An in-depth look at the gender wage gap issue in sports

Key historical moments, present-day issues, and what should happen

(Photo courtesy of Jessica Hills via Forbes)

The gender wage gap has been a much-discussed topic for many years now. While there is still a ways to go, many industries have improved in making sure that men and women who hold similar positions are paid equally. One industry that often gets forgotten in this discussion, however, is the one of professional sports.

There are a lot of factors at play, and a lot of opinions on the subject. Nonetheless, there are clear instances in sports where women are not given an equal proportion of league earnings compared to men. We decided to take a deeper look at the gender wage gap in sports, its history, and what can be expected in the future.

History

Discussing the wage gap in sports is not new. For example, the 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes tells the tale of Billie Jean King, who famously fought for the equal pay of female tennis players. As reported by The Guardian, King took home only £750 for winning the 1968 Wimbledon tournament, barely more than a third of what the men’s winner won.

A few years later, King was involved in one of the most famous tennis matches of all time. After 55-year-old Bobby Riggs (who had been the number-one male tennis player in his prime) claimed that he could defeat any female tennis opponent, King swept him 3–0 in 1973. The win was a huge moment for women’s sports and had a positive impact on the Women’s Tennis Association, which had been founded by King a few months prior to the match.

More recently, Venus Williams made strides towards getting equal pay for women in tennis. In 2007, she became the first women champion to make as much as the men’s champion at a major tennis open. Today, tennis is one of the few sports recognized for paying both men and women equally.

The United States women’s national soccer and hockey teams have also made strides towards equal pay in their respective sports. In 2015, the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup championship and was awarded $2 million after playing in the soccer game with the most American viewers ever. The U.S. men’s team, on the other hand, was awarded $8 million for losing in the first knockout round the year before in the men’s World Cup.

That’s right: the men earned four times as much for losing as the women did for being world champions.

After launching a complaint, the women’s team reached a new labour deal in 2017 with U.S. soccer which will see them be given major raises, bigger bonuses, and equal per diems to the men’s team’s.

Similarly, the U.S women’s hockey team has seen an increase in pay in recent years. After threatening to sit out the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship in 2017, the U.S national women’s hockey team signed a four-year labour agreement with USA Hockey. Details of the agreement were not released, but it likely resembled the $68,000 annual salary that they asked for, as well as benefits like playing in more games, childcare, and maternity leave.

While these are just a few instances, they show that fair increases in pay are possible in women’s sports, and should be expected across all major sports.

Skylar Diggins-Smith is fighting for fair pay in the WNBA. (Photo courtesy of Footwear News)

Today

While there have been some success stories in making sure that women athletes are paid fairly, there is still quite a ways to go.

This is particularly true in professional basketball, where the wage gap is most apparent. For example, the number-one overall pick in the 2018 WNBA draft, A’ja Wilson, will make approximately 1/130 of what the first overall pick in the NBA draft, Deandre Ayton, is set to make–$52,664 compared to $6.8 million. Those who try to point this out, however, are met with arguments based on how much more money the NBA makes compared to the WNBA.

While this would be a valid argument if WNBA players earned a similar cut of their leagues revenues, this is simply not the case. According to an article by Grandstand Central, the NBA pays 50% of its revenues towards player salaries, while the WNBA pays a measly 20% towards its players.  

These numbers just don’t add up. WNBA players are unproportionately paid. Plus, the league is growing. The 2017 season saw 1,574,078 people attend a WNBA game, the highest total attendance for the league. Also, 2017 saw an 18% increase in WNBA store purchases from the previous year.

So, while the billionaire owners of the league may complain about “losing money,” the league is showing that it can be profitable. Still, leagues like the NBA should be responsible for promoting their female counterpart.  

If you’ve watched sports channels recently, you’ve likely seen the Wealthsimple commercial that features WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith. In this commercial, she discusses how an average NBA prospect can make up to 100 times what a superstar makes in the WNBA. This issue is starting to be seen by everybody. WNBA players should expect to earn the 50% of league revenues that NBA players do. Doing so could see up to a 2.5x salary increase for players across the league.

While this case is far from over, hopefully this will go down as another movement towards equal gender pay across professional sports. To ensure that women athletes earn fairer wages, however, they need support. Not just support on Twitter or other social media platforms, but fans who go to their games and buy their merchandise.

The closest professional women’s teams to us are the Seattle Storm (who play in the WNBA) and the Reign FC (who play in the National Women’s Soccer League), and have recently announced a move to Tacoma, Washington. The Storm are the defending WNBA champions and start their season off in May, while Reign FC will begin their season in April.