Wimbledon must rank as the most eccentric of sporting events. Strawberries and cream, Pimms and Lemonade, sporting outfits designed to look like evening wear, part-time champions, Henman Hill being rechristened Murray Mound, Cliff Richard, players moaning about appearing on court no.2, royals handing out prizes, guards of honour made up of ballboys and ballgirls, ten officials for a match made up of two players, the strange way of scoring and umpires talking of love and deuces. It is all a little odd. But the oddest thing is that anyone thinks it can serve as a rallying point in the fight for equality.
A couple of years back, there was a never-ending stream of stories about how unfair it was that Wimbledon gave bigger prizes to men than to women. Even Tony Blair jumped on to Wimbledon equal-pay bandwagon. That Blair had time to speak up for the rights of multimillionaires belies all the recent nonsense from his wife about how he was forced to backstab Brown and hold on to power in order to fight for the things he believed in. In the end, the row was about a difference of UK£30,000 in first prizes worth more than half-a-million pounds. UK£30,000 may be plenty of money to you and me, but I doubt I would lose sleep over it at the end of a day where I had already made twenty times that amount. In the end, The All-England club finally relented, and, as a consequence, the Williams’ sisters will now be slightly richer as a result. But nobody else is better off.
The thing with any business is that, in a free society, we generally seem to like the idea of a meritocracy. That means rewarding people for what they do. Wimbledon is a business, but it is not a meritocracy, at least not when it comes to equal pay for men and women. However much some people love the women’s game, it does not make as much money. Lots of people will argue that women train as hard as men. That may seem an odd argument as the Williams sisters are currently taking time off from their interior design consultancies and fashion houses in order to squeeze in a couple of weeks of bashing the full-time professionals. But how hard women train is irrelevant. Demand determines the price of entertainment, not the effort put in by the entertainers. If training determined how much sports people should make, Paula Radcliffe should earn more than Venus Williams, and Brian Jacks should be as rich as Bill Gates, instead of being someone you may vaguely remember doing lots of squat thrusts on Superstars. Another argument for so-called equal pay is that the women’s game is just as entertaining as the men’s. Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I may think chess is more entertaining than tennis, but that would hardly justify taking the money spent on tickets at Wimbledon and giving it as prize money for a chess championship. By the same logic, if the men’s tournament earns more money than the women’s, because more people want to see it, then there is no good reason to take some of those earnings and use it to subsidize the women’s tournament. In the final reckoning, the women’s matches will be watched by fewer people on television, will provide entertainment of shorter total duration, and will generate lower revenues from corporate boxes. Yet the women get paid just as much as the men. Does that seem fair?
Part of the problem with this debate is the way it is framed. If you make an argument about men versus women, then naturally most decent people will say they should be treated equally and leave it at that. The problem is, what is equal treatment? In a normal workplace, women are largely expected to do the same things as men, work the same hours as men, and get measured on the same scale of performance as men. So if they get paid the same, that would seem to be equal. But if women worked shorter hours than men, or their performance was only judged relative to that of other women, and not to all their co-workers, equal payment is unfair. It would be just as unfair as paying a man the same wage as a woman but expecting him to work less.
One sport that has a different, but arguably very fair way of paying its protagonists is boxing. Boxing, unlike tennis, is a sport full of divisions to ensure fairness. Big guys beating up little guys would be boring, silly and dangerous by equal measures, so there are lots of weight divisions in boxing. But irrespective of the divisions, pay is determined by popularity. Popular boxers draw bigger crowds and more television viewers than less popular boxers, so they get more money. Winning is one way to be popular, but nobody tries to turn the equation on its head and argue that winning is the same as being popular. So why not do the same with tennis? Why not pay more to popular tennis players and less to the less popular tennis players? That would be fair – and would make no distinction based on gender. Part of the problem is that, during a tournament, there would be insufficient lead time to promote individual match-ups, thus making it hard to determine who was really drawing in the crowds. But with the rise of pay-television, maybe we will have the solution in a few years’ time. Because if people pay to watch individual matches, you will soon be able to tell who generates the money, and who does not. And you could also start to price the matches accordingly. People who like the idea of rewards based on merit may feel that such a system is inherently unfair, as it gives all the money based on popularity rather than skill and talent. But doing anything else is a form of market distortion – moving money from who generates it to somebody else who does not generate it. If women generate more money than men, they deserve more. As it happens, they generally do not generate as much money as men, which is why the arguments about equality between men and women in terms of prize money are misguided and miss the point. Affirmative action makes sense if a group is repressed and cannot get the same opportunities. Affirmative action for millionaire tennis players is just daft. Linking the money squabbles of spoilt tennis stars to the struggle to guarantee fair treatment for women in the wider work force is not just wrong-headed, it should be considered offensive.
