By Mark Hyman No sporting event on earth boasts rituals as time-tested as those of Wimbledon. From the fans who still show up in proper tennis whites to concession stands that dish up strawberries and cream, Wimbledon remains an annual trip to another era.
That's great, up to a point. But in one key area, Wimbledon's slavish devotion to tradition is as disappointing as a foot fault at match point. The women's singles champ at this year's tournament, which ends July 7, will pocket a not-too-shabby $700,000. But according to the All England Club, the private society of tennis connoisseurs that stages Wimbledon, the men's singles champ will take home $756,000.
If you're asking why a tourney that rakes in profits of about $50 million unashamedly shorts its woman champ a measly 56 grand, don't look for answers here. At least, not the kind that make sense.
"STUBBORN OLD GUYS." Wimbledon does because Wimbledon can. "It is a bit insulting. It's not as if the tournament can't afford it," says Bud Collins, veteran sports journalist and tennis analyst for NBC. Adds Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation: "I'd say they're just a bunch of stubborn old guys over there."
Of the four major tennis championships, Wimbledon and the French Open are the holdouts for unequal pay. The U.S. Open blazed a trail for women's equality 30 years ago, when Billie Jean King was at the top of her game. The Australian Open, an off-again, on-again proponent of pay equity, balanced its prize money again this year.
Wimbledon, on the other hand, has a foot stuck in the past, even though it began including women in its storied championship in 1884. In those early days, women's tennis was as much curiosity as competition. The top ladies traded volleys while dressed like dolls, in flouncy skirts and high collars. Deep-sea divers wear less to work than Lottie Dod did as Wimbledon champ in 1887.
LESS WORK, SAME PAY? What really makes the inequality in pay difficult to fathom is this: Women's tennis is where the action is. The top players have powerful games and personal stories to match. Nothing on the men's side compares with the comeback tale of Jennifer Capriati. And the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, are so ubiquitous that fans no longer bother with their last names -- just like Tiger and Shaq.
U.S. Open officials are even discussing a first -- moving this year's women's final to Monday night in prime time. That follows a Serena vs. Venus women's final at the French Open that pulled in twice the viewers of the men's title match, even though NBC ran the all-Williams showdown on a two-hour tape delay.
The old reasons for denying women their cut of the cake haven't gone away. There's the argument that it's fair to offer less pay for less work: The women play best-of-three-set finals to best-of-five for the men. Then there is the valid observation that outside the U.S., interest in women's tennis, though expanding, still runs second to the men's game.
WHO'S "OUT OF LINE"? Wimbledon officials are hardly backing off. Tournament officers declined to comment for this article. But in an April interview with The Times of London, Wimbledon Chairman Tim Phillips intimated that the majors that reward men and women equally are the ones that have some explaining to do -- not Wimbledon. "The tournaments that are out of line are the U.S. Open and the Australian -- no other event in the world pays the women the same prize money," Phillips said.
Those words don't sit well with five-time Wimbledon doubles champ Pam Shriver. She has been chafing at the tourney's dual-payday policy for years. "The club is male-dominated, traditional. If you did a demographic [study], it would be fifth-generation wealthy," Shriver says. "It's really frustrating. I don't know how you change the infrastructure."
Speaking up might be good first step. Ladies, tennis anyone? Hyman is BusinessWeek's contributing editor for Sports Business