A Look At The Gender Pay Gap In Sports

It should come as little surprise that female athletes often face dramatic pay disparities. (All while being disrespected for having the powerful, graceful, hard-earned physiques that contribute to their next-level talent.)

Over time, a number of women have pushed the gatekeepers of their sports to recognize and compensate the talent of the people who have dedicated much of their lives to competing. Despite several successes, however, the showdowns over airtime, prize purses, training and match conditions, and all around respect continue.

Here's a look at five moments over time where change was made, even in the face of stark divides.

Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images.
Billie Jean King is currently making the media rounds to promote the Battle of the Sexes movie, but she was a trailblazer well before she beat Bobby Riggs. She was known in matches for her mental toughness and skill at turning things around. Her fortitude was crucial in changing the financial landscape for women in tennis.

King was a world-ranked, number-one tennis player but her pay, and that of her female colleagues, hardly reflected that. The difference in prize money at the time was cavernous. "When [King] won Wimbledon for the third time in 1968 she was paid £750. The men's winner, Rod Laver, took home £2,000," The Guardian reports. "In other tournaments, the pay differential was even greater — the men would take 10, 11, 12 times the women's purse. And in many competitions, women weren't even given the chance to play."

In response to ongoing resistance, King and eight other players started their own tour, the Virginia Slims tournament, in 1970. The Unites States Tennis Association (USTA, formerly called the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association), booted the women out of the organization, but three years later, King founded the Women's Tennis Association (WTA). Later that year, the USTA relented, and the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for men and women.
Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images.
"Have you ever been let down by someone that you had long admired, respected and looked up to?" Venus Williams wrote in a London Times op-ed in 2005. "Little in life is more disappointing, particularly when that person does something that goes against the very heart of what you believe is right and fair."

A lot of coverage of the Williams sisters centers on their matches, but less is said of Venus' work to advance equal pay in the sport. In 2013, Ava DuVernay chronicled William's fight for equal pay in ESPN's "Nine for IX" documentary Venus Vs. She became the "first women's champion to earn as much as the men's (Roger Federer)" in 2007, but as The Washington Post noted before the premiere of the film, Venus' work remains "a big story in Britain, but [is] not widely known in the United States."

Much of that is due to the location of the battleground, which is not only a private club in London, but is also considered the most hallowed, prestigious, and traditional tournament. But after making her case to officials behind the scenes, and media in front of the scenes (even leading to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair calling for change), Wimbledon moved into the future.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Photo: Courtesy of Team USA Hockey.
In March 2017, the U.S. women's hockey team declared that it would sit out of the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship starting later that month if negotiations with USA Hockey didn't progress. During the negotiations, the U.S. men's hockey team showed solidarity by vowing to sit out of the championships, too, if USA Hockey didn't make a more viable deal with their female colleagues.

The women asked for a $68,000 salary (well above the $24,000 annual base salary USAH offered them), especially considering that "the only money the players get from USA Hockey comes during the six-month period leading up to the Olympics," CNN Money reported. "The organization hasn't offered the women any money for the time the team spends training, competing and making public appearances for USA Hockey outside that six-month time frame, a team spokesperson said."

In the end, the women's bluff worked. They signed a four-year contract that reportedly includes childcare, maternity leave, more playing time throughout the year, better marketing and promotion of players and games, and an initiative targeted at advancing girls' and women's hockey. All things that male players had already enjoyed (despite the latter making a lot more money from playing), but they can now take advantage of.
Photo: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images.
The U.S women's national soccer team has been very outspoken about unfair disparities when it comes to pay, respect, and playing conditions.

In 2015, despite nearly 23 million people tuning in to watch the women play (and win) in the World Cup final, the team collectively earned $2 million — $6 million less than the U.S. men's team, which lost in the first round of knockouts.

En route to victory, they repeatedly complained about the use of artificial turf on playing fields, an alternative to real grass that is cheaper to maintain long-term, but can lead to a litany of issues. As Sports Illustrated explained at the time, the harder impact of turf can have a cumulative effect on injuries from runs and falls. Not to mention, "sometimes artificial turf gets so hot that it actually melts shoes" — something the U.S. men's national team would never have to deal with, as they "[do] not play on artificial turf. Even when it schedules a game in a stadium that has it, sod is laid down for the game, no matter the cost."

Last year, the team filed a wage-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A New York Times analysis of women's and men's pay since 2008 revealed that players at the top earn roughly equal amount. Father down the tier, however, the gap grows by hundreds of millions. "At No. 25, the female player made just under $341,000, and the corresponding male player supplemented his salary by about $580,000. At No. 50, the male player made 10 times as much as his female counterpart."

Rich Nichols, the general counsel for the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team Players Association clarified the outrageousness of that divide even further. He explained to the Times that female players only earned 75% of that compensation from actually winning championships — meaning the "women have to perform at a world-beating level just to keep pace financially." Even their World Cup victory tour came with the catch of playing extra games, while "the men get paid just for showing up."
Photo: David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images.
LeBron James has become infamous in the NBA for being outspoken about player pay. The Cleveland Cavs star is a known proponent for not placing salary caps on players' earnings. Earlier this summer, he tweeted his support for even higher pay after Warriors shooter Steph Curry signed a landmark $201 million contract over five years.

His remark came in response to a tweet from sports columnist Ann Killion, who noted that the Warriors' team worth had more than doubled to $2.6 billion since 2010, when owner Joe Lacob purchased it for $450 million. (Steph Curry sells tickets.) All this talk of NBA ticket sales and earnings in the tens of millions seems out of this world when compared to sales and pay in the WNBA, where the maximum salary for a professional female basketball player is currently capped at $113,500. Some estimates say that top players in the WNBA are being underpaid by as much as $800,000 a year.

Last year, the WNBA issued a press release revealing several areas of growth on and offline. Game attendance was the highest it had been in five years, television viewership was up 11% over the previous season, and merchandise sales had also increased over the season before by 30%. Plus, for the first time in WNBA history, the franchise is getting its own video game series, NBA Live 18 through EA Games. (The NBA got its first NBA Live nod in 1995.)

However, overall progress of the WNBA lags in most respects. The league was created in 1997, and 20 years later, half of its 12 teams lose money and attendance is still shaky.

Adam Silver, the current NBA commissioner, admitted to the Times that he and others in the league had failed to adequately promote it. "As much as we've done in lending the league our name, the people who have been in the sports business for a long time, and I'm one of them, historically underestimated the marketing it takes to launch a new property," he said.

Nearly any discussion about financial gaps between women's and men's sports devolves into an argument about the skill of women players, their stamina, and how fun they are to watch. But a counter to that argument is, if a basketball game happens in a stadium and no marketing is done to ensure anyone knows it exists, turnout will naturally be low.

WNBA president Lisa Borders has said that it is her job to secure "economic viability" for the league, but that "people have to know there's a team in their market." Whether she'll be successful in the short- or long-term remains to be seen, especially amid other challenges. As espnW reported, some players, like former Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi, might continue to go overseas instead of receiving a pittance compared to male players. Considering that players like her earn more money sitting out games in international leagues than they do off the bench in the U.S., the choice to continue playing in the WNBA can be a difficult one.
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