Women’s sports have made tremendous strides in recent decades, with increasing viewership, participation, professional leagues and revenues. However, a major pay gap persists between men and women athletes across sports, both at the professional level and for national teams. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team brought this inequality to the forefront by filing a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2019 over unequal pay compared to the men’s team.
The women’s team has been far more successful than the men’s in recent years, winning four World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals since 1991. Yet top female players still earn only a fraction of the salaries of their male counterparts. According to Liberty Daily, Alex Morgan earns about $450,000 from U.S. Soccer while forward Christian Pulisic earns $613,000. This is despite the U.S. women generating more total revenue than the men in recent years.
This pay gap is consistent across pro sports leagues as well. In the WNBA, the highest paid players make around $221,000 while the NBA salary cap is $109 million per team. Top female tennis pros may earn millions on the court, but male players often make double from tournament winnings alone. Male golfers also significantly outearn females – for instance, Tiger Woods earns over $60 million per year while the top LPGA player makes around $5 million.
There are several underlying reasons behind the persistent gender pay divide in sports:
- Revenue generation: Men’s leagues at the pro level still generate far more money than women’s leagues overall. Media rights deals, ticket sales, sponsorships and merchandising bring in billions for major men’s leagues. The NFL alone makes over $15 billion per year while the top women’s soccer league NWSL generates only about $10 million annually.
- Sponsorship dollars: Advertisers and corporate sponsors pay significantly more to partner with male athletes versus females. Lebron James has a lifetime endorsement deal with Nike worth $1 billion. Serena Williams, the highest paid female athlete, makes less than $25 million annually from her deals.
- Viewership and fan bases: Men’s major pro leagues and events draw substantially higher TV ratings and crowds than women’s. For example, the 2019 Women’s World Cup final drew 14.3 million U.S. viewers compared to 69 million who watched the 2018 men’s final. More fans and viewers translates to higher revenues.
- Cultural biases: Traditional stereotypes that portray men’s sports as more exciting, strong or athletic remain deeply embedded for both male and female fans. Focus group studies reveal that many fans hold an inherent bias toward men’s sports they’ve been socialized into.
However, the landscape for women’s sports is evolving rapidly, putting pressure on the pay gap. The U.S. women’s soccer team negotiations with U.S. Soccer remains ongoing, but experts say it has a strong legal case for back pay damages under the Equal Pay Act. The women point out that their games have generated higher U.S. TV ratings and ticket revenues than the men since 2015. Both sides hope for a settlement in 2023.
The WNBA also saw major progress with its 2020 collective bargaining agreement that more than doubled top player salaries to over $500,000. And the National Women’s Hockey League added sponsors and investors, doubling player salaries to $15,000 minimum in 2021. Tennis legend Billie Jean King, who famously fought pay equality in the 1970s, says that major progress on pay requires changing attitudes and expectations around women’s sports.
Television ratings for women’s leagues rose sharply in 2021, with WNBA viewership up over 50% and more women’s Olympic sports showing ratings gains. Softball and beach volleyball in particular drew strong audiences during the Tokyo Summer Games. This viewership leverage could lead to larger media rights deals down the road.
There are also signs of shifting corporate sponsorship patterns. Companies like Secret, Budweiser, ESPN, and others have signed multi-year sponsorship deals with women’s soccer, WNBA, or U.S. Olympic athletes. Adidas vowed to pay athletes equal bonuses for medals and World Cup titles moving forward. Female athletes like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Breanna Stewart are landing major endorsement deals as their star power grows.
In The End
While these developments are encouraging, advocates say there is a long path ahead to truly leveling the playing field. Equality in youth sports programs, media coverage, facilities and equipment access remain ongoing battles as well. But the increased visibility of elite female athletes is helping to change social norms and expectations.
A 2021 national poll found that 82% of Americans support equal pay for male and female athletes, indicating public attitudes are shifting. As more fans tune into women’s sports and sponsorships expand, pay discrepancies will face growing public scrutiny. Women athletes are increasingly demanding equitable treatment, casting new light on the pay gaps.
The rapid growth trajectory of women’s sports represents a huge business opportunity that sponsors, investors and media partners are beginning to recognize. While revenue and pay gaps may take decades more to fully close, recent progress reflects a cultural shift gaining momentum. After generations of systemic inequality, the drive for pay equity and greater inclusion will go a long way toward encouraging women and girls to participate and follow sports – creating a virtuous cycle of fandom. For legions of supporters, this change can’t come soon enough.