Iga Swiatek had a banner year in 2022, but prize money in the Women’s Tennis Association has dropped since 2019 with its lucrative China event in limbo.
Two scenes in the past three months captured the potential, and the pitfalls, facing the Women’s Tennis Association.
Serena Williams’ surprising run to the third round of the US Open in September—after signaling that she was preparing to leave tennis—showed the power of the women’s tennis superstar. The broadcast was the single highest-rated tennis match in ESPN’s 43-year history: 4.56 million viewers saw Williams bow out to Australian Ajla Tomljanović.
A couple of months later, however, the WTA Finals played out before sparse crowds at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. The event had only several weeks of promotion, serving as a fill-in site because of the limbo involving the WTA’s 10-year contract to play its finals in Shenzhen, China. Total prize money for the event fell to $5 million this year from $14 million when it was held in Shenzhen in 2019.
The WTA’s contract with Shenzhen organizers remains in question because of the WTA’s insistence that the abuse allegations of Chinese player Peng Shuai against a retired senior Chinese official be transparently investigated.
The WTA’s unresolved problems with China continue to overshadow the tour. Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO, said he still hasn’t spoken directly with Peng. He said the WTA will make a decision about the future of the finals in the first quarter of next year.
Events are more successful when they stay put and have the chance to build an audience, which is why the WTA’s agreement with Shenzhen was a decade long, Simon said.
The so-far temporary relocation of the event from China was a significant stand by the WTA in the name of player safety, and it came with a financial cost. Even as the WTA’s total season pot increased to $157 million in 2022, it was down from a peak of $179 million in 2019.
The suspension of the WTA tour stop in Shenzhen accounted for much of the decline in the tour’s total purse. The $14 million awarded at the 2019 tournament—which stands as the only time the WTA Finals were held in Shenzhen—was double what it had been a year earlier, and significantly more than the $8 million in prize money for the ATP Finals that year.
The WTA’s China quandary is contributing to the circuit’s inability to close the prize gap with men’s tennis. Grand Slam events award equal prize money to men and women, but some other events do not. The WTA total continued to lag behind the separately operated men’s ATP Tour in 2022, which awarded about $242 million in prize money, 35% more than the WTA.
If the WTA tour doesn’t return to Shenzhen, women’s players could lose out on tens of millions of dollars during what would have been the life of the contract, given the premium Chinese organizers were paying in prize money.
One enduring cause of the prize-money gap involves media-rights agreements, Simon said.
“If you look at an ATP versus a WTA set of rights for a similar number of events, similar quality of events, we will probably get 30 to 40 percent of the value that (the ATP is) realizing for the same set of rights, Simon said.
He said the valuation of rights for women’s sports has been suppressed in the marketplace, “so if you’re buying rights, you’re looking at the past history of the value of rights and what has been paid for that right. And of course, that’s what you’re fighting against right now.”
The Tennis Channel owns the US media rights for the WTA and ATP tours. The rights fee for each tour “comes down to format and content being offered much more than an apples-to-apples comparison between the tours,” said Ken Solomon, Tennis Channel president.
Solomon declined to say what the fees were, saying the Tennis Channel “paid what it took to capture both tours in their entirety. That’s a market function, which certainly has nothing to do with gender.”
He added that in a given year, the 10 most-watched matches on the channel typically include five women’s and five men’s matches.
Simon laid out the factors governing the WTA’s possible return to China. It will depend on the nation’s evolving Covid policy, one of the world’s strictest as governed by Xi Jinping, and what it means for international sporting events. Although the 2022 Winter Olympics went ahead in Beijing last February, they occurred under highly restrictive health protocols that many found stifling.
The WTA also needs to resolve its Peng Shuai issues.
“We’ve been consistent with that,” Simon said. “We want to have both dialogue with Peng, but we also want a transparent investigation as to the allegations that were put forth so that we can get to an appropriate resolution. As I’ve said all along as well, if you can get to a resolution that, you ask somebody to do something and they do it, you then have an obligation to return.”
Last February, Peng met with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and watched the women’s freeski big air event at the Beijing Games. At that time, Peng told the French publication L’Equipe that there was a “misunderstanding” about her social media post of November 2021 and that she hadn’t accused anyone of assault. Peng hasn’t been seen or heard of in public since the Olympics.
In addition to Williams’ potential exit, the year brought another notable finish. World no. 1 Iga Swiatek ended the year with $9,875,525 in prize money, which, depending on the results of the ongoing ATP Finals, could put her ahead of the top man on the ATP Tour, a rarity. (Kim Clijsters edged Roger Federer in total prize-money earnings in 2003.)
It took Swiatek hustle to achieve that total. The 21-year-old from Poland won the French and US Open titles, eight singles titles in total, and amassed more than double the ranking points of No. 2 Ons Jabeur of Tunisia.
“While we’re still not equal to the ATP in prize money, there is still an awful lot of prize money out there available for the athletes to achieve it,” Simon said. “So, it’s a mixed message that’s out there for sure, but I think the number one message is it’s a reflection about the year that Iga had. And I think it says well for the sport, it says well for her.”