Rafael Nadal thinks viewership should determine men's and women's tennis earnings

On the same weekend Rafael Nadal won a record 11th French Open title, the world’s No. 1 men’s tennis player made headlines, telling an Italian magazine that the question of whether women’s players should be paid equally is “a comparison we shouldn’t even make” because of the viewership disparity.

Nadal’s argument invoked the discrepancy in pay between male and female models:

Do men’s tennis players outdraw the women?

Television ratings for the French Open finals have yet to be published, but the men’s final at the Australian Open in January between Roger Federer and Marin Cilic drew almost 25 percent more viewers than the women’s final between Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep. Both aired on ESPN.

This has not always been the case at Grand Slam events, where the Williams sisters and other stars have often been the bigger draw in recent years. At the U.S. Open, for example, the women’s final drew more television viewers than the men every year from 2010-14, according to Sports Media Watch.

On average, though, the men’s ATP World Tour events have generated significantly larger audiences and more revenue than the women’s WTA Tour. According to statistics compiled by BBC, the ATP drew 973 million viewers in 2015 compared to the WTA’s 395 million, both excluding Grand Slam events.

Rafael Nadal through the years
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Rafael Nadal through the years
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JANUARY 16: Rafael Nadal of Spain eyes up a backhand return against Jiri Novak of the Czech Republic in their semi-final match at the Heineken Open in Auckland, New Zealand on January 16, 2004. Nadal knocked out the fancied Novak 6-1, 6-3. (Photo by Nigel Marple/Getty Images)
ALICANTE, SPAIN: Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating France's Arnaud Clement in their fourth match of the Davis Cup semi final between Spain and France 26 September 2004 in Alicante. Spain advanced to the 2004 Davis Cup final taking an unbeatable 3-1 lead over France. Spain's Rafael Nadal beat Arnaud Clement 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 in two hours, 12 minutes to book a second consecutive spot in the final which they will host against the United States from December 3-5. It will be the fifth Davis Cup final for Spain who were runners-up in 1965, 1967 and 2003, and winners in 2000. AFP PHOTO / JOSE JORDAN (Photo credit should read JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 23: Portrait of Rafael Nadal of Spain taken on May 23, 2004 during the French Open Tennis Championships at Roland Garros in Paris, France. (Photo by John Gichigi/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 20: Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates match point against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day four of the Australian Open Grand Slam at Melbourne Park January 20, 2005 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
KEY BISCAYNE, FL - APRIL 03: Rafael Nadal of Spain wipes his brow during play against Roger Federer of Switzerland in the men's final during the NASDAQ-100 Open at the Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 3, 2005 in Key Biscayne, Florida. Federer won the match 2-6, 6(4)-7(7), 6-3, 6-1 (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
LONDON, United Kingdom: Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts after winning a point Irkli Labadze of Georgia during the 4th round of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, in south London, 03 July 2006. AFP PHOTO/GLENN CAMPBELL (Photo credit should read GLENN CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images)
Melbourne, AUSTRALIA: World number two Rafael Nadal of Spain eyes the ball as he serves during a practice session in the lead-up to the Australian Open in Melbourne, 12 January 2007. Nadal had a successful year in 2006 winning five titles including the French Open and is seeded second in this year's Australian Open. AFP PHOTO/Paul CROCK (Photo credit should read PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal of Spain returns the ball in his game against Fernando Gonzalez of Chile during their men's tennis match on day eight of the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 26, 2009. Top seed Rafael Nadal maintained his perfect record as he swept past Chile's Fernando Gonzalez and into the Australian Open quarter-finals. Nadal, who is yet to drop a set, dominated the 2007 finalist 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 to advance to a last-eight clash with France's Gilles Simon as he seeks his first hard-court Grand Slam win. AFP PHOTO / WILLIAM WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal (L) and Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas attend a press conference during a Red Cross media event against malaria at Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, 30 November 2007. AFP PHOTO / JAVIER SORIANO (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish world number two Rafael Nadal serves to Italy's Simone Bolelli on the second day of the Qatar Open in Doha on January 5, 2010. Nadal started the 2010 ATP World Tour with a comfortable-looking draw against the world number 93 from Italy - and with his projected semi-final opponent suddenly removed. The fourth-seeded Mikhail Youzhny fell at the first hurdle against Sergiy Stakhovsky, the former US Open junior finalist, an outcome which may be more helpful to Nadal than it may at first seem, since the Russian demolished him in the opening week of the 2008 season in the Chennai final. AFP PHOTO/KARIM JAAFAR (Photo credit should read KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Spain's tennis player Rafael Nadal (2nd L) poses next to French State Secretary for Sport Rama Yade (2nd R), France's National Assembly president Bernard Accoyer and French Tennis federation president Jean Gachassin, after being awarded by the French Sports Academy with the performance of the year 2008 prize, on November 9, 2009 in Paris. AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 27: Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts during the men's singles round robin match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena on November 27, 2009 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Spain's Rafael Nadal (L) celebrate holding the David Cup trophy next to tammate David Ferrer after winning the Davis Cup final against Argentina at La Cartuja Olympic stadium in Sevilla on December 4, 2011. Spain's Rafael Nadal got the winning point as Spain won a fifth Davis Cup. The world number two beat Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro to give the hosts an unbeatable 3-1 lead, rallying from a set down to see off the 2009 US Open champion 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (7/0). AFP PHOTO/JAVIER SORIANO AFP PHOTO / CRISTINA QUICLER (Photo credit should read CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal of Spain views the ball as he serves to Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium during their second round match in the ATP Thailand Open tennis tournament in Bangkok on September 30, 2010. Nadal beat Bemelmans 6-1, 6-4. AFP PHOTO/PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL (Photo credit should read PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Spain's Rafael Nadal returns the ball to Switzerland's Roger Federer (not pictured), during their singles final tennis match, on the last day of the ATP World Tour Finals, at the O2, in south-east London on November 28, 2010. AFP PHOTO / IAN KINGTON (Photo credit should read IAN KINGTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal of Spain serves during his men's finals match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia at the 2011 US Open tennis tournament September 12, 2011 in New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal during a press conference of the Brazil Open in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on February 12, 2012. Nadal played in Chile winning doubles but lost his final after being away more than 7 months due to his left knee injure. AFP PHOTO/Yasuyoshi CHIBA (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)
LIMA, PERU - NOVEMBER 17: Rafael Nadal of Spain waves to the audience after an exhibition at Jockey Club on November 17, 2013 in Lima, Peru. (Photo by Gabriel Rossi/LatinContent/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - OCTOBER 03: Rafael Nadal of Spain leaves the court after losing his match against Martin Klizan of Slovakia during during day seven of the China Open at the National Tennis Center on October 3, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros - Paris, France - 12/06/17 - Spain's Rafael Nadal poses with the trophy near the Eiffel Tower, a day after winning the tournament. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

