Is Serena Williams Underpaid? Women’s Tennis At Match Point

Given the stadium and TV audiences she commands, Serena Williams is right to question why she isn’t paid the same as her male tennis champ counterparts.

03.22.16 12:15 AM ET

The controversy was swift and predictable.

On the heels of an easy victory at yesterday’s BNP Paribas Open, Novak Djokovic has been pummelled for weighing in on the wage equality debate in tennis, arguing that men “deserve” to earn more money than women.

The World No. 1 was responding to remarks made by Indian Wells Tennis Garden CEO Raymond Moore, who crudely (and wrongly) stated that the Women’s Tennis Association was a “lucky organization” that “rides on the coattails” of men’s tennis.

Moore suggested women should “get down on their knees” and praise the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and men’s stars before them who made the sport so popular, paving the way for the Williams sisters and others to become stars themselves and make good money.

Needless to say, these remarks are absurd: Women’s tennis stars have long had a significant fan base separate from men.

Just when it seemed like Djokovic was taking a stand against Moore’s sexist comments, applauding the WTA’s hard-fought victory for equal prize money, he backpedaled and said men deserved more prize money because men’s tennis attracts more spectators.

Djokovic vaguely referenced “data and stats” to support his claim, but the numbers don’t always add up in his favor.

In 2015, roughly 973 million people watched men’s professional tennis on TV and online compared to 395 million viewers who watched women’s tennis. But these numbers don’t include ratings and tickets for Grand Slam tournaments like the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

As Serena Williams pointed out while hitting back at Moore, tickets to the women’s U.S. Open the women’s U.S. Open final sold out last year well before the men’s final: “I’m sorry, did Roger play in that final? Or Rafa, or any man, play in that final that was sold out before the men’s final? I think not.”

Sure, this was one of the most anticipated matches in men’s and women’s tennis of the year—one that many expected would see Williams make history by winning her fourth Grand Slam in the same year, and on her home turf. (She ended up losing.)

Indian Wells Tennis Garden CEO Raymond Moore (L) presents the second place trophy to Serena Williams of USA after the women's final of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California, March 20, 2016.  Victoria Azarenka defeated Williams 6-4, 6-4. / AFP / ROBYN BECK        (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

Indian Wells Tennis Garden CEO Raymond Moore presents the second-place trophy to Serena Williams of the USA after the women's final of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California, March 20, 2016.

The women’s semifinals, which saw Williams face off against her sister Venus, accrued the second-highest tennis ratings in ESPN history. And the two U.S. Open finals that Williams competed in before 2015 also drew larger audiences than the men’s finals.

This demonstrates Williams’s enormous star power and popularity in the U.S.—but for female players not at her exalted level the story is different.

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John Vrooman, an economics professor at Vanderbilt University specializing in sports, told The Daily Beast: “Men and women now receive equal prize money in all four Grand Slams, but the battle between the sexes for a shallow pool of prize money at the top seems somewhat petty when compared to the gross earnings disparity from top to bottom of both the WTA and ATP.”

Audience numbers are key. At Wimbledon, men cleaned up in the ratings. In the U.K., 9.2 million viewers tuned into the BBC to watch the men’s finals, compared to 4.3 million who watched the women’s.

In the U.S., more people watched the men’s finals at Wimbledon on ESPN than any other match in the tournament. ESPN reported a record-breaking 24.4 million live minutes viewed that day, which made it the most watched match ever in one day of tennis.

But had Williams played that day, would the numbers have been different? And by Djokovic’s own logic, why doesn’t Williams make more money than Djokovic if she draws such large crowds?

The uncomfortable truth is that no one seems to know.

“There’s an expectation that sports decision-makers are really sophisticated in what they’re doing and they think really hard about these things, and the reality is that they’re just guessing and they’re just making up stuff,” said David Berri, former president of the North American Association of Sports Economists.

“Based on my experience, if you asked the WTA and ATP to determine the value of Serena Williams versus Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, they wouldn’t know how to answer that question.”

Berri says we have to think beyond ratings and ticket sales to determine the value of these players.

And because we don’t know what exactly is generating the numbers that we’re seeing, “paying them equally is the right thing to do.”