An overlooked victory: the case of Bia Haddad inequality in tennis
PeopleSociety

An overlooked victory: the case of Bia Haddad inequality in tennis

Bia Haddad Maia is a Brazilian tennis player who recently won the title of the WTA 250 of Nottingham. This important title is a monumental moment in her professional career and a landmark day for Brazilian tennis. She is the first to win a professional tournament on grass since Maria Esther Bueno won in Manchester in 1968.

Despite this, her game was poorly attended. Brazilian sports channel ESPN did not show the final, however, it’s streaming platform STAR+ which requires an extra monthly payment for access did stream it. The absence of an accessible platform to view the final was met with anger on Twitter, in which a sports journalist from ESPN made a large Twitter thread to illustrate their point. He argued about the difficulties to obtain licenses for international tournaments and expenses.

Tennis - Bia Haddad

This is not the first time the platform has chosen to put the women’s tournaments only on its streaming platform. In 2021 the Next Gen ATP Finals (the men’s tournament) was shown on ESPN but not the WTA (the women’s tournament) that was happening at the same time. The women’s tournament was only shown, again, on its streaming platform. Often, women’s tournaments are excluded from the mainstream media.

Exploring the notion of gender equality in tennis 

Tennis was one of the first Olympic modalities women competed in the Olympic Games, as women participated in the summer edition of Paris in 1900. After this achievement, others followed that centred tennis in the spotlight for gender equality and equal pay.

In 1973 was the tennis match ‘Battle of the Sexes’ between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Riggs was outspoken and claimed that women did not have the “emotional stability” to beat a man. King defeated Riggs in three sets which were front-page news in many newspapers and was an important stone for women’s equal pay.

The match was seen on television by approximately 90 million people. Later in the same year, King organized a meeting that led to the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association (today’s WTA) which threatened to boycott the 1973 U.S. Open if there was no equal pay. Resultantly, the U.S. Open became the first major tennis tournament to offer equal prize money. 

Patrícia Medrado, a Brazilian tennis player in the 1980s had a similar attitude to Billie Jean King. In September 1980, São Paulo hosted the ‘Campeonato Brasileiro do tênis’ (the Brazilian tennis championship) which was a competition that defines the first ranked in the country.

Before the tournament begin, Medrado decided to check the prizes for males and females and saw a huge discrepancy. The male prize would have 250 thousand cruzeiros and the women 50 thousand. Medrado decided to call the female players to boycott the tournament, and all eight participants agreed to do so. Nevertheless, there was no equal pay but the women started to receive half of the male prizes.

Equal pay across the other major tennis tournaments was a much slower process. Examples can be seen in the Australian Open in 2001, the French Open in 2006, and Wimbledon in 2007, which became the last of the four major tournaments to offer equal prize money for men and women. Despite equal pay being achieved recently, tennis does a fairly good job. A study by Money UK said that tennis compared to other major sports has the smallest pay gap between men and women, as women gain 34.3% less than men. Still, in the 2019 Forbes list of highest-paid athletes, Serena Williams was the only woman to make it into the top 100. 

In the Tokyo Olympics of 2021, Brazilians Luisa Stefani and Laura Pigossi won the bronze medal in the doubles women competition. Despite their achievements, women’s tennis in Brazil is still minimal compared to men’s. The famous doubles Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares have more visibility, investment, and incentives than the women’s doubles.

How are female athletes portrayed in the media? – The problems with representation

Female athletes are represented differently in the media. The analysis of their performance goes beyond the technique, as in tennis, it is common to see female players described by their dresses, marital statuses, gossip, and side modelling careers, while for male players, the focus is physical and technical. 

Another problem is less representation. Of all the world sports coverage, only 4% is dedicated to modalities practised by women. Women in sports continue to have a lack of representation in the media despite the rising number and success stories of women in sports. The consequences can have various impacts on the social construction of gender, where women are considered fragile and men as athletic and strong.

“Low proportion compared to men’s sport, the limited variety of women’s sports covered and lack of a consistent presence. There are examples of time periods when women’s sport is barely visible, sports channels where no women’s sport is in evidence, and countries where it fails to achieve more than 2% of the reporting time” says the Women in Sports organisation. 

In Brazil, the conclusions were similar. Sports journalism offers a predominant view of men’s sports shown in the Olympics in August 2016. The research collected data in Sports Journalism in Brazil and highlights that the covering of men’s sports is larger, which was concluded practically unanimously amongst specialists. 

“The difference has to do with the sexist approach, actually. All leaders are men. There is a lack of greater participation of women not only in tennis but in all sports. It’s a lot of neglect, it’s a lot of discrimination. We don’t have anyone in the Confederation [of Brazilian Tennis]. It doesn’t have a women’s department, it doesn’t have any active women on the board. Not even in the Paulista Federation. And so on. It’s a little bit of everything”, says Patricia Medrado in an interview for Globo in 2020.

“We need to focus on women. It’s a cause that has to be embraced and then build on the cause of women’s tennis. It has to be a separate project, a woman project, a women’s tennis project”, says Patricia Medrado.

Male players and decision-makers are not always open to equal pay and recognition of women as athletes. In 2016 Indian Wells CEO Raymond Moore made sexist comments that undermined the WTA. “When I come back in my next life, I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men,” and “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport,” said Moore. This was followed by Novak Djokovic questioning if women should have equal pay as men had much more spectators in tennis matches.

Men are better paid and have more opportunities due to higher coverage from the media, such as television licenses, leading to more sponsors and other financial bonuses. The higher visibility creates more initiatives for personal branding initiatives that further the gap. This, therefore, contributes to higher revenue and higher salaries than women.

“As we don’t have so many references around, when they do what they did [in Japan Olympics doubles women medal] they show that we can be there. And when I have a week like that, it shows them too. One pulls the other and results like this only make us stronger, more united. It’s really cool to see a woman occupying her space in a world that we know still suffers a lot from sexism”, Haddad says in an interview for Folha de São Paulo.

Haddad’s statement sheds light on the fact that women have to be their own role models and references to inspire and motivate not only themselves but also future generations of women athletes. Hence, her striking claim of becoming stronger and united despite all challenges is significant in the sense that women are continuing and should continue to push boundaries to break the gender bias in sports against all the previously discussed media (under)representations and backlashes.

About the author

Political Science Student at Sciences Po Paris | fernanda@rockandart.org | + posts

Born in Brasília, Brazil. Political Science student at Sciences Po Paris and exchange student at King's College. Nature lover, mother of three dogs and photography enthusiast.

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