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WTA celebrates 30 years of growth, struggle

WTA celebrates 30 years of growth, struggle

By Cynthia Faulkner

As all revolutions do, the birth of the WTA took time to develop. It was in 1970 that Billie Jean King and eight other women decided to break away because of the disparity in tournament purses. After realizing the Pacific South West Open men's champion was going to earn more than eight times what the women's champion did, they decided it was time to leave. Then in 1973, in a London hotel room during Wimbledon, the WTA came into being.

Billie Jean King is still leading the charge for women in sports.

It's 30 years later and once again, the WTA has returned to Los Angeles, this time for a season-ending tournament with a top prize of $1 million -- equaling the biggest payout ever. And although they've come a long way from where they've been, there's room to grow.

"We still have a ways to go as far as opportunity," King said recently. "You remember, tennis is international, so it really does reflect the international landscape and climate, not just the United States."

Although the women have recently drawn better ratings than the men in the finals of Grand Slam tournaments -- in large part due to the success and appeal of the Williams sisters -- two of the four biggest tournaments of the year, the French Open and Wimbledon, still don't offer equal prize money.

King often compares the disparity in what the women make in comparison to the men to what women in the United States generally make on the dollar compared to men in the same jobs. Women make around 77 to 78 cents on the dollar compared to men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By that comparison women's tennis is about the same. In 2003, the WTA Tour offered $52 million in prize money -- quite a step up from the $775,000 offered in 1973, worth about 3.2 million today. In 2003, the men could earn about 70 million in prize money. That's a difference of 74 cents on the dollar.

The explanation for unequal pay at the the French Open and Wimbledon is that the men play five sets instead of three. However, WTA CEO Larry Scott, who took over the role in March, told ESPN that it is his understanding there's been a "standing offer" by the women to play five sets, although he has yet to reiterate the offer.

What he's doing instead is working toward a promise he made to unify the ITF, the four majors, the ATP and the WTA.

"The sport can only reach its true potential if all the governing bodies are working in greater harmony," Scott told The Associated Press shortly after taking over the position from Kevin Wulff, who quit after only 18 months.

Scott faces several difficulties:

The Tour lacks a sponsor. Ironically enough when the Tour began they found a sponsor in Virginia Slims, eager to promote their "You've come a long way, baby," marketing campaign. Virginia Slims served as a faithful sponsor until it no longer became politically feasible for athletes to be associated with a cigarette company. The Tour hasn't had a sponsor since Sanex severed its connection at the end of 2002.

Schedule. Put together two tours, multiple tournaments around the world, four national governing bodies and one international federation and try to come up with a feasible schedule that won't overwork the players. Oh yeah, and hold the interest of the public. What Scott and others in the WTA would like to see are actually more joint tournaments with the men, including possibly the year-end tournaments that seem to get lost in the public perception once the U.S. Open is complete.

Marketing. At Wimbledon, the WTA unveiled its most comprehensive marketing campaign in 30 years. Plus the campaign markets the women as athletes instead of the half-dressed, glamour shots seen previously.

Serena Williams shows off the WTA's new marketing campaign.

"It's selling us for what we are," Capriati said at the campaign's unveiling.

And Scott is apparently having some success impressing even vocal critics of the WTA's policies like Martina Navratilova, who once suggested they blow the whole organization up and start over. When asked during the U.S. Open about the future of the WTA, Navratilova uncharacteristically held back.

"The game the women are playing is fantastic," Navratilova said. "They're great athletes, great competitors, great personalties, diverging backgrounds, etc., etc.

"We have the product. How you market it, that's another story. I think we're going in the right direction now, in more of the ability of the women rather than how they look, which is where the emphasis should be."

Other steps Scott has undertaken includes restructuring the WTA Tour Board, signing a licensing deal with string manufacturer Luxilon and a partnership with apparel and shoe manufacturer Lotto Sport Italia, selling the Tier II Scottsdale tournament to Doha for a record $4.5 million and making improvements to the player commitment system for tournaments.

The tournament schedule is a continuing point of contention among the women and the men. Many feel a season that begins in January and ends in November is just too long. Athletes feel they have little time for their bodies to rest and recover.

"I think a lot of the girls, the number of tournaments they're playing are going higher and higher," Davenport said at the Open before taking time off this fall for foot surgery. "I think not only that, there's such a level of competition to try and get in better shape or to improve your game on your weeks off or in the offseason that I think it's very rare that a girl, or male for that matter, would take a solid week or two weeks off (in season) and not do anything and really let the body totally heal.

"I think you're always trying to keep in shape, keep on up, keep trying to get better. I think eventually it just takes a toll on the body to where it breaks down."

As crowd-pleasers, Venus and Serena Williams are an important part of the WTA's current success.

Justine Henin-Hardenne feels that the offseason, which is shortened by two weeks if you agree to play Fed Cup, doesn't leave time to prepare for the next year.

"I think it would be perfect if we could get the season to end at the end of October," Henin-Hardenne said recently.

"I need some rest before my preparation in Florida and my next goal, after the Championships, is to be ready for 2004."

Yet, it's important for the popularity of the Tour to increase the player's visibility by appearing often on the court and off.

"Another key is, of course, for Serena Williams and Venus Williams to play more," Navratilova said. "You've got to support the tour."

Although the women on today's Tour do a lot to promote tennis it somehow seems its not enough to compete with all the demands for people's leisure time. Plus the women aren't just competing with the ATP for attention -- tennis overall competes for newspaper inches and TV time with big sports like the NFL, NBA and MLB.

"They do a lot more than people think," King said.

However, King said she'd like to see a school created to teach rookies how to deal with the media. That's likely to happen as Scott is the creator of the ATP's media boot camp.

"A real proper rookie school that would really help the player get started off correctly," King explained. "Even an older player can come back and brush up on how to do interviews, etc., understanding budgets and tournaments and what a sponsor expects."

Despite the difficulties, the key elements are there for the WTA to keep improving. In 30 years, the WTA has broadly expanded its income, its fan base and the number of women interested in playing.

"We're truly international now," King said. "So a little girl in any country that wants to be a professional player, and if she's good enough, there's a place for her to play now."

And should be for another 30 years or more.

Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.
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