month, it did not provide a finals ranking, although it did include several tournaments in China. Tour officials have said they intend to hold the event there, but negotiations continue with the Chinese over the details of their existing 10-year deal that guaranteed nearly $150 million in prize money.
There is also the larger question of whether the WTA Tour will be able to further unify with the men’s tour, a move experts say is crucial to maximizing the potential of professional tennis. And above all this is what role, if any, Saudi Arabia can play in the sport.
Saudi Arabia, whose LIV Golf circuit recently agreed to a merger with golf’s PGA Tour, already hosts a lucrative men’s showcase event, but so far the country has shown an inclination to increase its investment in tennis without the acrimony and litigation , which accompanied its aggressive push into tennis. golf.
Saudi Arabia is a leading contender to host the ATP’s Next Gen Finals, a season-ending 21-and-under tournament that has been held in Milan since its inception in 2017, according to people with knowledge of the bidding process. The proposal to hold the competition, which begins later this year, includes a plan to launch a similar women’s event.
The WTA has yet to commit to that or to holding any competitions in Saudi Arabia, where women only recently gained the right to drive and whose abysmal human rights record includes the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Simon traveled to the kingdom earlier this year for talks with officials, although it is not clear whether the WTA’s idea of further unification with the ATP includes a new tournament in Saudi Arabia.
For now, closing the pay gap is the first step, even if some players don’t understand the slow pace of change.
“I don’t see why we have to wait,” Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, ranked No. 6, said recently.
In response, Simon has pointed to the deal the tour struck earlier this year with CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm, which bought 20 percent of a WTA commercial subsidiary for $150 million. Much of the investment will be used to boost sales and marketing efforts at a time when many of its players remain unknown to casual sports fans.
Doing so may require some work from the part of the tournaments that goes beyond giving women more money.
“We have to build these personalities,” Simon said.
Women in tennis have also been increasingly vocal in recent months about the disparate treatment they have received. At the French Open, organizers put a men’s match in the featured primetime slot nine out of 10 nights.
The mixed tournaments almost always conclude with the men’s final on the final Sunday – an implied highlight – with the women’s final played the day before. At the Italian Open in May, Elena Rybakina and Anhelina Kalinina took the court at 11pm local time in a largely empty stadium after rain and the men’s semi-finals delayed their match for hours.
After Tuesday’s announcement, the money will at least be equal — eventually.
“It’s time for a change,” Simon said. “The road is there now.”