Libby Payne | Let’s focus on the real issues and engage the enormous potential in women’s sport

Withersworldwide senior associate Libby Payne, a specialist in sport and employment matters, argues that historic debates about women’s sport – such as whether tennis grand slam prize money is fair – get in the way of the real issues holding back progress.

Withersworldwide senior associate Libby Payne

Judging the success of women’s sport can be done in so many ways, from the effect on female participation to the impact of female sporting role models. One of the bluntest tools is looking at the earning potential of female athletes, and it is here that tennis comes out on top. Tennis players regularly dominate the top earnings lists for female athletes each year and are also seen in the list of overall highest earning athletes. This success can be very easily traced back to the women who, with Billie Jean King, took control of their own destiny by breaking away from the established tennis bodies in 1973 to set up the WTA.

Tennis has given us some outstanding female athletes and role models and offers similar opportunities for male and female athletes without the disparities seen in other sports. But time and again questions are raised about the value of women’s tennis because at the four annal grand slam tournaments, where equal prize money is paid, women play three sets compared to the men’s five. Occasionally this debate is framed as this discrepancy being insulting to women, but mostly that is a thinly veiled way of getting to the real issue for many commentators – the unfairness to men because women play fewer sets.

Maybe women’s tennis should just get on with playing five sets at the grand slams. But only if it’s what women in tennis want and if it will enhance the presentation of the women’s game. And there’s a real risk that such a change would cause all sorts of scheduling issues for tournament organisers, potentially reducing the number of competitors and opportunities to compete at a grand slam, which raises the question: is that what anyone wants at all? In any event, the key takeaway is that tennis, and indeed sport in general, simply doesn’t award prize money based on the quality or duration of the matches – prize money is based on winning. Women who are winning matches at tennis grand slams are paid the same as men who are winning matches. This is the equality of opportunity.

Let’s stop arguing about three or five sets of tennis and instead address many of the real issues in women’s sport that are genuinely insulting to women and holding progress back. Here are a few on which to get started:

  1. Above all, let’s stamp out the abuse of all athletes on social media. This would help female athletes enormously as they experience substantially higher levels of abuse than male athletes.
  2. Let’s stop the unnecessary criticism of female sports uniforms and double standards compared to male athletes. Overt examples include Serena Williams’ unitard being criticised at the French Open, the Norwegian beach handball team being fined for refusing to wear tiny bikini bottoms mandated by the rules, or para-athlete Olivia Breen being told her briefs were “too revealing” even though they were entirely standard.
  3. Let’s provide some more support for pregnancy and maternity leave to offer female athletes better choices.
  4. Let’s do (and indeed fund) more research that specifically addresses female athletes. Women are being trained based on principles derived from research into male athletes because the overwhelming majority of research is not female-specific.

Tennis has led the way in demonstrating that women’s sport has huge potential to capture the imagination of spectators and to inspire the next generation of athletes. Only by leaving behind archaic attitudes and by putting the right frameworks in place can we start to address the clear disparities between men and women in other sports.

Libby Payne was a panelist on the recent SportBusiness webinar – How safeguarding and storytelling can help women’s sport to fulfil its promise. To watch a recording of the webinar, click here.