Changes to women’s tennis solve one problem but may create another


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Women’s tennis announced big changes — but are they really?

The Women’s Tennis Association just launched a “comprehensive rebrand” of the WTA Tour that includes a new logo, new slogan and, more interestingly, new names for its tournament tiers. So goodbye to confusing designations like Premier Mandatory, Premier 5, Premier and International. Tournaments that fell into those first two tiers are being merged into the new WTA 1,000 category. The old Premier events are now WTA 500, and International is WTA 250.

At first glance, this is a good call. It’s easier for fans to understand numbers than to, say, decipher the difference in quality between a Premier 5 and just plain Premier event. But the new naming system isn’t as airtight as it might look, and it could lead to some unintended consequences for the WTA.

The main reason given for switching to the numbered tiers is that the men’s ATP Tour does it this way and it makes sense to align with them. Sounds good, but the reason an ATP 1,000 event is called that is because the winner earns 1,000 rankings points. Same idea for ATP 500 and ATP 250. But the women’s tour isn’t making corresponding changes to the points awarded at the newly-named events. They’ll stay the same as they are now. So, for example, the winner of the Miami Open (a Premier Mandatory under the old nomenclature) will still earn 1,000 points. And the winner of the Canada-hosted Rogers Cup (formerly a Premier 5) still gets 900. Even though they’re both WTA 1,000 events now. So much for eliminating confusion among fans.

Then there’s a thornier issue: prize money. Equal pay was the core issue for Billie Jean King and the other women who launched the precursor to the WTA Tour 50 years ago. And tennis loves to trumpet the equal purses awarded at several of its events, including all four Grand Slams. By pro-sports standards, that puts tennis on the vanguard of gender equality. So give it credit.

But what’s often ignored is how some other men’s and women’s events that are seemingly on equal footing don’t pay the same. A great example is the Rogers Cup. The men’s and women’s tournaments take place in different cities (alternating between Toronto and Montreal) but they’re played at the same time under the same name. And yet, the last time they were held, in 2019, Rafael Nadal earned $1.049 million US for winning the men’s tourney while Bianca Andreescu got only $521,530 — half as much — for winning the women’s.

This is where a lot of people say Yeah, but the men’s tournament brings in more revenue from sponsorships, TV rights, etc., than the women’s. This is true for the Rogers Cup and most other events that feature both a men’s and a women’s draw. But it’s not the justification tennis gave. Instead, the devil was in the details of the promise the sport made years ago to pay equal prize money for men’s and women’s tournaments held under the same name — if those tournaments are of equal importance.

That last part is the key. The men’s Rogers Cup is an ATP Tour Masters 1,000 event — so worth 1,000 rankings points to the winner. The women’s Rogers Cup was a WTA Premier 5 event — worth 900 points to the winner. Since it’s not as important in terms of rankings points, it’s OK for the women’s event to pay less than the men’s. This wouldn’t fly at the Grand Slams, which are worth 2,000 points to both the men’s and women’s winners. Nor at Indian Wells, Miami or Madrid, where the winners each get 1,000 points.

Which brings us back to the WTA tournament name changes. Just as the rankings points awarded in the old Premier 5 events aren’t being automatically levelled up to the old Premier Mandatory ones — even though they’re all called WTA 1,000 now — it’s the same with prize money.

This could cause the sport some headaches. Before, whether you agreed with the practice or not, at least tennis could lean on the differently named tiers of men’s and women’s events as an indication (if not a justification) of their varying quality and pay structures. But now that the tiers are named pretty much identically — WTA 1,000 and ATP 1,000 — it might become harder to explain to everyone why the women earn less.

Us trying to figure out the difference between Premier Mandatory and Premier 5. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Quickly…

Canadian soccer coaches and media made the easiest call ever. They voted Alphonso Davies the winner of the men’s share of Canada Soccer’s Canadian Players of the Year Award. Davies, who turned 20 last month, had probably the best season ever by a member of the Canadian men’s national team, playing a key role in Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga and Champions League titles and winning the German league’s rookie of the year award for 2019-20. The women’s half of the Canadian Players of the Year Award will be announced tomorrow. Read more about Davies here.

Mikael Kingsbury is hurt. For years, we’ve wondered if anything could stop the greatest moguls skier of all time from continuing to pad his record World Cup victory totals. Turns out, a fractured spine. The Canadian revealed today that he cracked two vertebrae while training for this weekend’s season opener in Finland, which will result in his missing an event for the first time in his World Cup career. Kingsbury is expected to be out four to six weeks, which covers the first three events of the season. Read more about his injury here and watch the moguls opener live Saturday at 9 a.m. ET here.

The Rockets and Wizards swapped problems. John Wall and Russell Westbrook both have contracts that guarantee them $80 million US over the next two years, plus a player option of more than $45 million for the following year. In this economy? Those payouts would be hard enough to swallow if they were going to LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard. But Wall hasn’t played in nearly two years because of injuries and Westbrook still wants to be treated like an MVP even though he’s four years removed from winning one he probably didn’t deserve. Houston and Washington found a solution, though: swap ’em for each other. So Wall and a lottery-protected first-round pick are heading to the Rockets and Westbrook to the Wizards. Read more here about a deal that would have been a blockbuster three years ago but is now just kind of sad.

And finally…

Beth Harmon > Bobby Fischer?

The Queen’s Gambit is a massive hit for Netflix, and it’s inspiring a lot of people to take up chess. Sales of sets and books are way up since the show came out in late October. On a more anecdotal level, the president of the Calgary Chess Club told CBC’s Jackson Weaver that he hasn’t seen this much interest in the game since Fischer’s heyday in the ’70s.

The fact that the show’s protagonist (and most gifted chess player) is a young woman also seems to be broadening the game’s appeal — perhaps in a way even Fischer never did. But some of the sexism depicted in the 1950s-and-’60s-set story still exists in real life. Canadian chess champion Qiyu Zhou — a Harmonesque figure who’s only 20 and won a Finnish national title at age five — says she receives more criticism than her male counterparts during her popular chess streams on the Twitch platform. But she still sees the beauty and magnetism of a game she calls “an art, a science and a sport, all in one.” Read more here about how The Queen’s Gambit could change the male-dominated chess world here.

New on CBC Sports

Bring It In with Morgan Campbell: If you like to hear smart people with smart angles on the places where sports, culture, business, politics and race collide, check out this show. In the debut episode, Morgan talks with boxing commentator Corey Erdman about how last weekend’s Mike Tyson “comeback” fight was also an infomercial for a short-video app that’s hoping to unseat TikTok — and has links to the Trump administration. Then, basketball broadcaster Meghan McPeak and sports/politics commentator Dave Zirin discuss the value of novelty sporting events, Sarah Fuller’s historic college-football kickoff and more. Watch the show here:

In the pilot episode of Bring It In with Morgan Campbell, panelists Meghan McPeak and Dave Zirin discuss the history made by Sarah Fuller, debate the need for novelty events in sports and participate in a rapid game of In or Out on this week’s biggest stories. 34:24

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