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The 'Serena Bump' Gives Women's Tennis a Sellout

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The U.S. Open kicked off Monday, with all eyes on Serena Williams as she aims for the calendar-year Grand Slam and to tie Steffi Graf with 22 major singles titles. The last week has seen thinkpiece after thinkpiece about Williams' legacy, her place among the greatest athletes ever, and her role in exposing the racism and sexism of tennis fans and the sporting press

Most recently, the intersection of prejudices Williams has had to face has been much discussed in the context of her endorsement deals. After Williams defeated Maria Sharapova in the Wimbledon semifinals in July, many commentators noted that despite utterly dominating her opponent on the court -- Williams is 18-2 lifetime against Sharapova, and hasn't lost to her on any surface in more than a decade -- Williams still trails the Russian in sponsorship dollars. According to Forbes, Sharapova earned $23 million in endorsements in the last year, while Williams banked $13 million from her deals.

Women in sports, particularly Williams, are used to having their achievements minimized by comparing them to men. But in this case, her status as the greatest tennis star on earth is quite literally devalued because she doesn't look the part. This can't be simply explained away by "the free market," no matter how hard Darren Rovell tries. This is, as Bloomberg View's Justin Fox writes, advertisers playing it safe by appealing to its base of wealthy, elite tennis fans in choosing a white face for their product instead of the face of the sport.

For her part, Williams has handled questions about the discrepancy with grace. "If they want to market someone who is white and blond, that’s their choice," Williams told the New York Times Magazine. "I have a lot of partners who are very happy to work with me. ... There is enough at the table for everyone."

Williams is taking the high road, but you can't help but see aspects of racism and sexism -- the intersection of which is known as "misogynoir," as coined by feminist scholar Moya Bailey -- in forming these tastes, and in advertisers to continue to perpetuate them. Tennis fans and media have gone out of their way to explain Williams' supposed lack of appeal by denying her beauty and criticizing her on-court demeanor. In fact, the prejudice is so pervasive that it's actually causing advertisers to ignore Williams' broader value as a spokesperson. As Fox notes, citing Bloomberg News's Danielle Rossingh, Williams' appeal stretches far beyond tennis. She's recognizable to mainstream audiences in ways Sharapova is not, according to Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores.

More than two-thirds of the U.S. population knows Williams, compared with 39 percent for Sharapova. But, according to Schafer, Sharapova "appeals much more to male sports fans while Serena has a much stronger appeal to female sports fans." Even though most of the country would rather see Williams on a billboard, sports marketing is still tailored to suit men.

This should go a long way to debunk a common excuse used to deflect calls for greater equality for women's sports -- namely, that women's sports would fare better if women fans supported them more. Not only does that argument separate women's sports into a sphere that's other and less than men's sports -- cementing the view that male fans can't possibly find female athletes entertaining -- it's also utterly futile. When female fans drive the popularity of women's sports, as with Williams, the sports establishment chooses to ignore them in order to maintain men as tastemakers.

Female fans, fans of women's sports, and just fans of great athletes generally, are making their voices heard, speaking through their wallets even when marketers won't let them. For the first time ever, tickets to the women's final of the U.S. Open sold out before the men's. Women's tickets are going for three times their usual price from ticket resellers -- all thanks to the Serena Bump. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio -- the first mayor to ever give a ticker-tape parade to the Women's World Cup team -- mentioned the ticket sales in his welcome address to the prime-time crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium before Williams' opening match.

Serena Williams is the hottest ticket in tennis. It's time she's got the off-court recognition she's earned -- both for her and her fans.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net