As part of the rebranding venture the WTA Tour announced Wednesday, it will rename its tournament categories.
From the confusing Premier Mandatory, Premier 5, Premier 700, Premier, and International hodgepodge, the tour will finally match up with the ATP in a move that will definitely send a more consistent message from pro tennis.
But while the move makes total sense from a branding perspective, it also opens up a can of worms the WTA doesn’t like to deal with.
It draws more attention to the age-old issue of equal prize money.
The fact that their respective tiers of tournaments will now appear as equals to the outside world will create even more chatter – and criticism – of the vast disparity in prize money that still exists. And that’s even more true at the new 500 and 250 levels than it is at the very top.
Top Premiers =====> 1000
The new “1000” category will blend the current Premier Mandatory and Premier 5 tournaments.
For the regular “Premier” events, the category is now the “500” tier.
There is a difference in points and prize money in the two categories now outwardly blended to make up the top tier.
But in the end, the change is only cosmetic. We’re told that nothing changes in terms of the number of ranking points awarded, or the prize money allocations (other than necessary reductions because of the pandemic).
But if it helps new and prospective tennis fans understand the ecosystem a little better, it’s a good thing just on that score.
As for the issue of prize money, it is going to come up.
Count on it.
As an example, the prize money for the women in Cincinnati and Canada has been significantly lower than that of the concurrent ATP Masters 1000 tournaments.
The biggest reason for that is that those tournaments were “Premier 5” events, with lesser player commitment requirements. And the difference, proportionately, is far more than the 10 per cent different in the ranking points alloted.
But now that will be true right down to the bottom tier. And now, the comparisons will be direct.
The same, but not the same?
The financially justified, but legitimate lack of equality has the subject of plenty of criticism over the last few years as the larger joint events like Indian Wells, Madrid and Miami have moved to equal prize money.
Now that those Premier 5 events will be merged with the Premier Mandatory events to form one category, will there be pressure to increase that prize-money level? And will the WTA player commitments increase as a result? And will the former Premier Mandatory tournaments, which do put out significant prize money, resent the fact that the former Premier 5 tournaments are now considered peers?
All to be determined.
The 2021 WTA Tour schedule, and the relevant details, still haven’t been finalized or released. And given the uncertainty surrounding the Australian Open time frame, this is probably way down the list of concerns.
In a pandemic season, where the prize money pools have dropped significantly even on the ATP Tour to compensate for the fact that the tournaments are being played before tiny crowds, or behind closed doors, that’s going to be interesting.
250 prize money extremes
The 250 level is the old “International” tier, which is most of the WTA Tour.
But at that level, the difference in compensation between the men and women is stark, even if they now have the same numerisation.
The compensation for the women at that level averaged about $250,000 in total (perfect synergy, right?)
But the men’s 250 events unilaterally offer much more.
The minimum prize money threshold for the majority of 250s on the ATP side is close to $600,000. Many offer far more, some over $1 million.
At the new “500” level, the disparity is even more striking.
The 500-level ATP tournaments offer anywhere from $1.7 million U.S. (Washington, D.C.) to nearly $3.5 million (China Open).
The Premier events on the WTA side (now 500s) generally offer about $800,000 in prize money.
The “125” conundrum
The “125” tournaments are already called the WTA 125Ks. So the name change is not a significant one at that level.
They are the equivalent of the high-level ATP Tour Challenger events even though they are branded as WTA Tour events.
But winning one does not count as a WTA Tour title.
These 125s are “lease-only” events, not full WTA Tour members. And they have no representation on the tournament council.
There have been objections in the past from International-level (now 250) tournament directors (who pony up twice the prize money) that some of those 125 tournaments are marketing themselves as full-fledged WTA events.
And the media is generally unaware. When Bianca Andreescu won the 125K event in Newport Beach, California in Jan. 2019, it was often billed as her first “WTA Tour title”. Which it was not.
At one point, there was even a suggestion that they be differentiated by being called “125 Challengers”.
This might have been the time to make a change in that tier, especially as one objective of the name changes was to create consistency with the ATP Tour.
Making it easier for fans
WTA president Mickey Lawler lays on some honey:
“Fans really respond to the unified approach which tennis is uniquely able to provide. We see it with ticket sales at combined women’s and men’s tournaments, viewership on shared broadcast platforms and the popularity of the ‘Tennis United’ digital content series co-created by the WTA and ATP amidst the challenges of 2020. Adopting this streamlined tournament naming system is 100 per cent about making it easier for WTA fans, corporate partners and the media to engage and follow our sport.”