It’s no secret that professional sports are an entirely male-dominated industry. Turn on ESPN right now. Aside from the token ‘pretty blonde field reporter’, you don’t see a lot of other women, do you? It is only very recently that women’s sports such as the WNBA and boxing are starting to gain media attention.
But here’s where the conundrum lies: males are the main demographic for sports media consumption, and men typically don’t watch women’s sports. They have this conscious or subconscious mindset (reinforced by the media) that women’s sports aren’t entertaining or skilled enough to watch over men’s sports, which leads to women’s sports not getting enough coverage. It’s a never-ending cycle remedied only by a wider female audience and less negative stigma toward women. But not all hope is lost in female athletics, as women’s tennis sits at the top of the world as the most popular female sport in the press.
Tennis is often categorized as a niche sport born and bred by the wealthy families around the world, but tennis is the only sport where women are taken seriously as athletes. In fact, in the 2005 the Wimbledon women’s final received 1 million more viewers than the men’s final (VICE). “Women tennis players earn more money, endorsements and TV face time than any other female athletes” (TIME). Players like the Williams sisters have helped to normalize the sport for Americans and give it the mainstream attention it deserves.
The Williams sisters epitomize the opposite of what tennis has always stood for, embodying the ‘New American’ athlete. They grew up in the streets of Compton, always speak their mind, and yet at the same time they are so respected in the tennis world because of their skill and passion for the game. Serena has taken the world by storm with her 21 grand slams, and there is no question that she is currently the best female tennis player. Serena brings to the tennis world that mindset and attitude that other American athletes are known to have. That’s why she’s so embraced by America (not to mention, she’s dating Drake).
Why is it that Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are household names while the average American can’t name a single player on the Women’s National Team? Well, history plays a big role. The concept of tennis dates back to the medieval times, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that it was introduced to the United States by a young rich woman named Mary Ewing Outerbridge when she learned the sport on vacation in Bermuda (Blackburne). Since women playing tennis was introduced as the norm, it has always been respected as a sport for both sexes.
Unfortunately, no other sport has this equality built into its foundation. Tennis has progressed light years ahead of any other sport so much that the male and female champions of each grand slam tournament win the same amount of prize money. Equal pay for equal work is hardly being introduced into all other jobs across America, whereas tennis has been doing it since 2007.
However, it’s difficult to classify tennis along with other sports such as basketball, soccer, and lacrosse because the sport is not contained within each country. Meaning, other sports have their own leagues within America while tennis is very much an individual sport with competition from all around the world instead of just within America. No one country has more authority over the rules and regulations of tennis, which is what makes it so unique.
Nothing regarding women’s income goes without controversy though. There is still some debate that since women only play best 2 out of 3 sets in grand slams as opposed to men who play best 3 out of 5 sets, that women should not be paid as much as much because they’re not doing equal work. But dominant players like Serena Williams and Andy Murray have been advocating to change this rule to where women also play the best of 5 sets to prove their athleticism is on par with the men.
There is also the converse argument from older players like Billie Jean King that men’s tournaments should be reduced to 2 out of 3 sets. King argues against the current best-of-five setup, “You play a couple matches like that, it takes years off your career. You only have so many miles in your legs” (The Atlantic). Injuries are less frequent among women tennis players, but are extremely prevalent in men including top players like Nadal and Djokovic.
And while major grand slams pay each gender equally, the second-tier tournaments don’t follow these same guidelines. According to Vice magazine, “In the men’s game, the second-tier Challenger circuit offers anywhere from $40,000 for a tournament to $220,000. This is in stark contrast to $400,000 to as much as $6 million for a win on the ATP tour. For the women, second-tier tours offer $10,000 to $100,000, a significant step down” (VICE).
Even though the tennis community has taken steps to appreciate female athletes, the same cannot be said for other female sports. The Title IX legislation that was passed in 1972 gave women the opportunity to participate in sports through their academic institutions, which has given female sports the starting push that it desperately needed. But even after 40 years, women should not be satisfied with where we are in 2015.
The key is audience support. The larger audience a sport draws, the more interested media conglomerates will want to give these sports air time, which brings in an even larger audience.“We don’t have the professional leagues. We don’t have anything compared to the guys. We don’t get the support from women — they don’t buy season tickets. Guys buy tickets and worry about who is going to the game later; they understand it’s about writing checks and supporting the community. Women’s sports are a microcosm of society, and women need to support women” (Billie-Jean King).