ST. PETERSBURG, FL: Wimbledon's recent decision to award equal prize money to men and women came after more than a year of strategic PR work by the Sony Ericsson WTA (Women's Tennis Association) Tour.
Working with Cohn & Wolfe in the UK, WTA worked with such current players as Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova, as well as former greats Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert, to target UK media and influentials, said Andrew Walker, WTA VP of communications.
One event, hosted by Virgin CEO and WTA global advisory council member Richard Branson, featured Williams and Sharapova holding up the numbers representing the difference in Wimbledon prize money over the past 10 years. Williams also wrote an Op-Ed for The Times (of London).
Walker said the PR team also reached out to prominent UK politicians, including London Mayor Ken Livingstone, asking them to write letters of support to the Wimbledon board.
"The messaging was pretty basic: If you agree, there are a number of things you can do to help support this cause," Walker said. For example, Conservative Party leader David Cameron appeared on popular talk show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross to show his support.
Walker noted that the issue of equal prize money has always been important to the WTA. But while previous efforts have been successful in narrowing the gap between men's and women's prizes for Wimbledon, the organization was reluctant to make it equal.
He said that when WTA CEO Larry Scott joined in 2003, it decided on a behind-the-scenes approach in addressing the issue with Wimbledon. It tried the same strategy in 2004 and 2005 to no avail.
"We changed tactics and decided that we were going to shift... to a more public PR campaign approach," Walker said.
Of the other Grand Slam events, the US Open decided to award equal prize money in 1973, the Australian Open did the same in 1991, and, in 2006, the French Open announced it would award the winners equal prize money, but a disparity still exists for finalists.
Walker said the WTA will keep targeting the French Open.
"Until they are offering women equal prize money, we'll continue to make our case," he said.