Women’s rights are at the forefront of current political discourse, however, few people realize that not only are female athletes grossly underpaid, coverage is also skewed significantly in favor of men’s sports.
Despite the 2015 women’s soccer world cup being the most-watched soccer game in recent history, the coverage between men’s and women’s soccer is not reflective of the success of the women’s team. Not only are the women are on their way to a fourth FIFA World Cup win and they are not paid nearly as much as their male counterparts. While the male and female soccer players have different payment agreements with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the reasons behind these pay discrepancies go beyond the issues of individual federations. In order to understand the issues surrounding pay discrimination in sports, a look into the level of coverage men’s sports get in comparison to women’s sports is necessary and includes some disparaging facts. Despite a demonstrated interest towards watching women’s sports in sports enthusiasts (largely male) at 84%, the equality of coverage is not proportionate to the level of interest.
Coverage for women’s sports has made great strides in the past five years, focusing more on how women in sports are role models rather than sexual objects. Women have leagues of their own in spaces that used to be solely male. The women’s suffrage movement, the women's rights movement, and the Civil Rights movements prove that the process of change occurs over multiple generations. There are instances where momentum in social change seems to occur, but these moments are often followed by periods of regression. For example, in 2017, Serena Williams was the only female on the Forbes highest paid athletes and in 2018 she was dropped from that list due to her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, Alexis. Not a single woman was on the list in 2018.
This is not entirely the fault of individual federations. Demonstrated interest does not translate into game attendance. The attendance numbers in women’s soccer show an upward trend and approach the men’s numbers but this is surprising considering the current success of the women’s national soccer team (WNT) and the lack of success of the men’s national soccer team. The men’s national soccer team’s best placing was in 1930 when they ranked third place on the way to the FIFA World Cup. While the men’s team did well in other competitions, none of them seem to size up to the women’s accomplishments. The women have so far won the FIFA World Cup three times and the Olympics four, most recently in 2012. Due to the disparity in pay and the lack of equal coverage, the WNT filed a lawsuit over gender discrimination and were recently given the right to sue the USSF.
The claim, according to the action, is that the WNT “earned more profit, played more games, won more games, earned more championships, and/or garnered higher television audiences.” It is true that the team made more profit, but the real money maker in sports comes from air-time rights and women simply do not have equal coverage. In 2014, 94% of main coverage went to men’s sports, with 3.2% going to women’s sports, and 2.4% coverage was either gender neutral or including both genders. This means that women’s sports have fewer sponsors and less game attendance which means that women’s sports do not bring in as much revenue as men’s sports. All of this would change, however, if women’s sports had close to the same air time that men’s sports do.
Of that 84% that said they were interested in women’s sports, the split was 46% women and 51% men, with the rest being uninterested in women’s sports. According to a special created by Twin Cities PBS in 2013, forty percent of all college athletes are women. The development of women's’ involvement in sports came after Title IX was passed into law under the Nixon administration in 1972. Title IX, while not perfect, did great things to incentivize gender equality in sports, but there is one last step needed before true equal gender coverage can be reached. It is true that there are gender differences that tip the scales and that historically and behaviorally men are usually more driven to physically demanding activities than women typically are. However, as the aftermath of Title IX shows, women are fierce on the fields of competition and deserve equal recognition. The lack of coverage only accentuates the stereotype that women are not athletes, which is a lie. Children across the United States usually have a story about what sports they played as a kid, no matter their gender. However, girls do not see themselves on the television screen nearly as much as they see boys. Growing up in this world, these girls become women who believe that sports are a pastime for them, not a way to make a living.
If women’s sports teams had the rallying forces behind them that men do, there would be equal coverage, sponsorship, playing conditions, pay, and revenue. It is important that women’s sports gain more recognition and support through the education of the population about women’s sports. Right now there are six nationally recognized professional female sports leagues in North America, meaning that the women are paid: Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Ladies Professional Golf Association (LGPA), National Pro Fastpitch (NPF, formerly the Women's Pro Softball League), the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). The way the women are paid once a part of these leagues varies, but, regardless, the big money maker for modern athletes is sponsorship. However, sponsors are not going to sponsor female athletes if they do not stand to profit off of it. The lack of coverage of women’s sports means that fewer women get sponsored. In order for women’s pay to be equal to men’s in the world of sports, the disparity in coverage needs to improve so that women are seen on the screen as the competitors they are.
*** Follow The Pavlovic Today on Twitter @pavlovictoday
Sign up for The Pavlovic Today Newsletter featuring news, scoops, exclusive interviews and expert analysis