Monday, May 07, 2007

The Great Equality Debate…

(Also appears on Notes From Venus)

Sports Journalist, Kevin Noonan recently wrote:

Never in the history of sports has an event that meant nothing meant so much. More than three decades later, Billie Jean King is still amazed at the impact it had. There was no championship at stake, no prestigious trophy on the line, back in 1973 when King took on the late Bobby Riggs in an exhibition tennis match at the Houston Astrodome. As far as King was concerned, though, the prize for victory — and the penalty for defeat — was greater than any Wimbledon or U.S. Open final.

Noonan was, of course, writing about one single event, staged as nothing more than a feminist’s rise to a challenge or merely a gimmick (depending on which side of the fence you’re looking from). The term “Battle of the Sexes” was born in this showdown and while many saw it as malarkey, I bet none could have imagined that it would become the symbolic reference for gender equality through the following decades.

Fast forward to now: For the first time in 2006, the men’s and women’s singles champions at U.S. Open pocketed $1.2 million. Wimbledon was the last of the four Grand Slams to offer equal prize money, finally bowing to pressure to do so. The Australian Open was the first to offer equal prize to all levels (bless the Aussies) and now only the French Open remain to do the same, although they do pay only the eventual champions in both categories equally.

Yay! I’m all for equality. Equal pay for equal work. Or is it? Allow me to play Beelzebub’s Lawyer…

Men’s tennis at a Grand Slam event (there are four: The Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) can be a long-drawn affair. It is played to the best of five sets, meaning that a player has to win 3 sets out of five to win a match. The longest ever recorded was an astounding 6 hours 25 minutes!

Women, on the other hand, play to the best of three sets in a Grand Slam and when planning TV broadcast for a women’s match, an average of 1.5 hours is allocated. That’s a big, BIG difference in duration of play!

Which leads me into the next point of contention. Men are built to be physically stronger than women are. No matter how you argue it, when it comes to brute strength and physical endurance, men will easily outnumber women at a comparative level. They hit harder, run faster, their reflexes are quicker, center of gravity lower, etc. The ability for enduring hours and hours of grueling tennis seems to be the domain of men.

And then comes the most subjective of all arguments. Women have great marketing value off the court. Canon paid Maria Sharapova a pretty sum of money because her endorsement of their products must account for some form of returns (I’ll admit that I don’t have details but I can’t imagine it being far otherwise). But no matter how many digital cameras a female tennis star can help sell, would people (in the most general sense) tune in to watch her play tennis on TV?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love tennis and I personally enjoy and, in fact, prefer watching women play. I find more grace and finesse in women’s tennis compared to a men’s pure-power match. It is also more pleasant to the eyes although I must add that Sharapova’s grunting can be distracting. And yes, women do play shorter games, which to me, simply means that they have even less room for error. And that means they have to summon the very best they can play ALL the time. Survival of the fittest, if you must, but not in reference to physical strength but to mental tenacity.

But I am not the general-sense public, and if TV ratings can be believed, tennis (or any form of sport for that matter) tend to rate more highly when men play. Apparently, when Roger Federer earns a million bucks winning a tournament, it tunes viewers in. But when Amelie Mauresmo earns the same, they don’t… well, not as much anyway.

So, it’s not about rewarding equality. At the end of the day, an event organizer still needs to pay the bills. They do so with commercial money from ticket sales, sponsors, advertiser, TV rights, etc. And that ultimately boils back down to an audience. While it is fine to be shouting about gender equality, but if people aren’t watching women play tennis as much as they do the men, do women then deserve the equal pay?