Examining the Gender Pay Gap in Sports

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In 2018, women earned 85% of what men earned, based on a Pew Research Center analysis of the gender pay gap in the United States. But what about in sports?

When it comes to compensation, the sports world offers a lot of fascinating trends – huge, multi-year contracts, endorsement deals, and constant media attention amplifying athletes’ brands. Unfortunately, we associate these things almost exclusively with men. Even just 50 years ago, women playing sports recreationally was not widely accepted in American culture.

Three Statements Often Used to Explain the Sports Pay Gap

We see frequent explanations of why the gender pay gap in sports exists, and why it is so large:

  • Men’s sports receive vastly more media coverage, television licenses, and sponsorship deals, which contribute to higher revenue.
  • Men’s sports generate higher revenue, so male athletes are paid higher salaries.
  • Male athletes receive more money through endorsements and personal branding initiatives, further widening the sports pay gap.

It’s prudent to acknowledge that male athletes make more money because they play in more lucrative leagues. But even adjusting for revenue, we find that female athletes are still being short-changed – and it’s within our control to fix it.

Let’s examine inconsistent business models in tennis and basketball, the history and tradition of Title IX, and subtle biases that still permeate sports media coverage.

What is the Gender Pay Gap in Sports?

There’s no exact metric for the gender pay gap in sports overall, as it differs greatly depending on the sport, and the level at which athletes are competing within each sport. Every year, Forbes publishes a list of the top 100 paid athletes in the world. For the first time in eight years, a female athlete did not make the list, which gives a pretty good snapshot of how male athletes dominate the biggest salaries.

The ATF and WTA in tennis, and the NBA and WNBA in basketball, offer two different instances of pay inequality in sports with regards to prize money and payouts of total revenue.

Gender Pay Gap in Tennis

Tennis boasts the most narrow pay gap of any major sport. Since 2007, all four Grand Slams – The Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open – pay out equal prize money to their male and female winners. It’s not a coincidence that tennis legends Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Li Na are among the only female athletes to have ever cracked the Forbes list.

Prize money at tournaments – which is tied to sponsors, television deals, and ticket prices – has increased in recent years due to superstars like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. At equal-pay events like the Grand Slams, these increases have benefited women. But outside top tournaments, women are rarely paid fairly. In a study of the top 100 players on the ATP and WTA tennis circuits, the New York Times calculated that female tennis players make 80 cents to every dollar their male counterparts make, which mirrored the U.S. gender pay gap at large in 2017.

It would be easy to carve the pay gap in tennis down to men’s tournaments generating more revenue, but there is not a uniform, international scale for prize money across minor and major tournaments. For instance, at the 2015 China Open, the men’s champion earned 67% of what the women’s championship earned. But at a tournament in Rio de Janeiro five months later, the female champion earned 14% of the male winner’s payout.

Even when women are paid fairly in tennis, a larger question remains: what system should be adopted to ensure men and women are paid fairly consistently, no matter the level or location of the tournament?

Gender Pay Gap in Basketball

Basketball is often used as one of the worst examples of pay inequality in professional sports. To set the stage, last year’s first pick in the WNBA draft, A’ja Wilson, earned a salary of $52,564 for her rookie season. DeAndre Ayton, her NBA counterpart, earned $5,091,500 for his rookie season. For its older stars, the WNBA has a max salary cap of $117,500, whereas some of the NBA’s best players earn close to 300 times more, such as Stephen Curry at $34.7 million or Lebron James at $33.3 million. In short, the WNBA’s best veterans are making a fraction of what the NBA’s worst players make. Here are the projected minimum and maximum salary figures for full-time players in the 2019-2020 seasons:

As we've noted, male leagues often generate significantly more revenue than female leagues, and that’s certainly true in professional basketball. However, Forbes estimates that the WNBA teams pay out only 23% of the league’s total revenue ($51.5 million) to their players, whereas the NBA teams pays out roughly 50% of the league’s total revenue ($5.9 billion) to their players. Within this incongruent business model, WNBA stars are losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars.

WNBA Signs Multiyear TV Deal

In April 2019, the CBS Sports Network signed a multiyear deal with the WNBA to broadcast 40 games, doubling the prior season's arrangement. ESPN will show an additional 16 games, and NBATV also broadcasts several games through local feeds.

Last year, the combined average viewership across ESPN2 and NBA TV was up 31% over in the 2018 season. We can expect this figure to grow significantly with national broadcasts. In the coming years, how will licensing deals impact revenue overall, or the model the WNBA uses to pay out players?

Why are Men Paid More Than Women in Sports?

It’s difficult to calculate how gender norms have contributed to the gender pay gap in sports over time, but men have enjoyed hundreds of more years to build interest in and place men’s sports into mainstream culture. It’s not just that female athletes are underpaid, it’s that women have spent most of history not permitted or encouraged to play sports.

Pierre de Coutbertin, a French educator who established the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, infamously remarked that the inclusion of women would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.” The 1900 Games were the first to officially accept female athletes, and every four years since then, women have gradually found more representation at the Olympics.

The Olympics don’t tell the whole story of each individual sport, but Courtbertin’s sentiments reflect the drought of female athletes, at least in the U.S., until the passage of Title IX in 1972.

Title IX

Title IX stipulates that students must have equal access to educational programs and activities that receive federal funding, which includes sports at public schools. Since Title IX’s passage, there has been a 545% increase in the pool of women playing college sports and a 990% increase in the pool of women playing high school sports, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF).

Title IX provided legal precedent by which women participating in sports became more common, and over time, socially accepted. Unfortunately, it can’t solve the issue of fair exposure.

Media Disparity Contributes to the Sports Pay Gap

If you click through sports coverage on television, listen to radio or podcasts, or read news online, you’ve probably noticed that vast majority of our media is dedicated to men’s sports – and there is no law forcing outlets to give equal coverage.

Television is often cited the main culprit. A 2015 study found that, over 118 hours of sports news broadcast programming from ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and Fox Sports 1’s “Fox Sports Live”, women’s sports were featured less than 1% of the time.

But coverage of women’s sports is not just sparse – it may also be more boring. Another decades-long study found that while media on women’s sports is no longer overtly sexist, it still tends to be dull and obligatory, without the jokes and compliments used to frame segments on men’s sports. Of course, this creates a vicious cycle: if coverage of women’s sports is boring, those interested in women’s sports may be less inclined to read or watch content, and the outlet will continue to believe there is “no interest.” In this way, an imbalance in media coverage has also contributed to the gender pay gap in sports.

Pay Inequity Goes Beyond the Sports Pay Gap

The gender pay gap in sports presents a unique set of variables impacting compensation, and hopefully sheds light on how we can work towards creating a fairer environment for athletes. In any profession, employers should ask how can they can ensure men and women are paid equitably to the best of their ability.

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