Income Inequality Extends Even to Highest Paid Athletes

Earning Power, Success Stories
on September 4, 2014
Highest Paid Athletes / Earning Disparity

The winners of the 2014 U.S. Open, the last Grand Slam in the tennis season, will walk away with at least $3 million. This includes the women’s winner. Unlike other professional sports, in tennis, men and women get equal prize money at major events—equal prize money that has helped female tennis players amass staggering wealth. In fact, female tennis players are the only professional female athletes who make close to, and in some cases even more than their male counterparts.

According to Forbes magazine, seven of the top 10 highest paid female athletes are tennis players. Among the remaining three non-tennis players is Danica Patrick, who competes directly against men in NASCAR. The other two are figure skater Kim Yuma and golfer Paula Cremer.  More than 70 percent of their earnings come from endorsement deals.

Serena Williams, the No. 1 player on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour, has earned more than $56 million in prize money in her career. That’s more than any woman in the history of sports. Williams also leads all American tennis players—male or female—in career prize money earned. That’s right, she’s made more than world-renowned Hall of Famers Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and John McEnroe.

Tennis player Maria Sharapova has earned more endorsement money than any woman in the history of sports. Williams and Sharapova each reportedly have a net-worth exceeding $100 million.

By comparison, professional female golfers make a fraction of what male golfers rake in.

Rory McIlroy, the top player on the PGA Tour, has earned more than $7 million in prize money this year. On the other hand, his female counter-part, Stacy Lewis, barely broke the $2 million mark. As of August 2014, only five LPGA players had earned more than $1 million. Meanwhile, 19 WTA players made more than $1 million. The top prize money leader, Sharapova, earned more than $4 million.

The disparity between male and female earners in professional basketball is even worse. The best players in the NBA make more than $20 million a year, while the average salary for a WNBA player is about $72,000. In fact, there are 52 players in the NBA who make more per year than all the WNBA players combined.

So why do female tennis player outpace other women in sports earnings?

One reason is that nearly all of the WTA’s major events are played in conjunction with the men’s tour. Every Grand Slam—Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open—includes both the WTA and ATP. Events in Miami, Madrid, Indian Wells, CA, Cincinnati and Canada, are also played alongside the men.

The LPGA plays at some of the same venues as the PGA Tour, but they don’t compete simultaneously at the same location, while the WNBA doesn’t even play during the same months as the NBA.

Women’s tennis also benefits from trailblazers such as Billie Jean King, one of the founding members of the WTA. King lobbied for equal prize money for more than 30 years. Her dream came true after the arrival of the Williams sisters, whose matches often drew higher television ratings than their male counterparts.

In 2005, Venus Williams spoke to a group of Grand Slam committee members about the inequality in pay at Wimbledon. Then in 2006 Venus Williams stated the case for equal prize money in an op-ed piece for the Times of London. She wrote:

“I  feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players. I believe that athletes—especially female athletes in the world’s leading sport for women—should serve as role models. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling.”

A year later, Wimbledon gave men and women equal prize money.

Whether women deserve equal prize money is still under debate largely because they play best-of-three sets in Grand Slams, instead of best-of-five like the men.

But there’s more to it than that. Two years ago, Giles Simon, a member of the ATP council, complained about women making as much prize money as men. When Sharapova heard about it, she told reporters,  “I’m sure there are a few more people that watch my matches than his.”


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