Like other sports, women’s tennis is looking into the possibility of getting into business with Saudi Arabia. And while holding a tournament there is not imminent, WTA chairman and chief executive Steve Simon said Friday that he visited that country with some players in February as part of the evaluation process.
“It’s a very difficult and very challenging topic that’s being, obviously, measured by many, many different groups right now,” Simon said at an event in London to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting that led to the founding of the WTA.
He acknowledged there “are still tons of issues in Saudi Arabia” with regard to women’s rights and LGBTQ rights.
Simon’s comments came a few days after the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based WTA announced it was setting up a “pathway to equal prize money” so women earn the same as men at certain tournaments by 2027 and others by 2033. Simon said Tuesday additional money would come from incremental boosts by the events themselves and from revenue projected to arrive from broadcast, data and sponsorship rights via WTA Ventures, the tour’s commercial enterprise that launched in March.
“The Saudis are talking to a lot of people and a lot of different sports right now,” Simon said. “I think everybody’s evaluating what this means and: How do you move forward with that?”
The men’s tennis tour, the ATP, has been in contact with the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, officially named the Public Investment Fund. The PGA Tour, European tour and the fund, which backed the LIV Golf series, said on June 6 they would combine their commercial businesses. Saudi soccer clubs have been bringing in top players from Europe.
These sorts of deals have been pointed to as examples of “sportswashing” – efforts to rebrand a country’s troubling public image through what happens on fields of play.
On Friday, Simon framed the issue, in part, as perhaps offering an opportunity to help improve human rights in Saudi Arabia.
“You want them to do what they are talking about right now and advance the opportunities for women in the country, to make it better,” Simon said. “You need to support that. You can’t walk away from that.”
Billie Jean King, the International Tennis Hall of Fame member and equal-rights champion, said during a panel discussion at Friday’s event: “I’m a huge believer in engagement. I don’t think you really change unless you engage. … How are we going to change things if we don’t engage?”