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End the debate: Equal pay for men, women is asset to tennis

Equal prize money for men and women in tennis is one of the sport's strongest assets—let's end this shortsighted debate and stop undercutting our sport. 

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There are two friends who eat together, say, eight or so times a year. Let’s call them Alex Thomas Perez and Wendy Tina Adams. They enjoy each other’s company. They are better for the existence of the other. They benefit from their association in all sorts of ways, many immeasurable.

There is one slight hitch: lately, Wendy has been ordering a cocktail and an appetizer, while Alex has been watching his diet and no longer drinks. When the bill comes, they split it 50-50. It has left Alex feeling uneasy.

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Then he realized that had two choices. He could either ask to itemize the bill and both parties could pay for what they ate. In the strictest sense, it was more equitable. But it was petty and awkward and would pollute the relationship. The other choice was to take a bigger view of the situation. Even going Dutch, it beat eating alone. And besides, there would be times in the future—just as there had been in the past—when it was Alex who’d order the yakitori skewers and the tequila sunrises and it would fall on Wendy to subsidize the 50-50 split. In the end, though, it would all even out.

As you likely guessed, this parable (patronizing as it is) brings us to tennis’ equal prize money dispute. The issue, of course, was thrown into the sharpest relief the other day when Ray Moore, then CEO of the Indian Wells event, made a series of astonishingly clumsy remarks disparaging the women’s game.

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Moore’s choice of words could scarcely have been worse—good rule of thumb: “lady players” is not a term of endearment; “on your knees” is generally a metaphor to avoid when talking about gender issues. But be assured that he is hardly alone in harboring the sentiment that women’s tennis is, in effect, drafting off the men’s game.

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Given the chance to repudiate Moore on Sunday, Novak Djokovic, the ATP’s top player, took an uncharacteristically wrong turn: “They fought for what they deserve, and they got it,” he said. “On the other hand, I think that our men's tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more, because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men's tennis matches." (He then went on to joke (?) about women’s hormones, which triggers another rule of thumb.)

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Viewed strictly as a matter of economics, you can at least see their point— much as you can empathize with Alex feeling shortchanged when he splits his dinner bill with Wendy down the middle. When, as a standalone product, the men’s game is—by any metric—more valuable in the marketplace than the women’s game, why should prize money be split evenly when the two tours come together? As one prominent tournament director put it to me last year, “Imagine if the roles were reversed. Imagine what Billie Jean King would say if the women’s game were worth more than the men’s and the guys were demanding a 50-50 split.”

But ultimately, it's a losing argument.

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Viewing the situation strictly as an economic exercise is petty. (“Let’s see, you ordered the egg roll and had a beer….”) It’s awful for pragmatic reasons. Paying women X cents on the dollar—as Wimbledon did until a decade ago—enrages players, fans and sponsors. Whatever nickels the tournament might save (or transfer to the men) would be vastly outstripped by toxic atmosphere and p.r hit.

And maybe worst of all, paying wages that are anything other than equal prize money is short-sighted. At a time when tennis is not exactly rivaling the NFL in popularity, it ought be showing off its assets. And the notion of men and women competing simultaneously—literally and figuratively on a level playing field—is a top line item. It doesn’t happen in golf. It doesn't happen in basketball, where the women of the WNBA can only use the gym in the summer after the boys are through. There’s no equivalent in football or baseball.

That Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Novak Djokovic and Milos Raonic can play matches in successions—as they did Sunday in Indian Wells—and both the fans and the television treat both matches equally? That is a virtue unique to tennis. You would be crazy to mess with that. Or ruin the vibe by paying different wages.

What’s more, the economic argument also overlooks the cyclical nature of tennis. When I started covering the sport in the late 90s, the women were the big draw and the men’s game—beset by crippling parity and unreliable top players—were an afterthought. (Riding coattails if you were.) That’s obviously changed. The men’s game is now more popular. Some day, the pendulum will swing back the other way.

Besides, popularity, too is situational. As Serena Williams pointed out, the 2015 U.S. Open women’s final sold out before the men’s. More recently, on Friday night, Serena played Aga Radwanska in the Indian Wells semifinals while Milos Raonic took on David Goffin. Want to guess which match drew more interest?

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Sometimes the men cover for the women. Sometimes vice versa. Usually no one cares. The are NBA junkies who can't name one player in the WNBA. This doesn’t happen in tennis. Fans like both Serena and Federer; Nadal and Sharapova. The more they can see the entire cast together, the better. Trite as it sounds, in tennis, one plus one equals more than two. We should be bending over backwards—going down every night on our knees, even—to ensure that it stays that way.

In one disastrous press conference, Ray Moore’s entire profile changed. He went from a well-regarded former player to the embodiment of a clueless sexist—“extremely prejudiced" and "very old-fashioned” as Martina Navratilova put it—who resigned in disgrace. Now, it's time for that equal prize money discussion to be drummed out of the sport as well. It’s petty. It’s small. It’s short-sighted. And it undercuts the sport.

Take the high road, men players. The tolls up there can be split evenly.

Programming note: Notionally anyway, I am on vacation this week. So we’re taking a hiatus from the Mailbag and podcast.  But we’ll be back next week.