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Closing the Gender Pay Gap in Sports: Examining the Gender-based Wage Discrimination Across Sports

By Rakshan Kalmady

In February 2022, the US Women’s Soccer team reached a landmark agreement with their governing body to end a six year battle over equal pay. Even though the settlement agreement of 24 million dollars was one-third of what they had sought in damages, it still is a victory for the players who had inspired fans to chant “Equal Pay” when they won their World Cup title in 2019. Between particular sports, there are vast discrepancies in pay for men and women, ranging from tennis, where pay is comparable in terms of winnings, to cricket, football, and hockey where the pay gap is a minimum of 10-folds.  Some examples of this widespread wage gap highlight the institutionalized gender discrimination in sports. The settlement with the US  women’s soccer team will inspire the battle for equal pay in other countries and other sports as well, where there still is a very long way to go to achieve gender equality, but is definitely the need of the hour. 

In 1990, Forbes Magazine began tracking athletes’ earnings and based on it published a yearly report called The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes List.  As the name suggests, it provides a ranking of athletes based on how much they have earned both on and off the field, from their weekly salaries, winnings if any, advertisements, business deals, and sponsorship contracts. The 2020 list had a new member in the form of Naomi Osaka, the Number 1 ranked Women’s tennis player. She is ranked at the 29th spot on the list with yearly earnings of $37.4 million, making her the highest-paid female athlete in the world. 

This makes the 23-year old Japanese star a source of inspiration for millions, especially young girls, around the world, but as one checks the list in its entirety, questions start to arise about how many women actually make the list. The striking reality is there are merely two female athletes named in the top 100 highest-paid athletes in the world. Fellow tennis colleague, Serena Williams, is the other person to make the list. It is worth noting that in the history of Forbes Magazine, no more than 2 women have made it to the list, and in most cases, the number has been restricted to just one. Another insight from these reports is that tennis has been the only route for women to rank alongside the top-paid male sports stars, and that is majorly due to the fact that tennis is the only sport where men and women are paid the same amount in tournaments winnings, but off the field earnings still come nowhere close. It is also interesting to note that the list is topped by Osaka’s male counterpart- Roger Federer. The 20-time grand slam winner earned a whopping $106 million, with $100 million of that coming from endorsements.

The gender pay gap exists in almost every industry, and sports are no exception. But between particular sports, there are vast discrepancies in pay for men and women, ranging from tennis, where pay is comparable in terms of winnings, to cricket, football, and hockey where the pay gap is a minimum of 10-folds.  Some examples of this widespread wage gap highlight the institutionalized gender discrimination in sports. 

It was in the year 2014 that the calls for gender equality in sports reached a new high with the following instances engraging people around the world. In the United States, the individual salaries of 52 National Basketball Association (NBA) players was more than that of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) players’ salaries put together. An unequal pay gap was seen in golf as well where the tournament winner of the Professional Golf Association (PGA) was awarded five times the amount that was awarded to the tournament winner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour. 

In India, the situation is similar when it comes to its most popular sport- cricket. The Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) pays the top Indian women’s cricket player contracted Grade-A, Rs. 50 Lakhs, lesser than a male cricketer with the lowest-level Grade C contract worth Rs. 1 Crore. 

The justification given in the case of the Indian cricket team’s gender pay gap was that the revenue generated by the men’s team sports is multi-fold more than what the women’s team sports bring in.  But the issue seems more about the gender aspect of it than the revenues, especially given the fact that the recent women’s cricket world cup in Australia, saw a record number of audiences in the stadiums and witnessed massive global viewership throughout the tournament. 

A similar explanation was offered for the wage gap in football, where since filing a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation on March 8, 2019, the US Women’s Football team has gone on to win a second consecutive World Cup — celebrated by chants of “Equal Pay!” from fans. The much-needed World Cup win may have given the spotlight to the United States Women’s National Team, but according to the New York Times, the prize for the 2018 men’s World Cup was $400 million, while female players received merely $30 million The discrimination lawsuit filed was not only focused on the paycheck but also the discrimination regarding where they play, how often they get to play, what training facilities they get, who they are coached by, what medical benefits they receive during their career and how they travel to venues for their respective games, as compared to their male peers. They claim they are based on equal treatment and that starts with equal pay. In February 2022, it was announced that the players would receive a payout of 24 million US dollars as a result of the lawsuit, with the soccer federation pledging equal pay for both the men and women’s team.

This raises questions about the claims being made in support of not paying both men and women equally. Some of the most commonly used ones are 1) men’s sports generate more revenue than women’s sports, which in turn means they will be paid more, 2) personal endorsements and brandings add much more to their income than on-field earning which further widens the pay gap. 3) men’s sports receive more media coverage, television license, and sponsorship deals which also help in increasing revenues

The general idea one gets from all these claims is that women are being paid what they deserve as they do not bring in as much revenue and media coverage as men do. Hence, it is equitable as they receive their fair share in terms of percentage of revenue.