Of course, the female players know perfectly well how money works in the real world. For the top players, prize money comprises only a small share of their incomes. The Williams’ sisters may talk big about fairness, but you will not hear them complaining how being American gives them access to more lucrative sponsorship and marketing deals than could be realized by players from poorer countries. By the same token, few women players seem to complain about the extraordinary amounts they are paid for wearing fashionable clothing, both on and off court. You can guarantee that many men, women and children spend long days in sweatshops, earning a pittance whilst serving the same business empires that ultimately will lavish riches on these tennis clothes-horses (or should that be clothes-whores?) Very occasionally you may find that a less pretty player will have a moan about how the Anna Kournikovas of the world are paid based on looks, not tennis talent. However, they do not moan for long, because everyone knows that, unlike complaining about prize money, there is no point arguing for equal treatment in the face of unequal beauty. Players get paid to sell, and that makes beauty a valuable asset. So the Williams sisters will also wear their off-the-shoulder outfits and grace the covers of magazines (take a look at Serena Williams’ official website) in order to make some easy money, without any sense of guilt. Whilst the outspoken sisters talk about being smarter, better, more balanced than every other tennis player on the circuit, and are very keen to insist on equal treatment whenever they feel disadvantaged, they say nothing about the real disparities in this world. They have no intention of hurting their wallets on a matter of principle. For all their talk, the sisters will not be giving lectures about how their glamourous photo-shoots have nothing to do with talent, help to push unrealistic expectations for average women, or how they promote a sexist ideal of feminine virtues. They have even more reason to stay mute when you remember this insidious form of sexism – that a woman’s value is determined by how attractive she looks – not only exploits women but is promulgated by women for the purpose of profiting from other women.
Equality makes for nice headlines, so long as you keep the arguments simple. Make the argument about men versus women, and the rabble-rousing is bound to be successful. But what about equal prize money for short people, or for older players? If Indians hardly ever win Wimbledon, should there be a separate competition for players from that sub-continent, with equal prize money, just to avoid any prejudice against them? How about a tournament just for people who were born into poor families and had to make more sacrifices in order to play tennis? And what about equal treatment for disabled players? Wimbledon also plays host to a small doubles contest for players in wheelchairs. By the logic of equality used to justify equal pay for women, there should be equal contests and equal pay for every category of player and contest. That would mean proper singles contests for wheelchair players, that those matches should get equal exposure, that they will be played on the same show courts, and that the winners should take an equally large prize. Of course, in the real world, fewer people would want to watch those matches, which is why they the wheelchair players do not get the same size of prize. If you imposed equality, by taking the current pot of prize money, and splitting it so the wheelchair players got an equal share, you would soon see how many top players really care about equality.
There is one very straightforward way to ensure absolute equality for all players, based purely on merit whilst eliminating any prejudices based on sex. That would be by removing any divisions within the sporting contest, and having everyone competing for the same prize. Men would play women on an equal basis, whether over five sets or three. We are nearly there already. Unlike boxing, with its many divisions, all that would be needed at Wimbledon would be for the unification of the men’s and women’s contests. That would be true equality of treatment, in every possible sense. Gender would be rendered irrelevant, and we could appreciate people purely based on how well they play, and not for their sex. Of course, women may find themselves losing to men more often than not. Not surprisingly, that is the kind of equality that the current crop of super-rich stars of the women’s game are happy to do without.