Professional sports is as much of an entertainment industry as movies or music.

Djokovic saying men deserve more pay isnt sexist its good business senseNovak Djokovic/Facebook
Voices Sports Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 17:01

The recently concluded BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Despite being widely considered as the fifth most prestigious tournament in the annual tennis calendar, comments off the court made all the news.

The chief executive of the tournament, Raymond Moore, called the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) a “lucky organization” and said that lady players should “thank Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for carrying the sport”. The outrage over these comments has led to Moore’s resignation from his position as CEO and tournament director on Tuesday.

The controversy did not stop at Mr. Moore alone, as the top-ranked men’s tennis player Novak Djokovic suggested that the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which is the association of men’s professional tennis players, should fight for more prize money than the women.

Novak Djokovic/Facebook

While Mr. Moore’s comments have been rightfully condemned by almost everyone, what the Serbian superstar had said after his victory over Milos Raonic in the final of the tournament actually makes sense given the current scenario.

Women’s tennis has been historically competitive ever since the Open Era with many famous rivalries, much like the men’s counterpart.

We had Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova battling it out in the second half of the 70s and the first half of the 80s; Navratilova and Steffi Graf in the second half of the 80s; Graf and Monica Seles in the early 90s; Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the mid-90s; the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, and Martina Hingis in the late 90s; and the Williams sisters and the Belgian duo of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters from the turn of the century until about the mid-2000s.

As a result of these rivalries, women’s tennis was followed as much as men’s tennis, and therefore in 2007, when all the Grand Slams offered equal prize money to male and female tennis players, it seemed to be the right decision.

However, since then, women’s tennis has become far less competitive. Only Serena Williams has shown a sustained period of dominance of the sport over this decade, and it would have only been more one-sided had it not been for her numerous injuries.

Serena Williams/Facebook

Even matches between her and arguably the second best player of the decade, the now-suspended Maria Sharapova, have been really one-sided with a few exceptions. There have been many players who have won the odd Grand Slam in the last decade, but these players were unable to maintain their position at the top of the game.

Men’s tennis, on the other hand, has been very competitive over the last one decade. It started with the legendary rivalry of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and with the subsequent arrival of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray into the scene, we have seen many Grand Slam Finals that will be remembered for how close they were and how every point was being fought for.

As a result of this, over the last decade, the men’s matches are more followed than the women’s. The number of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic fans easily outnumber the number of Serena and Sharapova fans.

There has been an argument that as women play three-set matches at most, as opposed to men who play five, and as a result, spend less time in the court, they should accordingly be paid less.

However, there is no solution to that problem. If women play five-setters, it would only increase the time required to complete a Grand Slam tournament, and that would make an already packed tennis schedule even more tiring for the players.

Professional sports is as much of an entertainment industry as movies or music. While singers entertain us with their voice and actors entertain us with their acting skills, sportspersons entertain us with their athletic abilities.

And if actors are paid based on the number of movie tickets they can sell, and singers based on the number of albums and concert tickets they can sell, shouldn’t sportspersons be paid according to the number of match tickets they can sell and the television ratings of their matches, which indirectly gives us an estimate of their crowd-pulling abilities?

Serena Williams had reminded the press that the 2015 US Open saw the women’s final being sold out well before the men – a clear indication that the game is not dominated by the men in recent history. However, if you look closely, you will notice that this was an exception, and there were other reasons behind this fact.

Serena’s semifinal opponent in the 2015 US Open was Roberta Vinci. The other semifinal was between Simona Halep and Flavia Pennetta. And with none of the other three semifinalists having won a Grand Slam singles title, Serena was easily the favourite to win the US Open.

And had she won the US Open, she would have been the first person since Steffi Graf in 1988 to have achieved a calendar singles Grand Slam – winning all the four Grand Slams in the same year, probably the only achievement left in her illustrious career. For 27 years, no one had achieved this feat. To put this into perspective, just less than half of the people who currently reside on the planet were not even born when Graf achieved the unthinkable. Fans, naturally, wanted to see history being made.

There have been many such sporting examples of abnormally high attendances when there is a great record expected to be broken or when someone is all set to achieve an impossible feat. A good recent example closer to home would be what happened in Chennai on 29th March 2008. Virender Sehwag was not out on 309 at the start of fourth day’s play in a Test match against South Africa. There was the hope that he would break Brian Lara’s record of the highest individual score in a Test innings. On that day, many Chennaiites, including me, were waiting outside the stadium for a ticket to watch history being made – some waiting since the sun rose that day. When the news came in that the Nawab of Najafgarh was caught off Makhaya Ntini’s bowling for a score of 319, almost everyone in that queue, which by then had probably extended all the way to Marina Beach, decided that it was time to leave as there was nothing left to watch. This one day’s play cannot be used as an example to counter the average low attendance figures of Test matches in India, however.

It is not Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, but years and years of competitive women’s tennis that has led to equal prize money being offered to male and female tennis players. However, if the current crop of women players cannot entertain tennis fans like the men, then the men have every right to demand a higher prize money.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

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