The world of tennis was treated to the fall of a giant when Victoria Azarenka beat the world no1 Serena Williams in straight sets in the Indian Wells women’s final in late March. But it wasn’t Azarenka’s surprise victory that made shock headlines. Raymond Moore, CEO of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, delivered the ultimate smash to gender equality in sport: “When I come back in my next life I want to be someone in the WTA [Women’s Tennis Association] because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky”, the CEO said, “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have.”
The story of Moore as CEO ended in a profound apology and forced resignation. But the grand slam scale mis-hit goes much beyond the crash-and-burn of Moore’s career. By ending the tournament on a blatantly sexist note, Moore added fuel to the flames of the underlying issue of gender inequality in sport, where the game is very much not over.
One of the most burning issues in the equality debate is the uneven distribution of pay and prize money between female and male athletes. Moore wasn’t the only one to serve a fault at Indian Wells. The world tennis champion Novak Djokovic followed in Moore’s footsteps, arguing that men should be paid more: according to statistics, Djokovic claimed, men’s tennis matches attract more spectators, and money should be fairly distributed to reflect who attracts more attention and spectators, and sells more tickets. The champion later apologized for his remarks, saying that the had felt the need to speak about the fairer and better distribution of funds across the board, for both men and women. Whether or not this was his intention at the time of the original statement, the issue of unequal pay is a very real one.
According to a BBC survey in 2014, out of 35 sports with prize money, 25 pay an equal amount to men and women. Perhaps surprisingly given the Indian Wells debacle, tennis falls among the gender equal 25: top-ranking Masters tournaments like Miami and Indian Wells, as well as all four grand slams, have equal pay for both sexes. The sport was the first to pay equal prize money to women at the US Open in 1973 after being put under pressure from reigning champion Billie Jean King; however, it wasn’t until 2007 that Wimbledon followed suit, making it the last grand slam tournament to do so. Athletics paid equal prize money first in the 1995 world championships, while the London Marathon was born equal, with the same award sums for both genders since the first race in 1981.
Red cards for inequality, on the other hand, are waived at Tour de France, cliff diving, cricket, darts, football, golf, squash, surfing, snooker, and ski jumping. The biggest offenders among these are golf, where the winner of the Open championship will receive £1.15m in comparison to the £298,000 that the winner of the women’s event receives, and football, where there is a staggering contrast of £22m for men versus £630,000 for women at the World Cup.
The Moore-Djokovic attack in the newly sparked pay debate has not gone unopposed. World champion Serena Williams asked Djokovic to explain his stance to children, while Djokovic’s rival Andy Murray took issue with Djokovic’s alleged audience statistics – delivering a blow to the Ukrainian player Sergiy Stakhovsky, also known to oppose equal pay, on the side. “At a tournament like this, for example, if Serena is playing on centre court and you have a men’s match with Stakhovsky playing, people are coming to watch Serena”, Murray said, “The crowds are coming to watch the women as well. The whole thing just doesn’t stack up – it changes on a day-to-day basis depending on the matches you get.” Matches like Azarenka’s victory over Williams, or the dramatic final between Williams and Angelique Kerber at the Australian Open earlier this year serve to further undermine Djokovic’s claim – what audiences pay for is good playing, and this does no imply men-only playing.
Yet there is more than a grain of truth in Djokovic’s claim. While superstars like the Williams sisters attract at least as many spectators as the corresponding male champions, or sometimes more, it is spectacularly clear which sports dominate TV screens, small talk, and the news, drawing spectators to the big stadiums and pubs: football, cricket, and rugby, for instance, are all about the men. The prize money debate is a reflection of the much bigger, underlying issue, ingrained in the media and sports administration, of how women’s and men’s sport are valued. According to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), only 7% of sports media coverage is devoted to women’s sport and just 0.4% of commercial investment goes to women-only sport. Even today, only one in five board positions are held by women in publicly funded sport, and a high number of sports have no women in their senior decision making teams at all. It comes as no surprise that Sue Tibballs, chief executive of WSFF, identifies media coverage as the core challenge for gender equality in sport. Without support from the media, a sport cannot attract sponsors or grow a fanbase. Spectators go where spectators are: if it isn’t reported, it doesn’t attract an audience.
But to equate what the media currently covers with what sports enthusiasts actually value and want, is not fair play. According to the WSFF, over 60% of sports fans say they would like to see more women’s sport on TV. It is equally false to assume that the current situation, with men’s sports dominating the media, is unchangeable. In 1920, a women’s football match attracted 53,000 spectators to Goodison Park. The numbers were nothing extraordinary for the time: it wasn’t unusual for women’s teams to attract similar attendance figures as men’s teams. Yet this all changed drastically when the Football Association released a statement, according to which it had received complaints about women playing football and was impelled to express the strong opinion that football was simply unsuitable for women and should not be encouraged. The surge in popularity that the women’s game had seen around the time of the First World War was then tackled by a board of directors – and one needs only to glance at the absence of reporting on women’s football to see that the sport is still recovering from this unfortunate bit of rhetoric. The moral of the story, if there is one, shows that attitudes can and will change according to what is projected by media and board decisions: the sports that receive the most attention now are not inherently more valued (or indeed valuable) than others. Change can happen.
And change has happened; women’s sport by no means wholly oppressed by the patriarchy. Moore’s piece of rhetoric didn’t do to women’s tennis what the Football Association’s statement did to women’s football. Women in certain sports are equal to men at least in profile: track cycling enthusiasts don’t discriminate between Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy, Serena Williams is every bit as famous as Andy Murray, and Mo Farah’s long-distance fame doesn’t outshine Paula Radcliffe’s marathon star. Oxbridge sports celebrated as the women’s Boat Race joined the men on the Tideway, and the women’s blues rugby match moved to Twickenham. Earlier this year, the Australian government put pressure on sports organizations to recognize gender equality in travel. Federal sports minister Sussan Ley demanded this as a condition of federal government funding, with future funds from the government’s $134 million (AUD) pool to be conditional on gender equality in travel and accommodation. A letter from Ley and Australian Sports Commission chairman John Wylie to the top 30 funded organizations makes the new governmental stance clear: “In 2016, we can think of no defensible reason why male and female athletes should travel in different classes or stay in different standard accommodation when attending major international sporting events.”
It is not only elite sport that is affected either. Girls start doing less activity than boys as soon as they reach their eighth or ninth birthday, and by the time they are 14, only 12% of girls are as active as they should be. It’s not just a case of teenage laziness: WSFF research shows that 43% of all secondary school age girls agree that there aren’t many sporting role models for girls. What happens in elite sport has real effects on the non-elite as well.
By asking female players to get down on their knees and to give thanks for being allowed to ride on the coattails of men, Moore did something important: sometimes outrageous remarks are needed to make headlines about inequalities that may otherwise remain unnoticed. It’s love – fifteen for Moore versus fair play in sport.