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A primer on how (not) to discuss prize money in tennis

Matt Zemek

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Kyle Terada -- USA TODAY Sports

Yes, a tweet from the Tennis Podcast in Great Britain made the rounds on Monday. It shapes this discussion of prize money on the WTA Tour (because this IS a WTA Tour question, more than an ATP matter).

Here is the tweet:

I wrote about prize money disparities at mid-tier tennis tournaments in February here at Tennis With An Accent. This piece was a conversation starter, putting down basic arguments and statements about disparities which, in my mind, shouldn’t exist.

The Tennis Podcast’s tweet above led to a more intense debate, creating the need not only for a deeper discussion of prize money, but of the need to explain HOW this issue should — and shouldn’t — be explored in the public domain.

I am not going to spend time trying to convince any of you that a severe prize money disparity is bad… because I would like to think that in an enlightened world and a room full of reasonable people, we would all naturally agree on that point. The task of this piece is not to win you to my side, but to simply explore the parameters of a debate — which are helpful, and which are “empty calories” without real substance or value?

Let’s start here: As much as any of us might not like the fact that Barcelona (ATP 500) has almost FOUR TIMES the amount of prize money as Stuttgart (WTA Premier — 470 points), we can say that Barcelona has done certain things to create that prize pool, and is obviously doing something right. Whether that “something” is merely existing in a time when Rafael Nadal plays at the tournament is up for debate, but nevertheless, Barcelona has created a robust product.

That is not a problem.

So: When we see a disparity in prize money, one basic guide in arguing about the topic is to NOT blame the higher-paying event or tour. We should be in the habit of applauding tennis events which generously compensate their participants. That honors the dignity of work.

If you are familiar with my writing, I often evaluate or process a match through the prism of, “Did Player A win the match, or did Player B lose it?” Some people never seem to understand why I do this, or why this matters, but if that construct or architecture has seemed pointless or foggy in the past, maybe it makes more sense now: Prize money is not a matter — or problem — defined by how well the more successful tournaments perform; it is a more crucial issue to the extent that the less lucrative tournaments are failing to deliver competitive or comparable compensation for a relatively equal amount of work done by professionals.

Let me be very clear about the Stuttgart-Barcelona tweet from the Tennis Podcast:

Point No. 1: This is not an ATP problem or flaw. This is a WTA problem. This is not a matter of an ATP Tour event getting too much. The market enabled Barcelona to procure this prize pool; good for those organizers! They are doing their jobs well! That is how it is supposed to work! Stuttgart is the point of focus.

Point No. 2: We all ought to know that in tennis, not every ATP 500 or WTA Premier event is created equally — not in terms of stature, not in terms of visibility, not in terms of importance.

Rio, an ATP 500, had a field relatively as good as the 125K Phoenix Challenger, the Arizona Tennis Classic:

The 500-point event in Rio doesn’t hold a candle to Rotterdam — also held in February in the indoor comfort of Europe — or to Halle and Queen’s Club, the two big 500-point lead-ins before Wimbledon. Those and other disparities between or among 500-point events neatly underscore the point that not all events at the same tier are equal. On the WTA side, the stature and significance of Premier 5s such as Rome (right before Roland Garros) or Cincinnati (right before the U.S. Open) tower over Doha/Dubai in February or Wuhan in early autumn.

So, no one should argue that the point total of a tournament is the primary issue here. It can be relevant in a larger context, but it is not the main point — far from it.

Point No. 3: What matters far more than the point total itself is the caliber of the field. This is where and how rational adults measure the quality of work done by athletes, who are — let’s not forget — WORKERS. They are entertainers, which sounds glossy and romantic, but they are workers underneath that “entertainer” label.

Let’s say you are a freelance writer who wants to contribute to Tennis With An Accent. Imagine a world in which we have money to spend so that we can pay freelancers to provide extra content to our site. (We want to be that kind of site, but we don’t have extra money right now. Sigh.)

Let’s say I give you a moderately difficult assignment which doesn’t require too much extra effort or force you to encounter various logistical or situational challenges. The following week, I give you an immensely difficult assignment which forces you to do the best work you have EVER done in your writing career, while spending extra time researching or interviewing the right people for the story.

You, as a freelancer, would expect that I, as a website editor, would honor the extra — and better — work you did in the second story with a higher level of compensation. This is what it means to honor the dignity of work. Reasonable people pay more money for extra service, extra quality, extra effort.

Is any of this wrong or misplaced?

So, if a field in Tournament A has six top-8 players, and Tournament B has five top-8 players, shouldn’t all of us expect the two tournaments to be at least SOMEWHAT close in player compensation?

If Stuttgart (WTA) had only one top-8 player compared to Barcelona’s five, we’re not having this conversation. If Stuttgart had a field closer to the Premier event in St. Petersburg from February — in which there were just two top-10 players — we’re not having this conversation, or at least, not nearly to the same degree.

So, in arguing about prize money, this is NOT an attempt to declare or suggest that the point total or tier of a tournament should automatically set in place various prize money levels.

No.

The quality of the field is what should do this.

Last but not least:

Point No. 4: Don’t expect tournaments to offer the EXACT same amount of money. Tennis is too vast a universe for that level of idealism.

What is reasonable, though? Expecting and demanding that — relative to the quality of the field — the less-lucrative tournaments can at least come moderately close to matching the prize pools of the more successful tournaments.

Let’s look again at the prize pools for Stuttgart (WTA) and Barcelona (ATP), with comparably strong fields.

The problem is NOT that the ATP offers more money. No, it isn’t.

The problem is that the ATP Tour event offers NEARLY FOUR TIMES AS MUCH MONEY. THAT is the real problem.

If the difference in prize money was just $100,000, we’re not having this conversation.

Prize money doesn’t have to be a topic where we demand 100-percent forced regulation and deny or discard the good work of tournaments such as Barcelona to make their event more attractive to professional tennis players. We should, however, expect and demand that the lower-paying tournaments do reach certain standards.

This isn’t the fault of a single person. This is a much-too-complicated issue to lay at one person’s feet, given the interlocking sets of circumstances here.

There is, however, a communal responsibility among various stakeholders and power brokers and sponsors to stand up for pay equity relative to the quality — and difficulty — of a given day’s (and week’s) work. This honors the dignity of labor and thereby honors the dignity of the human person, basic Catholic Christian values during this week of the season of Easter.

Maybe tennis leaders — especially those on the WTA Tour — should expect their tournaments (with comparably strong fields, I remind you) to provide at least two-thirds of ATP Tour events of similar quality and stature. Maybe the minimum threshold is only 60 percent. Maybe it should be 75 percent. That seems like a reasonable debate to have.

The idea that Stuttgart can’t even pay 30 percent of what Barcelona does for a tournament with a loaded field in Germany?

That’s a problem. A BIG PROBLEM. It’s a problem no one should casually dismiss by simply saying, “Well, MARKET FORCES!”, and calmly walking away from the discussion table.

If this doesn’t represent an issue worthy of attention and correction, our moral compass has been lost.

Tennis — a sport with a terrible reputation at the moment in terms of exhibiting a moral compass — ought to find that compass…

and a damn backbone, while we’re at it.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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