Why tennis will never be plunged into the incendiary sexism storm Joey Barton has ignited in football

Sue Barker at Wimbledon

Former Premier League footballer Joey Barton threw himself into the eye of a storm after suggesting former female footballers are ‘not qualified’ to commentate or offer post-match analysis on men’s football matches, yet such inflammatory accusations have never been served up in tennis.

The ex-Newcastle and Manchester City midfielder sparked a special media storm when he suggested female pundits were appearing as analysts on broadcasts of men’s football matches to allow broadcasters to “tick a box” and argued their employment was all part of the “woke agenda”.

Barton’s comments have predictably inspired a passionate backlash from female ex-players who defended their right to be part of the men’s game, with prominent BBC presenter Alex Scott making her points after a broadcast of a Women’s Super League game on Sunday.

“To all the women in football, in front of the camera or behind it, the players on the pitch, to everyone that attends games – keep being the role models that you continue to be,” Scott told the BBC. “To all those young girls that are told ‘no you can’t’, football is a better place with us all in it.”

While this debate is now set to be taken to the next level in football following Barton’s incendiary comments, tennis is never likely to be dragged into a similarly unsightly gender battle.

EQUAL PAY DEBATE

Prominent female footballs such as USA superstar Megan Rapino have led the charge for women to be rewarded with similar wages to that of their male counterparts, but this is an unrealistic ambition at this point in the evolution of women’s football. 

England’s Premier League football chiefs signed a new £6.7billion deal with Sky Sports and TNT Sports last week in a landmark broadcast deal that contrasts with a reported £8million deal Sky agreed to broadcast Women’s Super League games in England.

Those promoting the idea that players performing in the Women’s Super League matches that often attract crowds of less than 1,000 spectators should be paid at the same level as male counterparts who play in front of sell-out crowds and global audiences of tens of millions are clearly misguided.

Yet tennis has a very different historical framework that ensures these debates are never considered to be an issue in our sport.

TENNIS LEADS THE WAY

Tennis has paved the way as a gender-balanced sport over the last 50 years, with female icon Billie Jean King leading the charge towards equal pay for men and women at Grand Slam events.

With the players sharing the same stage at the four majors in tennis, spectators buy tickets to watch both men and women playing and broadcasters sign deals to screen women’s and men’s matches.

The best-of-five-set matches compared to the three-set women’s matches in Grand Slam tournaments ensure women get paid more than their men when comparing their respective workloads, yet this equal pay stance is a point of pride for many in tennis. 

In 1973, tennis icon Billie Jean King led the campaign that ended with the US Open becoming the first of the four Grand Slam tournaments to offer equal prize money to men and women competitors, a pioneering move that shook the sport and began to reshape it toward a more equitable future.

The other Grand Slams duly followed, with the $9,857,686 in prize money collected by world No 1 Iga Swiatek in 2023 evidence of the huge rewards on offer for female tennis players. 

PUNDITRY DEBATE

Joey Barton’s inflammatory comments on female football pundits commenting on the men’s game will gain some support from male viewers, yet that argument has never been raised in tennis.

Former player Sue Barker was one of the most respected tennis broadcasters during her enduring reign as the BBC’s Wimbledon anchor and Clare Balding, her successor in that role, is an outstanding broadcaster who has huge respect in the media business.

In addition, ex-players Laura Robson, Barbara Schett, Annabel Croft, Tracy Austin and tennis legend Martina Navratilova are all respected for the knowledge and expertise they bring to the commentary box.

Playing on the same tennis stages as male players certainly gives ex-tennis players who shone in the women’s game an advantage over their female football counterparts when they are asked to give their views on the men’s game. 

READ MORE: Who is Hannah Klugman? Meet the British teenager who has just claimed a breakthrough win 

WHAT COMES NEXT?

Barton’s campaign to oust women from broadcasting positions in the men’s game is likely to fall on deaf ears with TV executives who are committed to more female faces appearing on our screens.

The lack of pushback from high-profile male former players is evidence that Barton’s views may well be supported by some in football, but tennis can be grateful that it will not be drawn into this debate. 

“Women’s sports is a microcosm of society, and how we do spills over into other areas, business in particular, and whatever accomplishments of any kind – whether it be in music, art, doesn’t matter – it encourages others,” said Billie Jean King.

“It takes many generations to change things, but the generation today can start changing by what they tell their children. And men have a lot to do with it with their daughters.

“We’re now at a tipping point where people are investing in us and believing in us because they think we’re going to make money.

“We have to keep working harder and harder because we have a long way to go.”

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