What makes tennis stars dominate annual list of highest-earning female athletes

This year’s list reinforces the notion that tennis might not be lucrative per se, but it’s certainly more popular when it comes to women’s sport.

Published: 24th August 2018 07:29 PM  |   Last Updated: 25th August 2018 10:08 AM   |  A+A-

Serena Williams

Serena Williams, has topped the list for a third consecutive year. (File | AP)

Forbes released its annual list of highest-earning female athletes, and eight of the top10 are tennis pros. In spite of a 14-month hiatus to have a baby, 23-time Grand Slam champion, Serena Williams, has topped the list for a third consecutive year. Williams reportedly made $62,000 from prize money and grossed a further $18.1 million through endorsements.

The only non-tennis athletes to secure a spot in the top-10 are Indian badminton player, PV Sindhu with $8.5 million, and retired race car driver, Danica Patrick with $7.5 million. They are placed seventh and ninth on the list respectively.

This year’s list reinforces the notion that tennis might not be lucrative per se, but it’s certainly more popular when it comes to women’s sport. The game has produced some legendary sportswomen, and female players are known to rake in more money, more endorsement deals and more broadcast time than any other female athlete – no matter how good they are. Along with swimming and athletics, tennis claims to be less disparate when comparing how many people watch the sport as a whole as opposed to how many people watch female leagues of the same sport.

In this way, it's considered a genuinely unisex sport. Major tournaments, including Wimbledon, not only offer women equal pay, but they give them a platform to engage crowds, just as the men do. Today, women and men play simultaneously and reap balanced television coverage by prominent networks. Putting women on an equal footing to men allows them to establish an innate sense of interest and intrigue among viewers. Moreover, it compels fans to associate both genders to the sport, making the game more about individual talent and less about a male-female dichotomy.

It all seems promising, but even if women are acquiring the same prize money as men, an athlete’s overall income relies heavily on endorsements and sponsorship deals. Such is the practice of capitalism, which could explain Danica Patrick’s achievements as one of the most admired women in auto racing. Patrick’s most notable sponsor is GoDaddy, which signed her after the 2005 Indy 500. Altogether, she appeared in more than 20 adverts for the web hosting company, 13 of which aired during Super Bowls. Critics have compared Patrick to the former tennis player, Anna Kournikova, arguing that the trivial promotion of her looks conveniently detracts from her on-track success.

Coming to India, the gender pay gap is a concern in virtually all sectors. The latest Monster Salary Index concludes that Indian women earn 20 per cent less than men, outlining the bleak reality that gender serves as a critical constraint when determining incomes. Of course, there are more Indian women in sport at present than there has ever been history, yet they still face injustices, which have been brought to the forefront by several female athletes over the past decade.

For a nation infatuated by men’s cricket, P.V. Sindhu is profoundly shaping her presence by demanding much higher endorsement prices than all but one of her male colleagues. Sindhu is the first Indian female athlete to win silver at the Olympics and carries a hefty endorsement portfolio, featuring brands like Bridgestone, Gatorade and Nokia among others.

When comparing this to five-time world champion boxer, Mary Kom, who has only received a handful of sponsorship deals throughout her career, it either looks as if the times are changing, which is ideal, or there are deeper-rooted forces at play as to why stark inequalities between female athletes persist. Sadly, the latter seems to be the case, as Kom has lost brand partnerships and valuation irrespective of being the first Indian woman to win gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

There is no calculable way in which one athlete may be more marketable than another. In the end, it merely comes down to collective preferences that are rarely based on aptitude alone.

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