How do the ATP and WTA tours operate?

The two entities are separate businesses, and last year the WTA left the Tennis Channel for a deal with beIN Sports. Additionally, the WTA ended an online streaming partnership with the ATP to create its own service in hopes of generating revenue independently. Prize money is reportedly determined by each tournament’s sponsorship deals, TV rights packages, ticket sales and on-site concession sales.

All four Grand Slam competitions — the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open — have paid men and women equally since 2007. (The U.S. Open was the first to do so in 1973, and Wimbledon was the last more than a decade ago.) A handful of other high-profile events follow suit.

The same cannot be said about the prize packages at dozens of other tournaments worldwide every year. The ATP World Tour scheduled 68 tournaments this year, while the WTA Tour will feature 58.

According to a FiveThirtyEight.com study on tennis income inequality in 2014, “only 336 men and 253 women made more than they spent playing tennis” in 2013. “The ITF estimates that the 4,978 men who won some prize money last year but weren’t in the top 1 percent earned, on average, a little over $13,000. The bottom 99 percent of the 2,650 women who earned prize money averaged about $22,600.”

Novak Djokovic made similar comments in 2015

Nadal isn’t the first high-profile men’s player to argue that viewership should determine prize deals. In 2015, after Indian Wells tournament director Raymond Moore said, “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” — comments that led to his resignation — former men’s world No. 1 player Novak Djokovic called those remarks “not politically correct,” added of equal pay for women:

“I applaud them for that, I honestly do. They fought for what they deserve and they got it. On the other hand I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more. Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve.”

Nadal’s comments, interpreted through an Italian magazine profile, weren’t so expansive, but the gist of them — that whoever draws more viewers should earn a higher salary — seems to follow what Djokovic said in 2015, when he clarified that women should be paid more if they outdraw the men.

The history of the equal pay debate in tennis

Billie Jean King famously established the WTA in 1973, securing equal pay for women at the U.S. Open that year, and the topic has been hotly debated since. This is especially true in recent years, when more attention has been paid to the wage gap between men and women in other professional fields.

An argument could be made that the societal framework that led to King’s revolt — higher pay for men and a greater marketing focus paid to men’s players — established a stigma of inferiority in terms of the aesthetics of women’s tennis from which it and other sports are still fighting against. This would be one of many cases for equal pay for equal work, regardless of who draws the greater TV audience.

Still, there are those that will argue, among other things, that if prize packages are split evenly among men and women, regardless of who generates more revenue, then doubles and wheelchair champions should also be paid equally. Arguments for and against equal pay will inevitably be made in circles.

In 2015, when Moore’s sexist comments reopened the debate about equal pay to a national audience, women’s No. 1 player Serena Williams had a more forceful response than Djokovic at the time:

“Obviously I don’t think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that. I don’t think that is a very accurate statement.

“I think there is a lot of women out there who are very exciting to watch. I think there are a lot of men out there who are very exciting to watch. I think it definitely goes both ways. I think those remarks are very much mistaken and very, very, very inaccurate.

“Last year the women’s final at the US Open sold out well before the men. I’m sorry, did Roger play in that final or Rafa or any man play in a final that was sold out before the men’s final? I think not. There’s only one way to interpret that. Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and thank a man, which is not — we, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”

A year later, when the United States women’s national soccer team filed a wage discrimination lawsuit seeking equal pay to the men, King said of tennis to The New York Times, “We have a chance to continue to lead. To have equal prize money in the majors sends a message. It’s not about the money, it’s about the message.” Nadal’s latest comments ensured that message continues to be a mixed one.

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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