Women’s Tennis Is Leading on Pay Equity, but the Work Isn’t Over

Getty / Clive Brunskill

Women’s History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements and contributions of women who have had to navigate a men-dominated world where systemic barriers and social pressures persist in the boardroom, in the classroom, and on the field. And a big part of this conversation in 2024 is the fight for pay equity.

Within the world of sports – one of the biggest arenas where the pay inequity conversation is playing out – women tennis players have been leaders. In 1973, Billie Jean King fought valiantly for equal prize money for the women’s and men’s draws, and through her efforts, the US Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money. Decades later, other major tournaments followed suit.

But even though nine of the 10 highest-paid professional women’s athletes are tennis players, a pay gap persists. As Sportico reports, the discrepancy lies in endorsement deals, which vary between individual players, as well as the fact that lower-level tournaments don’t necessarily ensure the same prize money for women and men. In a 2023 interview, tennis star Jessica Pegula explained it like this: “Women’s tennis is a huge sport for the highest-paid female athlete, but at the same time, the pay gap is still very big. And we always talk about how it’s equal at slams, but those are four tournaments a year. It’s not equal at a lot of the other tournaments.”

“[W]e have both an opportunity and responsibility to carry this history forward.”

The discussion around pay equity has continued at this week’s BNP Paribas Open, with tennis players and professionals in the industry weighing in on the conversation. At a panel on International Women’s Day, Caitlin Thompson, the founder and CEO of Racquet and a former college tennis player, told PS, “Women’s tennis has been on the right side of history concerning gender equality, even when it didn’t know that it was. The sport has been a leader, and we have both an opportunity and responsibility to carry this history forward.”

For American rising tennis star Emma Navarro, achieving pay equity is crucial to the future of the sport. “I would say that the greatest challenge that lies ahead for the future of women’s tennis would be pay equity,” she told PS. “Women’s and men’s tennis are amazing in their own ways, so just appreciating women and how we play the game is important.” Navarro has advanced to the round of 16 of the BNP Paribas Open and will face Aryna Sabalenka on March 13.

This conversation also extends to tennis’s fan base; the topic regularly comes up on the popular tennis enthusiast podcast “Bruthas on Tennis,” for example. According to cohost K. Bryce Everett, pay equity is so important because women tennis players have historically been such leaders for the sports world at large.

“Women’s tennis players have gone on to become global leaders outside of the context of tennis, they have transcended the sport of tennis as well as the visibility of the conversation surrounding equal pay,” Everett told PS at the BNP Paribas Open. “The tenacity that women in the sport have had has a global impact.”

And the sport is only becoming more popular. In 2023, girls’ tennis skyrocketed in the US, with over 190,000 girls playing high school tennis. Tennis also has the second-highest US viewership among women’s sports. The 2023 US Open women’s final, where Coco Gauff won her first major title by defeating Sabalenka, garnered the most viewership of any women’s final ever, and more than the US Open men’s final, in which Novak Djokovic, then and still the world No. 1 on the men’s side, made history by defeating Daniil Medvedev.

As an extension of tennis, pickleball has also emerged as an extremely popular sport, and young women are finding great success in it. Anna Leigh Waters is the world’s No. 1 pickleball player, and she’s only 17. Part of her success lies in the fact that pickleball seeks to elevate men and women players equally.

“We pull our own weight, and in our sport, the tournament prize is the same for men and women, so we’re trendsetting for other sports,” she shared in a panel discussion at the BNP Paribas Open. “Women’s sports are something that people like to watch, they see that the women can hit hard, or as hard as the men. As the sport gets older, I hope we can continue on this path.”

But as tennis stars have shown, pay equity goes beyond just tournament money and extends to brand deals, endorsements, and the visible marketing of its women. Given that the sport has been steeped in exclusivity, tradition, and formality, Thompson has a great thought-starter for the industry to consider: “How are we not replicating structures that didn’t work the first time? How can I be making sure the door is open behind me, and that the headwinds that some of us faced are not the same ones those coming next have to face?”

Ralinda Watts is an author, diversity expert, consultant, practitioner, speaker, and proven thought leader who works at the intersection of race, identity, culture, and justice. She has contributed to numerous publications, such as POPSUGAR, CBS Media, Medium, Yahoo Lifestyle, and the Los Angeles Times.

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