Tennis stands out from many other sports in attracting comparable levels of public interest across both the men’s and the women’s game. However, the progression of women’s tennis has been somewhat hindered by a delay in the evolution and modernisation of its administrative rules and regulations. By way of example, it was not until 2007 that women became entitled to equal prize money across all four grand slams. Even now, there are examples of inconsistencies between the men’s and women’s games – prize money is only equal at the four grand slams and over a decade later, there remains a significant gender gap in earnings from the sport. Similarly, in 2018, the French player Alize Cornet was penalised at the US Open for briefly taking her shirt off on court as she had accidently put it on back to front, whilst men suffer no penalty for changing their shirts on court in between breaks.
As a result of feedback received from players, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has instigated a number of changes to the women’s tour which came into force at the beginning of the 2019 season. These player driven changes represent a desire to modernise the women’s game and clearly indicate that the sport’s governing body recognises that there is a need for change in certain aspects of the sport. These were brought particularly into focus following the controversial events involving Serena Williams that occurred at the 2018 US Open Final and the media storm that followed, which led to wider questions about the current regulation of the women’s game.
The new WTA rules are likely to affect the traditional image and perception of women’s tennis and may also impact upon sponsors wishing to enter into commercial agreements with players and they may also provide marketing and brand enhancing opportunities for kit suppliers. However, it is worth noting that the new WTA rules do not apply to the Grand Slam events, which remain free to set their own rules.
The following sets out some initial thoughts on the changes to the WTA rules:
#1 Sponsorship – a player who cannot play for more than one year (due to injury, illness, pregnancy etc.) will now be entitled to use her special ranking to enter twelve tournaments over a period of three years. The three year period begins on the date of the birth of the child or for injury, on the date of the player’s last tournament. This rule may encourage more women to have children during their careers and consequently return to the game following child birth rather than retiring. This impacts not only on a player’s ability to enter tournaments, but also their associated sponsorship and endorsement arrangements. Both players and sponsors will need to consider how to incorporate this change into new and existing commercial agreements. Sponsors may be forced to consider more flexible arrangements and may also have to restructure sponsorship deals to take account of long-term absences from the sport.
#2 Kit supply and branding – from the beginning of the 2019 season, players have been allowed to wear leggings and mid-length compression shorts with or without a skirt, shorts or dress. This change provides an opportunity for kit suppliers to experiment with new styles of clothes for women’s tennis and market a wider range of tennis clothing. This may well alter the image of female tennis players in the future, an obvious example being Serena Williams’ French Open ‘catsuit’ which diverged significantly from the traditional image of women’s tennis. Kit suppliers will still be subject to the restrictions imposed by the Grand Slam events when designing attire for tennis players, as the main Grand Slam events are not subject to the WTA rule changes. Nonetheless, this amendment is undoubtedly a significant step towards modernising women’s tennis and could help redefine the more feminine perception of the women’s game to something more akin to athletes of other sports, where attire might be considered more ‘gender neutral’.
#3 Consistency – from 2019, two shot clocks will be required on all match courts at Premier Tournaments in 2019 and in all WTA tournaments from 2020. Players will be subject to a warning for a first violation and a $250 fine for a second violation if they are not ready to play within 25 seconds of the previous point ending. WTA event organisers applying this rule will need to ensure consistency in their approach or risk an increase in disputes and allegations of unfairness, particularly in view of the fact that it is widely acknowledged that certain players regularly violate the rules in this area.
#4 Event organisers – event organisers looking to host WTA Tour events will need to consider the rule changes and ensure they implement the relevant updates within their respective events, including managing the associated costs of such changes and who bears these within any respective hosting agreements. For example, venues will need to cater for the two shot clock requirement noted above.
#5 Future challenges – under the new WTA rules, players will be limited to a maximum of one toilet/change of attire break per match. This rule may be subject to challenge in the future, especially amongst players with health issues. Rule makers may therefore have to consider allowances for exceptions to this rule in order to avoid disputes. As mentioned above, the new WTA rules do not apply to any of the Grand Slam events, which remain the highest paying events for both men and women across the entire circuit. Whilst the Grand Slams are often protective of their own special image, which are considered to go to the heart of their appeal (i.e. the All England Club’s white only attire rule), the changes to the WTA rules may over time put pressure on the Grand Slams to apply similar rules to their tournaments to achieve more consistency across the sport.
If you would like more information on any of the points raised above or any advice in connection with the same, please contact David Bentham (Partner) or Amy Askew (Paralegal and former top UK and international junior tennis player), or call 0161 672 5455.
Please note the information contained in this briefing is intended as a general review of the subject featured and is not intended as specific legal advice.