Venus Williams at Wimbledon: Show women the money

If Venus Williams retains her Wimbledon title this year, expect an edge to her victory speech next weekend.

The three-time champion has rattled out a volley of comments in the run-up to this year's championship, which started Monday, about the pay disparity between men and women in professional tennis.

Now that the French Open has moved to reward both men and women equally, Wimbledon is the only one of the four major tennis tournaments with a pay gap – £655,000 ($1,191,100) for the men's champion to £630,000 ($1,145,638) for the women's. The total for prizes in men's events comes to almost $9.45 million – 16 percent more than the $8.18 million for women.

To someone who regularly earns seven-figure prize money each year, the missing £25,000 will not leave a hole in the pension fund. But in a commentary written for the Times of London, and again in a pre-tournament interview with the Wimbledon organizers, Ms. Williams said it is about more than just the cash.

"For us, it's not about earning more money or becoming any more, you know, well-off," she said in the interview. "It's really about an equality issue, about being created as equals, as human beings.... We're the premier sport for women. We would like to empower women around the world by showing that we are willing to fight for equality."

Supporters of her cause – and there are many, from tennis bosses to a British cabinet minister – say the discrimination is an anachronism that devalues female athletes in general, perpetuating the illusion that sport is a "man's world."

In terms of earnings, sports clearly remains dominated by men. Forbes's 2006 list of top-earning athletes placed not one woman in the top 20.

Tennis pays relatively well

However, tennis may in fact be among the more enlightened sports, paying its women far more than counterparts in other professional sports like soccer, snooker, and basketball.

The Wimbledon authorities explain their discrepancy by pointing to the differing lengths of the male and female game. Women's best-of-three matches are generally over more quickly than the five-setters endured by men. Since women play fewer games than men within a match, their per game earnings are actually higher. Last year, this meant that the top women players earned on average £1,432 ($2,600) per game compared with £993 ($1,803) for the men.

The shorter matches also leave women freer than men to play in other events – doubles or mixed doubles.

"If you take the amount of potential prize money women can win, it could actually be more because they can enter the doubles and the mixed doubles, whereas men don't tend to do that because they play longer games," notes Sara Jackson, a spokeswoman for the tournament. According to Wimbledon figures, the Top 10 women last year earned 4 percent more prize money than the Top 10 men because of this.

Wimbledon also argues that it is only following established trends in the entertainment industry to let "box office appeal" dictate prize money. It says men's tennis is still the biggest draw, and cites corporate hospitality rates for men's events in its defense.

The argument is not finding favor in political circles, however. Before the championship started, British culture secretary Tessa Jowell wrote to the Wimbledon authorities saying she was "deeply concerned" at the disparity.

"The media attention and levels of global sponsorship are now on a par with the men's game," she said, warning that the anomaly was "tarnishing the image of the Championship."

Don Foster, a British member of Parliament who has made the case for equal pay for several years, says that the commercial argument does not stack up. "If you look at figures for TV viewership, it attracts as much if not more attention than men," he says.

The 2005 French Open drew a global audience of 4.35 million viewers for the men, and over 4.1 million for the women, according to CBS SportsLine.

Vicious circle for women

That's not often the case with women's sports. And yet, as Mr. Foster notes, this may be just a vicious circle. Women earn less than men because their sporting endeavor is less well supported, and hence generates lower television ratings and commercial revenue. They therefore have a lower media profile – which makes television companies even less likely to screen their action.

"It's a chicken and egg argument," says Foster. "When many years ago the BBC started to film [men's] snooker, it was not something people thought had wide public interest. But the numbers of viewers rapidly rose." And so did the prize money. The professional female game meanwhile, which is not televised, is so bereft of money that leading players have quit to seek a living playing pool in America.

Emma Rich, an expert in gender issues in sport at Loughborough University in England, says that in order to drum up sponsorship interest in their sporting prowess women are increasingly forced to market products that stress their femininity and physical appearance rather than their performance.

"Because they earn less in prize money, they end up having to turn towards wider sponsorship, and often have to emphasize their femininity rather than their sporting talent," she says.

She cites women's volleyball as a good example. "They have a requirement to wear crop tops and short shorts. Those requirements are not about performance but just about selling the sport. It's objectifying women's bodies."

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