Women’s Sports Rising
Inside the Recent Rise of Women’s Sports & What’s Next for Female Trailblazers
From personal experience, I can tell you that being a woman in sports is no easy feat. There will always be old-timers who demand the return of traditional sports reporters and analysts (aka men). There will always be people who speculate that women couldn’t possibly know as much about sports as men, so they should not be able to hold important positions in sports broadcasting. There will always be the Twitter trolls criticizing female reporters’ appearances and knowledge. I wish I could say that this ignorance is limited to females in sports broadcasting, but unfortunately it extends far beyond that: Female referees, coaches and players face the same discrimination and judgment. Unfortunately, we all still have a long way to go. That being said, we are finally moving in the right direction. Female athletes have experienced an increase in pay, media coverage, viewership and overall respect in recent years – but it hasn’t always been that way.
The First Women in Sports
During the 1900s, women’s athletic clubs began popping up with opportunities for women to gather and play a wide variety of sports. The introduction of these athletic clubs spurred the transition from recreational sports to competitive sports. During the 19th century, women were relegated strictly to recreational sports such as horseback riding and swimming. Women were discouraged from any competitive sports until the 20th century when they were able to participate in athletic clubs. The 1900s also marked the first time women were allowed in professional sporting competitions with the Summer Olympics.
Unfortunately, by 1910, this inclusive sentiment died as women were discouraged from participating in competitive sports. The National Amateur Athletic Federation and the Amateur Athletic Union deemed that competitive sports were too dangerous to women and their health. To be exact, they said that women’s sports should not involve competition, record breaking or compensation. Instead, these organizations believed women should focus on pleasure, character building and relationship formation. In other words, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as you have fun! Well, I’ve never been one to agree with that philosophy. Apparently women in sports didn’t either.
It took 20 years, but things finally started to take a turn for women in the 1940s during World War II. Local and national sports competitions such as baseball leagues and golf tournaments began propagating across the country while the men were away. These events were popular, with several women in attendance. The popularity of these events led to the formation of more intramural leagues among women and the participation of women in college sports. During the 40s, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed – the first women’s professional league in the country. As time progressed, an increasing number of women began to participate in college athletics as well.
Once again, unfortunately it took another 30 years, but we finally did it. In 1972, Title IX was passed, which prevented sex-based discrimination in sports. Before Title IX was passed, only 30,000 women played college sports. Currently, more than 219,000 women play college sports and make up 44% of college athletes. The gaping gulf between women’s and men’s sports has finally narrowed, thanks to Title IX.
Though Title IX is what changed women’s sports forever in 1972, we didn’t see a palpable change until the 90s when women’s professional leagues began gaining traction. The WNBA formed as late as 1996 and received sparse media coverage for a long time thereafter. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) formed in 1973 – a year after Title IX. However, it too received meager coverage until the 21st century. The Women’s United Soccer Association (now known as the National Women’s Soccer League) wasn’t founded until 2001. The earliest professional women’s sports league was founded in 1950, before Title IX was even a thought. That league was the LPGA. Unfortunately, the LPGA has had its own issues due to lack of interest in golf and lack of interest in women’s sports. The combination of these two factors has led to low viewership of the league since its establishment.
The LPGA also underwent a unique struggle: They, along with all women, were barred from playing events at Augusta, where The Master’s is held. Augusta held “traditional” values in that they only allowed men to become members at the course or play it during a men’s Tour event. It wasn’t until 2012 that Augusta accepted its first members. The LPGA still has yet to play an event at Augusta National. Though that’s not likely to change anytime soon, at least they now have the opportunity.
The Fight for Fair Pay
Whether you wait by your door for the newspaper to get delivered, or you keep up with news so little that you feel you live under a rock, you’ve definitely heard about the wage gap. Despite many societal advances, there is still a marginal pay gap between women and men across some professions. However, the pay gap across everyday industries is nothing compared to sports.
Though Title IX promised equal opportunity in sports, it said nothing about equal pay. When women’s sports leagues formed, compensation was a joke. However, I can’t say that surprised me. Women had to fight tooth and nail just to play competitive sports and have professional leagues. No one expected them to be signing million-dollar contracts when their leagues had few supporters as it was.
However, just with the strides I mentioned earlier, women are slowly but surely closing the gap. Unfortunately, the gap still remains – only this time, it isn’t as narrowed. For the 2023-24 season, Steph Curry will be the highest paid NBA player, making nearly $52 million. For the WNBA, Arike Ogunbowale will be the highest paid player, making only $241,984. Sadly, that’s the progress. That’s the “narrowed” gap. But it’s not all bad news: Several professional women’s leagues have recently made changes, or changes are in motion regarding women’s salary.
The US Open was the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money after a threatened boycott in 1973. The speed with which they decided this after Title IX (less than a year) was impressive. Unfortunately, it took other tennis majors 35 years to follow suit. The Australian Open joined the equal-pay club in 2001 after revoking equal pay in 1995 due to a lack of interest and viewership for women’s tennis. The French Open and Wimbledon fell in line in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Though the decisions of these majors began to level the playing field for women, there was still a massive pay gap. The WTA did not make any efforts to ensure equal pay in terms of salary. Therefore, the only opportunity for female tennis players to earn even close to the amount of money as their male counterparts was to perform well in major events. These events feature fierce competition, and they only come periodically. So, even with the changes to the majors, the opportunity to make money in women’s tennis is still severely inhibited.
