By Ben Rothenberg
Billie Jean King and Roger Federer Renew Calls for a Joint Tour
“People always listen to men more than women,” Billie Jean King told me days ago as we chatted on the phone from our respective quarantines.
The blunt statement, in context, was somehow a hopeful one: A tweet by Roger Federer had given new energy to the idea of bringing men’s and women’s tennis together under one umbrella, a cause she had been championing for a half century.
King had wanted to unite men’s and women’s tennis as soon as the sport became open to professionals more than 50 years ago, but had been stymied for decades.
“And then Roger comes out with his statement; I just started laughing, it’s just hilarious,” King said, ruefully.
Federer’s tweet had been pseudo-casual but its impact was real and immediate. Scores of players, particularly on the women’s side, immediately grabbed on to the trial balloon that Federer had floated. Curiously, these endorsements included one from Rafael Nadal, who had shown little warmth toward notions of gender equality in the sport previously and balked at the suggestion of a merger as recently as 15 months before.
📽️AO19— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) April 22, 2020
Q. Would u like to see the 2 tours integrated so they could sell together?
Nadal: Why? I don't know. I don't get the point.
Q. Might be a stronger product.
Nadal: Why is a stronger product? I don't know.
Q. Some people think that.
Nadal: Maybe & some people not. I dunno. pic.twitter.com/dz0sqYqcGT
King, whose own Twitter account has been an increasingly active piece of public profile, added her own blessing, and was soon on the phone with Federer to tell him about her years of futile efforts for unity.
“He had no idea,” King said. “He knew a little bit because Tony [Godsick, Federer’s agent] had told him, but we talked about things, and he was blown away in some ways. He’s finally had some time to think. When he’s playing tennis—and I understand this—you’ve got to think about your tennis. He’s had time to contemplate something besides how he’s playing and worrying about his physical fitness every minute and the tournaments he’d be playing right now. He had a chance to kick back.”
King had pointed out to Federer that as the father of two daughters and two sons, he’d want all his children to get the same opportunities. A veteran of talking to men about women, King knows how emotional investments can be a bigger part of the equation than the business bottom line. As the academic Clay Shirky once wrote, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
Though a known feminist, Andy Murray was nevertheless taken by surprise at the backlash he got for daring to hire Amélie Mauresmo, who at the time was a more accomplished player than Murray. Murray said he’s seen peers stubbornly hell-bent against equality, even to their own personal financial detriment.
“I’ve had some conversations in the past where there’s been prize-money increases within the sport, where let’s say the first-round losers’ check has gone for the men from $8,000 to $10,000, and the women’s went from $6,000 to $10,000,” Murray told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “And I spoke to some male players who were unhappy because the prize money was equal. I said, ‘Would you rather there was no increase at all?’ And they said to me, ‘Yeah, actually.’
“That’s some of the mentalities that you’re working with in these discussions, where someone would rather make less money just so they’re not on an equal footing with some of the female players,” Murray said.
That zero-sum instinct, that the gains by the women had intrinsically been defeats for the men, is what derailed the last great effort toward combining the tours 12 years ago. Larry Scott, who had been chief operating officer of the ATP Tour before becoming chief executive of the WTA Tour, used his role atop the women’s game to push for joining forces.
“I saw firsthand, having been on the men’s tour and the women’s tour, the power of bringing brands together in a sport that’s considered a niche sport in a lot of parts of the world,” Scott told Front Office Sports recently. “Tennis boxes below its weight level, given the eyeballs and interest in the sport; it should be generating a lot more revenue from television, sponsors; purses for the players. But it’s the fragmentation in the sport, the alphabet soup of different organizations between the Grand Slams, ITF, men’s tour, women’s tour.
“I’ve seen in different capacities that when you can package a sport in a compelling way and sell rights together, you’re going to generate more value than if the pieces are fragments. Tennis, I’ve seen from the men’s side and women’s side that it’s left a lot of revenue on the table that the players have not benefited from, that the tournament promoters have not benefited from.
“And fans—the sport has been more confusing. It’s already confusing because it’s global and it moves from one country to another, so there’s even more of a prerogative for a sport like tennis to be well organized, well packaged, well promoted in a way that’s easy for fans to follow. It’s been sub-optimized as a sport.”
