Tennis marks top female money-makers

Victoria Azarenka earned $7.9 million in 2012. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

If you are a female athlete looking to make money, tennis may be the sport for you. In a survey of the highest-paid athletes by country conducted by ESPN The Magazine, the highest-earning female athlete in 37 of 57 countries was a tennis player. Golfers were the highest earners in 14 countries, followed by long-distance runners in three countries, skiing in two countries and a lone squash athlete in Malaysia.

The highest-earning female athlete in the world last year was tennis star Victoria Azarenka, with $7.9 million in winnings. She was also the highest-paid athlete in Belarus, beating out the highest-earning male, Mikhail Grabovski of the Toronto Maple Leafs, by almost $2 million. Of course, her payday was eclipsed by the highest-paid male athlete in the world, Manny Pacquiao (the Philippines), who took home $52 million last year after earning guaranteed minimum prize money in two 2012 bouts.

Serena Williams fell just behind Azarenka at $7.0 million, making her the highest-paid American female athlete. Thirty-five other athletes on the WTA Tour were the highest-paid female athletes in their respective countries, while just 14 golfers on the LPGA, European and Asian golf tours were top earners in their countries.

While Inbee Park's time on the LPGA Tour last year made her the highest-paid female athlete in South Korea ($2.3 million in earnings), it paled in comparison to Azarenka's final count. LGPA commissioner Mike Whan, currently in his fourth season at the helm, says the WTA's success has prompted golf to set some goals.

"We use the WTA internally a lot," Whan said. "They were global before we were in terms of understanding you take the business to where the opportunity is the greatest."

The LPGA, which began its season in Australia and will conclude it in Naples, Fla., will play events in 14 different countries this season.

One thing the LGPA can't replicate as easily as tennis is holding events in conjunction with the men's tour, which puts it at a disadvantage in terms of global appeal and prize money. Since 2007, all four Grand Slams have offered equal prize money for male and female competitors.

"Tennis playing together a few times a year is a big difference," Whan said. "We don't have that. It doesn't mean we won't ever have that, but it's more challenging from a golf course perspective -- to have that many people on a course over one weekend."

For now, a big difference-maker for the LPGA has been the re-emergence of golf as an Olympic sport (it will be on the 2016 program after appearances in the 1900 and 1904 Games).

"With the announcement of golf in the Olympics, the exposure and interest is at another level than it was seven or eight years ago," Whan said. "'Podium sports' are a big deal to government and countries. This means a lot more kids at an earlier age are getting access to driving ranges and golf courses."

Carole Oglesby, the vice president of WomenSport International and a past principal contributor with the United Nations Division of Advancement for Women, calls tennis and golf "high socioeconomic status sports." She says 90 percent of women and girls in the developing world have little to no access to this kind of participation level.

Perhaps that's why we find long-distance runners in three of the bottom five countries on the list, as measured by per capita gross domestic product. In Ethiopia, where the 2011 per capita GDP was just $357, top-earning female athlete Aselefech Mergia Medessa earned $251,400 in prize money last year. Mary Keitany Chepkosgei, a Kenyan long-distance runner, earned $645,000, a staggering sum above the country's $819 per capita GDP.

Long-distance running requires less in the way of equipment and facilities than tennis, golf or other sports on the list, but Oglesby says it's still not accessible for many women and girls around the globe.

"Getting to this level requires systematic coaching, diet and the capacity to run hours per day without regard to working to survive," Oglesby said.

The WTA and LPGA say opportunities often come about as a result of more events being placed in developing markets. The WTA is making strides with its 125K Series, which, based on per capita GDP, will reach four of the 15 poorest countries represented in The Magazine's survey. In 2012, the WTA held one event in Taipei, Taiwan, and another in India. This year, there will be five events in multiple countries, including Taipei, Taiwan; Cali, Columbia and three in China (Suzhou, Ningbo and Nanjing).

Whan says he has seen the impact his sport can have firsthand. When he came to the LPGA, the tour had only been playing in Thailand for three years. Now, there are five or six Thai golfers on the tour at any given time and seven to eight in the qualifying school each year.

"I don't know if we can take 100 percent credit for that," Whan said, "but when our stars walk down the fairway, there are little girls lining the course who look up to [our golfers]."