Professional women’s tennis players make as much as the men do at all four Grand Slams. And the most successful American players are women: Serena Williams has 22 career major titles while her sister, Venus, has seven; no American man in this year’s U.S. Open draw has reached a major semifinal. At this year’s Open, like last year’s, by far the biggest story to watch is Serena Williams’s. Last year she was looking to tie the Open-era record for major titles and win all four in the same year; this year she’s looking to break the record.
And yet the people who are telling the story of this tournament to the world are mostly men. Among the nearly 1,500 people who received media accreditation for the tournament, including broadcast staff, and who indicated whether they prefer to be referred to as “Mr.” or “Ms.,” 73 percent chose “Mr.,” according to Chris Widmaier, spokesman for the U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the tournament. And a count I did in the media work spaces and stadium seats on Thursday afternoon showed that about 78 percent of the people present were men. Freelance tennis writer Ana Mitric, who contributes to the Serbian media outlet B92 and has written about sexism in tennis, provided a second pair of eyes, reviewing video of nine player press conferences on Saturday and counting men and women among the media in attendance. At women players’ press conferences, 67 percent of media were men; the figure was 82 percent at men’s. 1
“Our goal is to make tennis look like America,” Widmaier said — including by gender and race. He put the onus on media to achieve that: “I hope media organizations are following recruitment protocols to ensure their people look like America.” It’s a point well taken. I’m a white man and the only reporter in Flushing for FiveThirtyEight; producer Jorge Estrada, a Latino man, is also accredited for FiveThirtyEight.
Women make up a larger share of the tennis media at the U.S. Open than they do of people covering some other sports — a 2014 report found that just 13 percent of sports staffers for U.S. newspapers and websites in the U.S. are women. And women fill an even smaller share of executive positions with major international sports bodies. Carole Bouchard, a French freelance writer who has covered 20 majors on site, said the gender gap has narrowed in her 12 years covering tennis, but that it “would be ridiculous to say that there aren’t consequences.”
The ways in which having far more men than women in tennis media threatens the coherence of coverage are all around. Take, for instance, the continued attention paid to debates about equal prize money, or the casual discussion of women players’ looks. How the sport is covered by the people who tell its story affects how much of the total interest and revenue paid to tennis goes to women’s tennis, and when men so outnumber women in the telling of the sport’s story, it can put a thumb on the scale in the consuming.
Women I spoke with who cover mixed-gender tennis tournaments said the share of men among the media at other tournaments they’ve covered is at least as big as at the U.S. Open — roughly 80 to 85 percent, they estimated.2 “I am used to it,” said Bouchard.
“This is a topic I hadn’t thought about much before you asked, and now I can’t help but look around and notice this,” said Bobby Chintapalli, a freelance writer who covers primarily women’s tennis for USA Today and other publications, over email. “Which is why when it comes to topics like this, I think awareness is key; it’s often a first step to improving a situation naturally.”
Lindsay Gibbs, sports reporter at ThinkProgress and contributing tennis editor at Excelle Sports who has written about sexism in tennis, wrote in an email, “Sports culture is not the most welcoming for women, and that bleeds into the media, which has always been seen as a ‘boys’ club.’ It’s a global issue.”
The gender gap also might make some men think the press room is an appropriate venue for sexism or harassment. “There can be a very ‘boys’ club’ vibe,” Mitric said, “including banter & other behavior that verges on, if not crosses over into, the inappropriate.”
Bouchard also said media members who are parents might be put off by the travel demanded by covering a global sport — and because of cultural expectations of mothers, that might dissuade more moms than dads.
“Another gendered split I’ve noticed — and one that is just as important — is that more men are in positions of power, whether that’s in terms of seniority or status,” said Mitric.
Mitric doesn’t believe in quotas but echoes Widmaier’s call for outlets to step up recruitment of women, as well as the mentoring and promoting of them. She also said it’s up to men covering the sport to learn its history, which includes the rise of the WTA, the long fight for equal prize money and sexism in advertising and coverage of the sport; while she sees a rise in women’s voices around the sport, including on Twitter, she worries some men now see gender issues as covered and don’t bother with them themselves. “I think tennis media often fall short in connecting the sport to the larger world around it — and not only when it comes to gender,” Mitric said by email.
ESPN, which owns FiveThirtyEight and which broadcasts the tournament in the U.S., has five women and nine men on air during the Open, according to ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle, plus a woman, Prim Siripipat, appearing in videos reporting on the tournament for ESPN.com. Nagle added that two match producers, managing producer, senior highlights producer, the lead producer on features and the production coordinator are women, as are many associate producers, graphic coordinators, social media producers and production assistants. (Of the 35 people accredited through ESPN.com — writers, editors and others not involved with the TV side, and not counting Estrada, Siripipat or me — 16 are women.) “ESPN has a long history of being a leader in providing opportunities to women both in front of or behind the camera,” Nagle said. (Widmaier declined to provide the number of journalists accredited from specific news organizations, but said that ESPN is the biggest “by far,” with The New York Times a distant second.)
The frequent flaring of debate about whether women should continue to earn as much prize money as men might be less frequent with more women in the press room, Bouchard said. “Not a lot of men journalists have a huge love for women’s tennis,” she said.
There are some notable exceptions, including several American men who write frequently about the WTA, the overseer of the women’s game worldwide. Also, women covering tennis often write about the men’s game. But even where there isn’t a firewall around gender, the old lines are often assumed to be in place. For instance, Bouchard says she’s had several conversations in which editors express interest in her contributing to their publications, but ask, “Oh, but also you are covering men’s tennis?” To which she replies, “I haven’t told you I am covering women’s tennis.”
Men covering tennis may also discuss women athletes’ bodies differently, for instance talking about their looks. “I’m not sure women journalists would go at it the way men would,” Bouchard said. “Maybe I’m wrong.” To know, there would need to be more women tennis writers, she said.
The media gender gap may help contribute to the growing gap in revenue between the men’s tour and the WTA. (For instance, broadcasters influence scheduling of tournaments, including which matches are featured on show courts, which skews male at some mixed-gender tournaments, notably Wimbledon.)
“Men are still the ones making broadcasting decisions, writing the stories and controlling the narratives,” Gibbs said. “That leads to less coverage of women, which then leads to less people knowing about women’s tennis, which then directly impacts interest. Then, they cite less interest for the reason they don’t broadcast it more or write about it more. It’s a self-defeating cycle.”
It’s a tough cycle to break, and far from the only one tennis is staring down. The vast majority of U.S. Open journalists are white, too. Trying to divine a person’s race at a glance is obviously fraught — as is divining their gender, it should be said — but it’s clear that the media rooms at the U.S. Open are a long way from looking like America. “You could count the number of black people here,” Bouchard said while looking around the workroom where we talked. She added, “The more diversity the better.”