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The Gender Pay Gap in Sports

The Gender Pay Gap in Sports DarrasLaw

In fall 2019, a federal judge ruled that members of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team could sue their employer, the United States Soccer Federation, as a “class” of similarly situated individuals who have experienced gender discrimination in pay and working conditions. More recently, U.S. Soccer tried to justify the pay gap by claiming “indisputable science” that men’s soccer “requires materially different skill and more responsibility” than the women’s game. The backlash caused the resignation of Carlos Cordeiro, U.S. Soccer’s president.

The suit represents the latest front in a long-running battle by female professional athletes to secure pay and treatment equal to that of their male counterparts. Professional sports leagues, governing bodies, athletes, and legal professionals are watching the case with interest, anticipating that it may eliminate one of the most glaring and visible gender-based pay inequalities in our society.

The vast gulf between the money and perks paid to pro female athletes compared to male athletes in comparable roles in some sports can boggle the mind. In the United States, professional female soccer players, ice hockey players, basketball players, and golfers in particular earn very small fractions of the pay men receive. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer team received just $1.7 million for winning the 2015 World Cup, whereas their male counterparts on the Men’s National Team received $5.4 million a year after a miserable showing. The total purses available on the LPGA Tour this season, while setting a record, is still less than one-fifth of the prize money available to men on the PGA Tour.

Apologists for these gender pay gaps blame the disparities on less fan interest in the women’s versions of traditionally male pro sports. Ticket sales, merchandising, and television revenues, the argument goes, do not support paying female athletes anything close to what the men earn. Until women’s sports gain larger audiences, higher ticket prices, and more lucrative sponsorships, they insist, women athletes should simply accept that they will earn less pay.

The potential market for female professional sports, however, is huge. Treating fan disinterest as an immutable (or even true) fact of life to justify paying women less than men represents an unacceptably retrograde mindset. Perhaps we should, instead, critique the management and ownership structures in the professional sports that pay women less than men. That is, maybe the problem isn’t that no one wants to watch women play certain sports, but rather, that leagues, owners, and organizers have organized their businesses to prioritize profits.

After all, some extremely successful sports with massive television viewerships and followings do pay women and men roughly the same. Female athletes in these sports can earn as much as, and sometimes more than, their male counterparts, and have opportunities to profit handsomely from merchandising and endorsement deals too.

Professional tennis comes to mind—major tournaments pay men and women the same prize money, and female tennis players rank among the top paid athletes in the world in any sport of either gender. Likewise, the highest-earning athlete in professional ski racing (massively popular abroad and steadily gaining a following in the U.S. thanks to live coverage of races) recently has been American phenom Mikaela Shiffrin. Pro surfing pays men and women the same. Professional running is getting closer to pay equity, too.

What distinguishes equal(er)-pay sports from unequal pay sports? One obvious difference is structural. The sports in which women can earn roughly the same as men mostly involve individual competitors vying for prize money. At the risk of oversimplifying, these sports can eliminate their direct role in exacerbating pay gaps by equalizing purses (though endorsement opportunities for women continue to lag behind).

Owner/athlete models rarely serve the financial interests of the talent, particularly when owners establish rules and practices that make it difficult for athletes to organize into unions. Recall that the male athletes in the major leagues of team sports like baseball, football, and basketball today earn big-dollars primarily because their predecessors fought pitched battles, made possible in part by player agents and labor organizing, to earn the right to free agency and to profit from their own likenesses through the sales of jerseys and videogames. Perhaps relatedly, in the U.S. at least, these leagues often rely heavily on the NCAA—and its vast pool of unpaid talent—for their supply of athletes.

However, structure is not the only explanation for gender pay gaps. Athletes on the LPGA and PGA tours play the same sport, on largely the same courses. Yet prize money on the PGA tour dwarfs the dollars up for grabs on the LPGA tour. Why? Is the problem as simple as a lack of ratings? No, it’s not. Even if you were to accept the “fans just don’t want to watch women play golf” argument, the ratio of what female pro golfers earn to what male golfers earn is far less than the ratio of LPGA viewership to PGA viewership.

This is why the U.S. Women’s National Team lawsuit is so potentially game-changing. A ruling that U.S. Soccer has violated workplace gender discrimination laws could potentially create an opening for female athletes across the sports-spectrum to demand that they receive the same pay for the same work.

It seems fitting, too, that our national women’s soccer team (along with their fellow athletes on the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team, who fought hard for pay equity) would lead the charge in securing an equal-pay-for-equal-work victory for female athletes. As a team, U.S. women’s soccer players have accomplished feats that their male counterparts still only dream of. American female soccer players dominate the world. They set the gold standard, literally and figuratively, for talent and achievement in their sport. It only makes sense for one of the most storied teams in the history of world sports to break through another barrier in the fight to eliminate gender pay gap in sports once and for all.

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