The female athlete discrepancy

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.

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5 Responses

  1. Barbara Garren says:

    Bravo! What a great post on a topic that shouldn't need to be addressed. As a women in a male dominated industry – in fact, the ONLY women in the U.S. doing what I do- I am often "the afterthought" when it comes to after work activities and "team building". I have learned, the hard way, the only way to make the change is to demand it. I'm sharing this post with as many people (mostly men!) as I can!

  2. Joanna Zeiger says:

    Thanks for you comments Barbara. I am so glad that you are going to spread the word!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Totally agree that this should be rectified. Alas, having started my career in the media space, there's a very simple cause: men are the primary consumers of sports media. If we can somehow get mainstream women to start following sports, then the numbers start to look favorable to sponsors and advertisers. It's not about the # or talent of the athletes, it's about the demographic composition of those who follow them. Not sure how to solve this one…

  4. Erin Durant says:

    This article is bang on! When will companies start realizing the real value that lies behind endorsing female athletes? If companies still see Tiger Woods as being a positive image to throw their brand behind surely Serena Williams should be earning at least as much? Does the media not realize that she has just come back from a life threatening injury and can, potentially, again rise to the top of the tennis world?

    I think that the gap behind the earnings of female athletes and male athletes is also hightened by the fact that at a lot of these companies that endorse athletes the individuals that are making the funding decisions are still men. Not all men respect women's sports. Get more women in the room and perhaps we will see more funding for female athletes.

    Keep up the great posts!

  5. Luis Fernando Oliveira says:

    If I can, not really disagree but, perhaps, offer a different perspective. I think (as you do) that public attention drives pay. Endorsers pay up for those who get the most attention, and media space can be used as a proxy for public attention.

    This, in its turn is driven by the athletic ability displayed by the athlete. More specifically, public attention is a function of the awesomeness of the athletic ability displayed by the person (provided they do not screw up too much in their personal lives.)

    If this is a fair assumption, it is also fair to say that men have showed, in most sports, greater levels of awesomeness. Where the women have been able to match the awesomeness level, pay disparities tend to go away.

    Just to illustrate my point: Chris Wellington. She is, by any measure, the most awesome athlete in triathlon today, displaying abilities far and above the competition. She runs faster than most pro men, for crying out loud. She gets the most attention at ANY triathlon event she chooses to competes. She should (and will) get paid more than most (if not all) pro men. Might not be there just yet. But it sure will.