04 Oct 2016 17:28 IST

A bold experiment in tennis streaming may help answer a vexing question

A simple business answer to a complicated social question

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) is an exclusive organisation for male players and holds over 2,000 matches across 63 ATP World Tour tournaments, annually. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) is a similar umbrella organisation for female players.

Many of the world’s top tennis tournaments feature both the male and female players, with the ground staff quickly changing court logos when a men’s match ends leading to a women’s match.

Tennis and sexism

Hardcore sports fans were surprised, earlier this year, when a feud broke out between the men’s and women’s sides. It started when a veteran tennis operative, Raymond Moore — the tournament director for the prestigious Indian Wells championship for a number of years — suggested that WTA players “ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky.” He went on to add that female players should go down on their knees to thank male stars like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for carrying the sport.

Reaction to such a blatantly sexist comment was extremely swift. Serena Williams, a tennis icon whose records will probably never be equalled, quickly used her star power to denounce Moore saying his statements were “very, very, very inaccurate.”

Novak Djokovic, the reigning top-ranked player in men’s tennis, appeared to side with Moore. He said that while he thought women should get admiration and respect for what they do on the court, he believed that there was data that supported the notion that men bring in more fans to their matches. In the ensuing furore, he dialled back his comments some and apologised.

Consequences

The immediate controversy ended almost as quickly as it started. Corporate sponsors like BNP Paribas do not want needless distractions harming their brands and the messages that they convey. They moved to bring pressure on Larry Ellison, the wealthy billionaire founder of Oracle and the owner of the Indian Wells tournament, to punish Moore for his insensitive comments.

Not wanting to have Moore participate in the prize ceremonies at the end of the tournament, Ellison immediately fired Moore, the man who, as a long-time director, had built Indian Wells to be one of the best tennis events in the world. Ellison’s action brought an immediate end to an illustrious tennis career in which Moore won eight doubles titles including the Davis Cup for South Africa in 1974.

But the vexing questions remained. Was Moore making sense? Or was Serena accurate when she lent her immense sports political capital to put an end to a larger social issue of pay inequality for women?

There are several facts to consider.

The first is that the men’s and women’s games are decidedly different. In the big Grand Slam matches held four times a year in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York, the men play best of five sets, while the women play best of three. Other than Serena's a few top women’s players, the men’s game is generally faster and more gruelling. The top men's servers routinely clock speeds of exceeding 130 miles per hour. Racquet head speeds can generate over 90 mph return winners.

However, the women’s tour is just as exciting, where fitness, finesse and creativity — like net play and delicate shot positioning — bring excitement to the court. And for today’s fans suffering from attention deficit disorder, a two-hour women’s tennis match ends relatively quickly as opposed to a four and a half hour long hour marathon, when a men’s contest goes to five sets.

In the last 12 years, men’s tennis has benefited from legendary rivalries (Federer-Nadal; Djokovic-Murray) as the storyline becomes one about domination. Sports fans love super heroes (Kohli, Tendulkar, Ponting) and the drama that goes with their rise and fall. On the women's side, there hasn’t been anyone yet who has come close to challenging Serena’s domination. Maria Sharapova showed promise, but she is out because of a doping suspension until next January. Victoria Azarenka was returning to fame, but had to take a leave of absence from the tour because of her pregnancy. Genie Bouchard and Caroline Wozniacki are great when they are going but are too inconsistent.

So who is right? Moore or Serena?

Well, we’re about to find out.

The split

Today, a subscriber to Tennis TV can get to watch both ATP and WTA matches streamed live, but starting 2017 the ATP and the WTA have decided to end their partnership to jointly stream to their web audiences. Tennis TV fans have to buy separate subscriptions to ATP and WTA streaming, even if matches are held at the same physical location on the same day. In essence, subscribers holding only ATP streaming access rights will see their screens go dark when women players come on the court for their match.

Serena’s and Djokovic’s diabolically opposite assertions as to who — ATP or WTA — is directly responsible for bringing in more money to professional tennis will be easily tested. The clue would lie in comparing how much revenue the ATP and WTA collect from their 2017 streaming businesses — provided this information is made public.

A simple business answer to a complicated social question about gender contribution and outcome; it can’t get any better than this.

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