The only woman who makes more than men in the same sport is Mikaela Shiffrin. The only reason Shiffrin is out-earning men is because she dominates the Alpine Ski World Cup. This is the only example of no wage gap in sports. If Shiffrin didn’t have an outstanding performance in the World Cup, she’d have almost no money to show for the rest of her season.
The wage-gap controversy that everyone knows best is that of the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT). Five players from the 2016 team – Carlie Lloyd, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn – filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). These players and their allies became very vocal about their position against the United State Soccer Federation and took to media outlets and social media to express their frustration.
On March 8, 2019, 28 women on the USWNT came together to file a lawsuit against sex-based discrimination, a violation of Title IX. The EEOC notified the women that they were able to sue since nothing had been said or done since the complaint was filed three years prior. They sought to send a message, and they couldn’t have chosen a better day to do so: March 8 is International Women’s Day. The suit outlined detailed examples of several aspects of the job where they experienced sex-based discrimination, though the focus was equal pay. One of the most prominent examples used was the pay difference in the 2014 and 2015 World Cup. In 2014, the U.S. Men’s National Team was eliminated from the World Cup in the Round of 16. They were awarded $5.4 million for their loss. So surely, when the women won the 2015 World Cup, they got double that, right? No. Well, at least the same amount then, right? Still no. The USWNT received $1.7 million for their victory. After that, I don’t think the women needed any more examples to illustrate the disparity.
Initially, the U.S. Soccer Federation appeared to be in agreement with the women when the suit was filed, promising to hear their demands and work with them to bridge the gap and get one step closer to equality. However, when Carlos Cordeiro, the president, resigned less than one year later, he said that “indisputable science” proved that female athletes were inferior to males.
It wasn’t until last year that the USWNT came closer to an acceptable solution. The USWNT and USMNT came together for a historic and unique deal. Each team put their FIFA prize money together and split it equally. Regardless of women’s or men’s performance in the World Cup, they will receive half the prize money in the pool. Though this first-of-its-kind development ensured equal pay in the World Cup for women, the USWNT is still petitioning for a higher base salary. This deal extends the phenomenon present in tennis: Equal pay can only be achieved in major events or competitions (Wimbledon, the World Cup, etc.), while regular season salary remains wildly asymmetrical.
Media Coverage & Viewership
Several people argue that women’s sports should not be eligible for equal pay because they are simply not as popular or revenue-earning as men’s sports. At the end of the day, this is true, but there are countless reasons for this phenomenon.
The first reason is the most obvious. Women’s sports will likely never be as popular as men’s sports. Football is the most popular sport in America. Though women have the Women’s Football Alliance, it receives next to no coverage or recognition. If women don’t have a place in the country’s biggest sport, of course their viewership will suffer. The next most popular sport in which women actually have a well-known league is basketball with the WNBA. Of all women’s sports, WNBA media coverage has grown the most in recent years, along with exposure and viewership. However, the numbers don’t even compare to NBA coverage, viewership and revenue.
Media coverage was a huge limitation in women’s sports for a considerable amount of time even after leagues were well-established. It wasn’t until recently that coverage and viewership increased for women’s leagues. Finally, women’s sports are televised more than ever before. They are also covered more widely than ever in sports publications and written news outlets, which contributes to the rise in viewership.
Revenue is yet another limitation in women’s sports. It is hindered by low viewership and lack of promotion. Female athletes have far fewer sponsorships than men, which inhibits their earning ability and self-promotion. Media outlets and sports networks also tend to limit the promotion of women’s sporting events; some networks don’t promote games whatsoever. This lack of promotion and sponsorships are what lead to lower viewership and compensation for female athletes. Though women are turning a corner in terms of coverage, viewership and revenue, there’s still a long way to go.
Put Some Respect on Their Names
In light of increased media coverage and strides toward equal pay, women in sports are finally starting to earn the respect they deserve. The leagues are beginning to respect women’s rights to equal compensation, equal media coverage and equal opportunities. Well, at least they’re getting closer to it. Additionally, women’s sports are finally receiving more respect from fans – specifically men. Traditionally, women have been the biggest supporters of women’s sports. The professional leagues we know today were created by women, for women.
In the past, men tended to ignore women’s sports completely in favor of men’s leagues. Alternatively, some even mocked women’s leagues and actively rooted against them. As I mentioned, though we will always have people like that in our world, we’re turning an important corner. Men and women alike are beginning to gain greater appreciation and support for professional women’s sports leagues. Whether that support comes from a positive comment on social media or being actively engaged in a game, contributions from men are starting to positively impact the landscape of women’s sports and sports in general.
The sports terrain is finally starting to change. Before, the men were at the peak of a mountain, while the women were at the bottom of a valley. Now, the men are on top of a hill while the women stand on level ground. The difference is still there, but the distance between terrains has lessened drastically. Who knows? Maybe in a few years, the men and women will be standing next to each other, both atop a mountain.
Image: Lionel Bonaventure / Getty Images