Print and Go Back ESPN.com: ESPN Tennis [Print without images]

Saturday, June 30, 2012
A final thought on equal pay

By Howard Bryant

WIMBLEDON, England -- Now that l'affaire Simon has become the off-court news item at Wimbledon, many readers and have attempted to diffuse the gender element by framing Gilles Simon's comments in solely economic terms.

The market, so goes the argument, should decide how much of a percentage of the winnings the men and women receive. The market has decided that men should earn more. If the market favors the men's game over the women's, the argument continues, then the issue should be closed.

Deflecting attention from a controversial topic such as race, gender or religion is a common, tired reflex, designed to provide protective covering from the real issue. Simon and his fellow members on the ATP Tour are not acting as economists. They have a problem with the women's game. After losing to Xavier Malisse on Thursday, Simon's direct quote requires no parsing: "My point was that I have the feeling that men's tennis is actually more interesting than women's tennis."

Game.

Set.

Match.

The rancor affects seven events: the Grand Slams, and three joint events on the calendar. There are other elements in play, such as the enjoyment of ticket buyers who are afforded the experience of watching great tennis in one place. In one sense, the men are subsidizing the women for the good of the game.

Simon's position isn't a complex one. It is a financial issue, but it also is one of gender. My problem with the entire conversation isn't the argument that the men's games are more popular and financially lucrative. It is, as the numbers show. The ATP Tour earns more revenue than the WTA, and thus the men's prize monies are larger.

The bigger problem is the contingent of the fickle public that wants it both ways and refuses to accept the appearance of an uncomfortable issue. All sports, including leagues played in only by men, are subsidized and unbalanced in numerous ways, and it has been proven consistently that the public doesn't want the free market, and neither do the people who run professional sports -- except when they want to express resentment.

The public wants salary caps. The public complains bitterly that the New York Yankees can spend $200 million on players when the Tampa Bay Rays can afford only $39 million. The public believes the NFL is the best-run league in American sports, when it also is the furthest from implementing true free-market principles.

In the NFL -- thanks to the dreaded, anti-free-market franchise tag -- players cannot even change teams if their employers don't want them to. There is precious little free market in that system -- and the fans love it. As for the businesses themselves, the so-called self-made millionaire capitalists who own teams have their hands out constantly for public money for stadiums. Accepting government money isn't exactly a free-market concept, either.

When the public is tired of the big-money Yankees and Red Sox and the Lakers and Knicks, it laments that the poor Kansas City Royals don't have a chance. In the NFL, economics are not based on the free market but on a sharing of revenues that ensures the survival of small markets. It is essentially football keeping the Green Bay Packers alive by using overall revenues and the big markets in New York. The sport is suffocated by salary caps, which curb free markets, and yet fans consider the NFL to be the best-run of the sports.

When the fans are tired of spoiled millionaire players -- young, talented kids whose ability has distanced them from reality -- or players not staying with the same teams, they want anti-free-market cost controls.

The truth is that the real issue is always masked by the less-universal, less-offensive shield of "the market." The real issue is the perceived quality and value of women's tennis. The public wants what it wants when it wants it.

Fans attend a Slam for another reason:
It is a really, really terrific event. It isn't as though the stands at the women's matches are empty during the afternoon. Fans spend the afternoon watching the best tennis in the world.

The point is that sport is all subsidized in one way or another because you always need someone to play. Perhaps all pricing should be based on boxing. Rafael Nadal is more popular than Lukas Rosol, therefore Nadal deserves 80 percent of the take. Simon and most other lower-level professional tennis players are subsidized by the popularity and financial muscle of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Nadal.

Therefore, just as the issue is often parity (the dreaded "competitive balance") or disgust that some 25-year-old millionaire talks about feeding his family, to my mind, the driving force here is gender.

What is less clear to me is why the women's game has to be compared to the men at all. They are different games and it should be irrelevant whether a woman could beat a top-5, -10- or -200 men's player. It truly carries no importance. The two coexist nicely for the first 12 days of the fortnight, with happy, privileged fans filling the seats at women's and men's matches alike, enjoying the experience and wanting to be nowhere else.