Tennis players want more money? It’s not as absurd as it sounds | Greg Jericho

Income inequality is not normally an issue that arises much thought during the Australian Open, but this week inequality, as it is in much of the rest of society, has reared its head in tennis, and with it has come talk also of the need for a stronger unionisation of workers.

It is easy to scoff when talk arose this week that Novak Djokovic had reportedly called for a formation of a new players union that would split from the ATP – an organisation that both represents the players and also organises the tournaments – in order to get the players a greater share of the tournament revenue.

More money? This from a man with career earnings above US$110m while playing at a tournament where the loser in the first round earns A$60,000.

But such numbers hide the real story of professional tennis.

The sport is built on hundreds of players winning bugger all, and leaving the sport due to costs and an inability to actually earn a living. Professional tennis, like all professions, is made up of workers who are mostly unobserved by the broader public.

Rather than Melbourne Park centre court, most players find themselves in places such as glamorous Elizabeth playing in the “City of Playford Tennis International” which, if they win will earn them $10,800. Lose in the first round – as half the field always does in a tennis tournament – and the cheque is for $780.

While the money in tennis is great for those at the top, the drop off is stark and very much so compared to other high profile individual sports.

Running around some tennis court being watched by no one except a few local members is not the usual image of professional tennis, but it is the foundation of the tour. All players come through the Futures and Challenger circuits before getting their ranking high enough to get entry into the qualifying draw of an ATP tour event. But doing so costs a lot of money.

In truth, it is a hell of a life. Why anyone does it is beyond me. Barely more than 200 men a year earn more than the average Australian full-time earnings, and yet without those masses of players living out of a suitcase and playing in small tournaments around the world, the ATP tour would atrophy.

And the drop off in earnings for players is stark – especially when you compare it to another individual sport like golf:

One hundred and thirty men on the USPGA tour earned more than did the 50th best players on the ATP tour in 2017.

In 2017, 42 men on the ATP tour earned over US$1m, compared to 102 on the USPGA. And that is not including the European golf tour, which had 40 players earn over $1m.

On the PGA tour in 2017, the 150th highest money earner Michael Thompson, earned US$568,991, by contrast the 150th highest earner on the ATP tour last year was German Yannick Hanfmann – he took home US$144,674.

Now, yes, that still is a lot of money – more than double the average male full-time earnings in Australia. But whereas Thompson won his money travelling around the USA, Hanfmann spent his time in 2017 playing in 16 different countries – from his home of Germany to the USA, Japan, China, Mexico, Kazakstan and Panama. Travelling to Panama is a long way to go to earn US$860.

It’s enough to make you think you should dream of your future child becoming a golfer rather than a tennis player.

But not so fast … first you best not assume your child will be a boy. If she is a girl, tennis is the way to go.

Female tennis players consistently earn more than their golfing peers

In 2017, the 100th best female tennis player last year took home US$368,628 – helped by playing a mixture of singles and doubles – compared to US$98,261 earned by the 100th best golfer on the US LPGA tour. Respectable sure, but not so much that your dreams of retiring off your child’s earnings are going to come true.

Indeed the parity of earnings for men and women in tennis is quite clear – only Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal really stand out as earning greatly more than their equivalent ranked women in 2017 (of course we’re not counting sponsorships)

In golf however, the best men earn astronomically more than their female peers:

Forty-one men on the PGA tour earned more than the top earner on the LPGA, compared to only three men on the ATP tour earning more than Venus Williams in 2017.

There is not much that can be done to change this. Men and women have always played at grand slams concurrently, in a way that is not possible for a golf tournament. And it is not really an issue unless you are a male player who thinks he deserves more than a woman.

I’ve never been a big fan of the “men play best of five, they should get paid more” argument. The reality is if you took women out of the tournament, the grand slams would quickly lose any lustre. The reason people who don’t normally care about tennis tune in for these two weeks is the importance of the event – and that event is important because both men and women are there.

It’s similar to how athletics is always the biggest event in the Olympics, but if you took away the other smaller events you would just have an athletics world championships which most people give barely a stuff about.

The case for tennis players earning more money is well worth considering. But as with all cases of income, the issue really isn’t the top earners, but inequality. And while tennis has done very well with inequality across genders, the disparity between the top and the poorest remains massive. And for that, joining a union is a very smart step.

Greg Jericho is a Guardian Australia columnist