Scott led women’s tennis to historic breakthroughs in equality in his time atop the WTA, with his crowning achievement being securing the long-awaited equal prize money for men and women at the French Open and Wimbledon, the last two holdout Grand Slams, by 2007.
But according to another women’s tennis executive from that time, who requested anonymity for this article, those victories for women and equality were felt as stinging defeats by the men, turning them against Scott and his subsequent goals for unification.
“Larry was looking for the next best way to grow the business,” this executive told me. “We’d done a lot of the things that were within our control at WTA, and the obvious next one would be to try to join forces with some of the other governing bodies in the sport for media rights and sponsorships. Grow the pie, not just get a bigger piece of it. At that time he discussed it with the WTA board and counsel and there was board support on the WTA side.”
With the ATP, however, it was a nonstarter.
“There was a pretty visceral anti-joining-forces-with-WTA reaction from the players’ side,” the executive said. “That was a big impediment. Politically it was not palatable because so many of the male players were so pissed off about equal prize money; I don’t recall anyone saying from a business standpoint that it didn’t make sense.”
ATP leadership was impressed enough by Scott’s business savvy, however, that it asked him to return to lead their tour. He declined, and shortly after left tennis. He has been commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference in college sports since 2009.
“Larry was only interested in leading ATP if he could be leader of both, and the answer was no,” the executive said. “The rest is history: It didn’t happen, and Larry decided after he wanted something new, new challenges, since he couldn’t do more within tennis.”
Billie Jean King said she still laments that her sport lost Scott’s leadership.
“He really was special,” King told me. “I hate that he left tennis; I want him in tennis.”
Scott said he hopes the current coronavirus pandemic could force hands in tennis to reach out toward one another instead of closing into fists.
“When things are going great, it’s hard to get people to take a leap of faith in my experience, and take a chance, and be willing to risk what they have today in the hope of a better future,” Scott told Front Office Sports. “When there’s a crisis, people think a little bit differently, and the tolerance for risk goes up. And so I’m hopeful. It’s a sport I love. Hopeful to see the leaders of that sport come together and make it happen.”
There is now a will—both the current ATP and WTA chief executives support the general principle of joining forces in some way. The player enthusiasm could prove even more important.
“With Federer and Nadal leading the charge, they have so much goodwill and political capital that they can move a lot of mountains,” the executive told me. “If you get behind them, there’s a lot you can accomplish. There was none of that in 2008, 2009.”
Mary Carillo compared the “all kinds of silos, all kinds of turf wars” in tennis to the five families in The Godfather.
“Theoretically, it’s a beautiful idea,” Carillo said of a merger on Tennis Tuesday with Nick McCarvel and Blair Henley. “Then you’d need your consiglieres, you need people who can pull people apart and make it all work. Having compromised, if they all walk away dissatisfied, then we’ll have a good tour. If everybody walks away aggravated, that’s our only chance.”
King, who had all but given up hope of seeing unification in her lifetime, has been reinvigorated by the new energy behind the cause.
“If you get Federer and Nadal, who are sensational and current, they’ll listen,” she told me. “They won’t listen to old people. They’re current and they’re winners. I don’t think the men realize from a business point of view how much more valuable we are together. And the women don’t want to get lost in this; I don’t think we will. Obviously the men have more money, that’s a given because men have had more money in life, period. I think it will help us toward equality and inclusion.”
I wondered if King, who had been looking forward this year to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “Original 9” pioneering women who turned professional for what would become the women’s tour, feared that women might lose some of that identity or leverage if they no longer had their own designated seat at the table.
“No, I think we’re always stronger together,” King replied. “The top women will always shine, just like the top men—the best players bring attention. I think we’ll get better media rights and I think we’ll all win. There will be some hiccups; that’s life. But the reality is we’ll be better over the next 10 years if we do it, it’s not even close. If you wanted to own a tournament, Ben, which one do you think is more valuable? Just one or both?”
“Oh, combined, for sure,” I replied.
“Thank you—you should have told them that 50 years ago,” King said. “It’s so obvious that we’re worth more together.”
(Above: Billie Jean King, then president of the WTA, at a meeting at the the All England Club to discuss equal prize money, in 1975. Getty Images.)