Last week Sports Illustrated published a list of the 50 highest paid athletes. Take a look at it. Do you notice anything unusual? Look again. There are no women on that list. None. Despite the ever increasing number of female sports stars as household names and despite the ever increasing number of female sports aficionados, female athletes are grossly underpaid and underrepresented.
This list is enlightening. One would imagine that men are earning more because the PGA, NBA, NFL and MLB have deep pockets to pay their athletes. It is true that much of the disparity starts in salary. But, here’s the thing. Most of the athletes on this list are earning the majority of their income from endorsements. The top three athletes earned between 30 million and 60 million in endorsements. Not salary. Not prize earnings. Endorsements.
I suppose it must mean that these athletes are fantastic role models, right? Think again. Tiger Woods still tops the list as the highest earner, despite the embarrassment of his personal life. Big companies are stuffing the pockets of their male athletes much more deeply than their female athletes, while the female athletes are often working harder to maintain their image and spend their precious free time engaging in charity work.
Many sports now boast equal pay for men and women in terms of prize money. Sports such as road running, triathlon, and tennis dole out comparable prize purses to both genders. And, in these sports the number of female participants is increasing, such that many running races actually have more female contestants than male. Why is it then, that males in these sports are more talked about and more hyped? Why are the males in these sports more recognized and looked up to? Why are the marketing dollars spent more on males than females?
Here is something that is really telling. Almost any write up about sports in which men and women competed on the same day (marathon running, track and field, triathlon, swimming) is always kicked off with the men’s recap. The space devoted to the men is often twice that of the women; the women’s race is treated as a postscript. Men are more highly lauded and treated as icons even though the women are competing on the same course on the same day.
The media, then, is perpetuating this discrepancy. Instead of making stars out of more top women athletes, they continually promote male athletes or spend their time focusing on a select few females. Certainly, the United States is dominated by very male-centric sports and the female counterparts to those sports (i.e. the WNBA) are after-thoughts. This weekend, people all over the world watched as Rory McIlroy won the US Open in record fashion. I bet that 90% of these people cannot even name an LPGA player let alone spend the weekend watching women compete.
Last fall I was honored to attend a retreat to launch EspnW, a self-proclaimed online destination for female sports fans and athletes. I applaud the recognition that a hole existed in the need for a platform for women’s athletics. But, I believe it is sad commentary that women’s athletics is such an afterthought in the mainstream media that a separate site was developed to fill this gap.
I believe the problem, then, is two-fold. The media promotes male athletes. Because the media has over-hyped male athletes, they become household names and thus, more marketable. This then leads to companies willing to shell out more dollars to these athletes leaving much less for female athletes even if they have superior skills both on and off the playing field.
Women athletes are working just as hard as male athletes. Women athletes have the potential to be fantastic role models. It is up to society to recognize this and shout a little louder that they deserve equal recognition.