Our guest columnist today, International Women’s Day, is Vickie Gunnarsson, tournament director of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King and eight other women, known as the “Original Nine,” starting a revolution that would change the landscape of women’s professional sports forever. The Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic was the first event on the 1971 World Tennis Women’s Pro Tour (also known as the Virginia Slims Circuit), the first ever female-only professional tennis circuit, and though the tournament went by a different name at the time, it was the first step to put women on a more equal footing with their male counterparts, not just in tennis, but in all sports.
Since then, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has been founded, becoming a leader in women’s sports and making women’s tennis the most watched female sport in the world. Today, tennis is only one of a small handful of sports that pay both men and women equal prize money in major events.
On International Women’s Day, and in the 50th anniversary year of the longest-running women-only professional tennis tournament in the world, I think it’s important we reflect on the strides the women’s equality movement has made financially in the sports world, and how far we have yet to go.
Before there was Title IX, there was our tournament. When the Original Nine—King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Julie Heldman, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Peaches Bartkowicz and Kristy Pigeon—started the World Tennis Women’s Pro Tour in 1971, women’s winnings/earnings were less than half of their male counterparts. At the 1970 U.S. Open, Ken Rosewall took home $20,000 following his title win, while Margaret Court’s winning check was a mere $7,500.
The Original Nine created the new tour as a way to break free from the constraints of the traditional sports establishment, have more control of their professional futures and create financial opportunities equal to those of their male counterparts. They did so at great risk to their careers and against the wishes of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, the governing body at the time. Their vision was the catalyst for financial equality in sports, and quickly bore fruit. By the end of the year, through the support of sponsors, the new circuit offered more prize money than the USLTA, and grew membership from nine to nearly 40. The bravery and outspokenness of these women, right in the middle of the women’s rights movement of the ‘70s, was key in positioning tennis as the leader in gender equality in sports. Since then, the game has continually, and consistently, delivered vocal top talents such as Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Serena and Venus Williams, and now a new generation is stepping up, led by the likes of Naomi Osaka.
The financial results of this 1971 revolution were immediate, as well as lasting. The new tour proved that even then there were brands willing to support women’s sports. That first year, the tour generated $300,000 in sponsorship dollars, which adjusted for inflation would equal a little over $1.9 million in 2021. In 1971, the total prize money for women was $300,000. Fast forward to 2019, where the total prize money on the WTA tour was $179 million.
The success of women’s tennis, however, also highlights how difficult the fight for financial parity remains. Look at endorsement earnings. There are no women in the Top 20 of Forbes’ 2020 Highest Paid Athletes List, and only two in the Top 40—Osaka at 29 and Serena Williams at 31.
Sometimes being the best at your game doesn’t easily equate to financial compensation, either. The most well-known example is of course the U.S. women’s national soccer team, one of the most dominant programs on the world stage, but which filed a lawsuit in 2019 against the US Soccer Federation over unequal pay compared to the men’s players. The U.S. women’s hockey team has medaled in every major tournament since 1990, yet many of their athletes are forced to work a second or even third job to make ends meet. The average salary in the National Women’s Hockey League is $15,000 with a salary cap of $270,000 per team, while the league minimum for an NHL player is $700,000. An NHL player making the league minimum will make more in two games than an average NWHL player makes in a season. While the media and public support women athletes with acclaim and praise, and you may recognize Megan Rapinoe before anyone on the U.S. men’s team, until their work is valued as financially equal, true success can never be claimed.
As a female tournament director, I’m honored to be a part of an event that has played such an important role in creating economic equality for women in sports, and I know the game of tennis still has its challenges in the quest for gender equity. Outside of the Grand Slams and Premier Mandatory events, WTA top earners win 80 cents to the dollar for every ATP top earner. But as others battle for their well-deserved economic equality, may they look to the history of our event as inspiration in their fight. I see the same strength and conviction in today’s champions for equality—among them Osaka and the Williams sisters, as well as women in other sports such as Rapinoe, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Skylar Diggins—that we saw in the Original Nine 50 years ago.
Gunnarsson, a former collegiate tennis player, enters her fifth year as tournament director of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic. She has spent most of her career promoting the sport globally, with more than a decade of experience in sports marketing and event management.