Why Don’t We Treat Women Athletes Better?

With their third World Cup title in hand, the U.S. women’s national soccer team proved that they're not only powerhouses on the field, they can attract a record-breaking audience, too. In the U.S., nearly 23 million people tuned in for the World Cup final match on Sunday, July 5 — the biggest American television audience for a soccer game, ever. So, it came as a bit of a shock this week when it was revealed that the U.S. team would take home just $2 million from the international governing body of soccer, FIFA, for winning it all, compared to the U.S. men’s team, which last year earned $8 million for losing in the first knockout round game. You read that right: The men earned four times as much to lose a tournament, as the women earned winning the whole thing. Last year, Germany, the winner of the men’s World Cup, took home $35 million. Talk about a shocking example of the gender wage gap.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/ FIFA/ Getty Images.
When it comes to FIFA and gender equality, this isn’t very surprising. The international organization, which is currently facing numerous corruption charges, doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to supporting the women players it represents. Earlier this year, FIFA basically ignored a gender-disparity lawsuit brought by several of the top female players. They were suing because the women's World Cup games were being played on artificial turf fields — they argued that it's inferior to playing on natural grass, and had they been men, it wouldn't have even been an issue. Then there’s former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who in 2004 told women’s soccer players they could “wear tighter shorts” to increase interest in the game.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who in 2004 told women’s soccer players they could “wear tighter shorts.”

Unfortunately, this wide pay gap in professional sports is nothing new. In the National Women’s Soccer League, player salaries range from $6,842 to $37,800 (the low end of that being well below the poverty line), while in Major League Soccer, their male counterparts make at least $60,000 and top players make millions. Whole WNBA teams make less than some individual NBA players. “Gender-pay disparities across a variety of sports have existed for a long time in the U.S. Much of the time, these are unremarkable to us,” says Rachel Allison, a professor of sociology at Mississippi State University, who has studied women’s professional soccer. “But now we in the U.S. have just seen the women's national team put in a wonderful and inspiring performance... We feel in some way attached to them and their success. So all of a sudden, the pay gap, a longstanding feature of women's soccer, seems less acceptable."

Whole WNBA teams make less than some individual NBA players.

There is one notable exception to the pay gap in women’s sports. Thanks to decades of hard work by the Women’s Tennis Association, started by Billie Jean King in the early '70s, all four Grand Slam tournaments have given equal prize money to men and women since 2007. Breaking down the gender pay gap in tennis was no small feat. To convince the Grand Slams, it took direct campaigning by the stars themselves, from King to Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and more recently, Venus and Serena Williams. “Tennis players have used their sponsor and attendance numbers to challenge the idea that there is a lack of interest, a lack of a market for women's tennis,” says Allison.
Photo: BPI/REX Shutterstock.
But, prize money isn’t everything, and a concerning statistic from this year’s Wimbledon tournament — which notably was the last holdout in paying the women and men players equally — reveals that even in tennis, we’re still not all the way across the gender equality line. An analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight shows that so far in this summer's tournament, women tennis stars have played on the two main Wimbledon courts — which have the biggest fan sections and the most media and broadcast attention — just 38% of the time. It was enough to make Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki comment to the press: “The women really haven’t gotten the opportunity here to play on the big courts,” Wozniacki said. "We're still fighting on that," Williams said. If there’s one thing these women athletes know how to do, it’s fight to win. And every step counts. The fact that we’re even noticing and talking about these differences shows we’re making progress. “Clear evidence of gender inequality in elite sports in general may dismay us now, but the attention that these issues are getting will be extremely valuable in moving towards change,” says Allison.

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