This brings us the important question- Is the pay for both genders really equitable?

Taking the example of the football player’s earnings in 2019 (given that sports took a big hit in revenues in 2020 because of the pandemic), and keeping aside the money they earn from endorsements and sponsorships, if we compare the money earned just from doing their on-field jobs at the highest levels, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, who is considered the best in the game based on his performance, made $92 million from his former club FC Barcelona out of his total yearly salary of $127 million, whereas  United States’ Alex Morgan who is considered the best in the women game based on her performance, earned only $250,000 from her club and national team, out of her total yearly earnings of $5.8 million. The rest comes from endorsements for both of them. 

This is in no way an attempt to say that people like Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo should not be earning as much as they do. They do deserve it after having put in great performances year after year and have become global brands, but the claims of wages being equitable between genders has very little truth to them. The degree of difference here is between millions and millions of dollars versus a few hundred thousand dollars.

These disparities are questionable since US women’s games generated more total revenue than US men’s games over the last three years. The US women’s football team has won the international tournament a grand total of 4 times, while the men’s team has failed to even qualify for the same. However, even then, the men’s team gets paid much more than the women’s team. 

It is also important to acknowledge the head start men’s sports have got in terms of the lucrative leagues they participate. Now, we are slowly seeing a  change with more professional clubs introducing a women’s team as a counterpart to the commercially successful men’s team. This creates a level playing field where both the teams get the same coverage, same facilities, same media attention, multi-year contracts and sponsorship deals. It is obvious that personal branding and endorsements only come in when the players play in these lucrative leagues. It is worth noting that Nike, the biggest sporting brand in the world, even with its talk of being gender-neutral, has four male athletes, namely Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Jordon, LeBron James, and Tiger Woods, for its ‘Lifetime-One-Billion-Dollar-Contracts’, the biggest contract the sporting apparel company offers.

Even the final claim of disparity in media and television coverage is only a factor because the fans are fed so much information and stories of male athletes and their leagues as compared to women’s sports, which compels and pushes them to watch and buy the tickets for the men’s sport. The claim that women’s sport is not marketable enough is merely an excuse to not market their sports. As mentioned earlier the examples of the Indian women’s cricket team journey in the ICC World Cup and US women’s 4th FIFA World Cup victory were the most-watched game in their respective countries, which shows that if they are good and there is a good amount of support in the form of investments, women’s sport can bring in the same level of revenues and media coverage as men’s sports. 

Hence, it is unfair to say female athletes do not bring in the same revenues as male athletes as the initial investment in preparing a level playing field itself is not present.
This then brings back the reason why only women tennis players have been able to break into the Forbes highest-paid athletes list. It is no surprise that 9 out of the 10 highest-paid female athletes come from a tennis background as both men and women compete in the same events, on a level playing field and hence,  receive the same amount of money in winnings.

Tennis has been hailed as a leader and the voice fighting for gender equality with the sport being one of the few handfuls to have closed the wage gap in its major tournaments. But this not-so-easy feat was achieved because of the fight put forward by the legends of the sport like Billie Jean King in the 1960s-70s and Venus Williams in the late 90s and the early 2000s.

It was because of King, an outspoken rebel, who refused to play in the US Open due to the pay inequality that led to the tournament being the first one in the world to award both male and female equal pay. Venus Williams then followed the steps of her childhood hero, fought for equal pay in all grand slams.  She authored the viral op-ed for the Times of London- “Wimbledon has sent me a message: I’m only a Second Class Champion”. This resulted in the Wimbledon, French and Australian Open,  agreeing to close the gap, 34 years after King’s effort for equalization of pay at the US Open.

It is successful efforts like these that have paved the way forward for equal pay in sports like football, golf and cricket. The national football associations of Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, England and Norway have already begun talks and implemented in some cases, which ensures that players from both the men’s and women’s teams will be paid the same fee to represent their country.

There still is a very long way to go to achieve gender equality across all sports, but it definitely is the need of the hour. The US soccer team who lost their legal battle of gender discrimination, and reached a settlement agreement in 2022, have also made leaps of progress in public opinion, and one day, their names will be mentioned in the same breath as Billie Jean King and Venus Williams for their fight outside the field.  

The staggering pay gap in sports for men and women is a result of the institutionalized gender discrimination that has caused, contributed to, and perpetuated gender-based pay disparities against the players in nearly every aspect of their employment. As women and girls across the world continue to fight for equal opportunity in the workplace, the fields, the arenas, and the courts have been and will continue to be, no exception.

Rakshan S Kalmady, 2nd Year MA in Public Policy Student at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.

Image credits – BBC

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