Thought$ on the Australian Prize Bump

Friday, October 12, 2012 /by

Chivalry is not dead. Men may not always hold doors open for women or tip their hats to ladies anymore, but in tennis, the men of the ATP have stepped up in a big way for their female peers in the WTA. That’s one of the more interesting if less obvious takeaways from the recent announcement by Tennis Australia that prize money for the 2013 Australian Open will be increased by $4.15 million to $31.1 million.

Under the equal prize money agreement, that means two million and change for the players from each organization.

The curious thing is that the WTA has been almost invisible in this entire process, from the time the ATP decided to make a concerted push to secure a greater slice of Grand Slam tournament revenues right through the obligatory post-bump comments and press releases.

Could the WTA really have been as unengaged in the process as it appears? It seems so. (A WTA source is refuting a Tweet from ATP player Sergiy Stahovsky that the WTA recommended its players not to support the ATP.) And that inevitably suggests that equal prize money is essentially an entitlement. Why should the WTA have to negotiate or lobby or threaten job actions when they can let the ATP do all that and then simply rake in the benefits because paying equal prize money is the “right” thing to do?

This brings us right to the heart of the “equal prize-money” issue. The reason this topic has been controversial is because you can look at it through different lenses that give different views. One lens might be called the “social justice” lens, through which the details are viewed in terms of an ongoing struggle for gender equality.

The overriding conviction for most people who view the subject through the social justice lens is that Grand Slam players in a robust, two-division sport simply must compete for the same amounts of round-by-round money. Anything less would be a slight of womankind and a slap in the face of WTA players who have risked as much and work as hard as their male counterparts.

Let’s call the other lens the “competitive market” lens (you could also designate these “idealist” and “realist” lenses). Viewed through this lens, the picture isn’t quite so sharp, and the history of the recent Australian bump illustrates it.

I spent most of this week trying to get a clear picture of how this negotiation played out, with a particular interest in what the WTA brought to the table. Unsurprisingly, nobody in either the ATP or WTA really wanted to speak on the record, and it’s obvious why. Equal prize money can be an emotional, volatile issue, and there’s little to be gained engaging it—not least from the point of view of the ATP, because it is a done deal.

The Grand Slams have spoken; all the ATP can do is define its own goals and choose its financial target. That the tournament automatically has to double the negotiated increase because of its own policy is no business of the ATP. There isn’t any friction over this yet, and I’m not sure I want to be around if and when there is.

The Australian bump was the result of a dialogue that began at Indian Wells, when ATP executive chairman and president Brad Drewett invited representatives from each of the four majors to a meeting with the top four ATP players to discuss future compensation. By then, as we all knew, the ATP natives were restless and some were even tossing around the “b” word (boycott).

The WTA was not a party to that meeting, nor to any of the further discussions the ATP had with Grand Slam representatives. Stacey Allaster was too busy this week to give me a few minutes on the phone, but agreed to give me a statement about the Australian bump.

I specifically requested that she address the degree to which the women felt militant about the prize-money levels at the Australian Open, what they did about it, and the degree to which they engaged with the ATP on the subject. But this was the only reply I received:

“We continue to work with our partners to ensure prize money across all events on the calendar—both WTA and Grand Slams—increases at a level to fairly compensate our players for what they bring to the sport. We applaud Tennis Australia’s commitment to equal prize money and vision to continually raise the bar for the athletes and fans of the game. We continue working with each Slam, maintaining a consistent dialogue and updating the players accordingly.”

Not much help there.

But the reality is that while equal prize money has long been the goal of the WTA, and understandably so, there was no indication whatsoever that the women players were, like the men, disgruntled (other than the informal public relations campaign to press for equal pay), and prepared to do something about it.

And there certainly was/is no united ATP/WTA front for negotiations, no joint committee. In the aftermath of the Australian bump, a number of players, including Roger Federer, were quoted expressing their satisfaction with the deal and declaring their ongoing determination to continue down the negotiating path. The only player who publicly said anything about the increased compensation from the women was Maria Sharapova (and that came in a canned quote, via the WTA):

“The Australian Open has always taken great care of both players and fans, and been dedicated to making the event a fantastic experience for everyone. Today’s announcement is another example of Tennis Australia’s vision to lead and look after the players. I greatly appreciate this very significant investment in us as athletes and their continued commitment to equality. I can’t wait to be in Melbourne to play the Australian Open this coming year.”

That’s a pleasant, gracious comment. But contrast it with the words of the guy who did the hard bargaining, Drewett:

“The ATP has had encouraging and positive discussions with Tennis Australia regarding the long term plans for player compensation at the Australian Open. Tennis Australia deserves credit for the way they have recognized the significant input the players have in the success of the tournament.

“I’m delighted the players have given their full support to the ATP leadership during this process with the Australian Open, as well as backing our decision to pursue this issue through constructive dialogue. I am confident that the ATP and our players will remain committed to the ongoing discussions with the other Grand Slam tournaments."

Note Drewett’s use of the term “long term plans,” his citation of the “significant input of the players” in the tournament’s success, the mention of organizational solidarity, and the “confidence’” he has in the ATP’s commitment to “ongoing discussion.”

The ATP got its message across at Indian Wells—and not least because the top four men, setting naked self-interest aside, agreed that their priority was raising prize-money across the board, not just for the top performers (and that’s an enormous break with the traditional lack of solidarity between the top players and journeymen).

By the time the summer rolled around, the French Open declared that it was significantly increasing prize money, and the other majors fell into line with similar, nearly obligatory escalations. But the ATP kept the pressure on, and it will continue to do so even if the Australian bump is the largest one-year-to-the-next increase in tennis history.

The question that’s going to simmer among the ATP men, even if most of them know better than to go all Gilles Simon and talk about it, will be: “Why should we negotiate for the WTA, and immediately give up half of what we can bargain for?”

That’s a relevant question for a very practical reason: Tennis has separate male and female player organizations and it doesn’t seem likely that they will be merged any time soon.

In that regard, Andy Roddick did a very clever thing way back at Wimbledon, when equal prize money issue flared up after those ill-chosen remarks of Simon. In a post-match interview, Roddick invited reporters to compare what the tours were offering in the way of purses, and use it as a barometer to determine which division of the game is more successful at attracting sponsor and fan dollars.

I’m pretty sure that Roddick knew exactly what those numbers were, but in order to appear reasonable and fair he didn’t fling them in the face of the reporters, many of whom had raked Simon and other equal prize money refusniks over the coals, some because they were looking solely through the “social justice” lens.

I just took a quick look at the prize money on offer from after the U.S. Open (including at the two season-ending championships) to the end of the year. The WTA purse is just over $15 million. The ATP comes in right around the $25 million mark. Granted, the WTA has opted for a longer off-season (the ATP has 14 post U.S. Open events, not counting Davis Cup; the WTA has 12), but that’s still a significant difference. I can only imagine what it might be during, say, the European clay-court season.

Most of the men feel that when it comes to attracting fans and selling their product, they bring much more to the negotiating table at majors, but still must walk away with a written-in-stone 50-50 split. And now, because of the organization’s leading role in squeezing more money out of the majors, it looks an awful lot like the ATP is actually having to negotiate for—instead of against—a competing group of players, the WTA.

I wouldn’t expect to see much change in this strange, complicated, and emotionally-charged dynamic. Maybe it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie. The game is doing pretty well. A good number of people are making nice money. In these economic times, it’s pretty hard to look at those prize money figures and feel a lot of pity for tennis players and the life they lead anyway.

But here’s an idea: when the WTA starts re-negotiating the deals it has with tour partners, perhaps it ought to bring in the ATP to do its bargaining for it.

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