When the women in the U.S. Open tournament take the court on Sunday, they’ll compete for the same prize money as their male peers. Since 2007, when Wimbledon and the French Open joined the other Grand Slam tournaments in giving equal prize money to men and women, tennis has broken down the gender pay gap.
Stacey Allaster, head of the Women’s Tennis Association, has played a big role in that development. Allaster spoke with The Washington Post about being a female executive in the sports industry and the legacy of Billie Jean King. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q. Why has women’s tennis succeeded at equal pay?
A. The WTA was founded on the principles of equality and the empowerment of women through the great Billie Jean King. It was her vision that a women’s-only tour would be commercially successful and that any girl in the world could play professional tennis.
That was a critical time, 1970 to 1973. King was forming the WTA. She was winning Grand Slams. She was getting the USTA [United States Tennis Association] to pay equal prize money — in 1973. And, of course, she beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes match. When you hear it from Billie, the weight of the world was on her shoulders. It wasn’t about winning a tennis match. It was about showing that women were confident, strong and equal.
Q. You helped secure equal prize money at Wimbledon and Roland Garros. Tell me about that.
A. I was the president of the WTA at the time. Larry Scott was chairman and CEO. But it took decades of effort from great champions like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and other advocates.
We were at 93 percent of pay in 2006. We launched a public opinion campaign in France and Britain. We presented the data that showed our sponsorship revenues were very strong. We had a strong political campaign in business leaders like Richard Branson. Tessa Jowell, the minister of sport in Britain, was able to get Tony Blair on the House of Commons floor to say that Wimbledon should pay equal prize money.
Our ace was Venus Williams. On the eve of the Wimbledon finals in 2007, Larry said to Venus, “I’d like you to talk to the All England committee about equal prize money. I’m just a suit.” Venus, with her gift of diplomacy, was able to bring it over the line.
Q. What do you make of some of the responses from male players, such as the idea that women should also play five sets if they're going to be paid equally?
A. It's such an old discussion. Really. We said in 1973, and we continue to say in 2014, we're ready, willing and able to play five sets if that's what they'd like us to play. Our athletes are putting in the same effort, same training, and they deserve to be paid equally.
This issue of parity is not a women's issue. It's a societal issue that needs to be resolved by men and women. Having sponsor support and male leadership support in this area has been a key to our success.
Q. Tell me about your plans for growing women’s tennis.
A. Where we think we can play and win is that our athletes are incredibly inspiring on and off the court. We are fundamentally in the entertainment business.
Research tells us that our strategy needs to improve our connection with fans. We need more live content. We have over 2,000 matches played in the WTA, but we’re probably only producing about 700 for television or digital platforms. We’re showing our fans about a third of our total product.
There also came back a resounding, strong demand for a World Cup-type event. The time period we're looking at is potentially 2017. If we just look at sport, which events are massively successful? The Olympic Games. The World Cup. What's the common denominator? Teams. Nations against nations in a team format. Sport is about emotion. Nothing connects a fan more to a sport than national heroes competing. This would be something our association owns. We don't own the Grand Slams. As I said to our membership, someone's going to do this. Do you want to be the leaders and the owners or do you want to be the partners in it?
Q. For the first time since 1977, there will be eight different women finalists in the four Grand Slam tournaments in the same year. In other words, the bench is deep and superstars haven't consistently been winning. Is that a good thing or not for the sport?
A. The last couple of years we've had the established stars — Maria, Serena, Li Na — at the top of the sport; the rising stars; and a new generation coming in. That's created great drama. In 2012, for the first time in our history, we had 10 different nations ranked in the top 10. That's great for driving fan interest, sponsor interest and broadcaster interest.
Q. What is the biggest challenge of being a female executive in the sports world?
A. I was young, ambitious and naive when I came out of college to think that my gender didn't matter, that I was just going to prove myself through hard work and results. Probably by age 32-ish I began to hit the glass ceiling, and the recognition that there was gender bias and gender inequality hit me.
I’m the only female in the world running a global professional sport. Even in our sport — the sport of equality — right now, the International Tennis Federation does not have one woman on its board.