Why Female Athletes Earn Less Than Men Across Most Sports

by Marie Rodriguez

Forbes released its annual look at the world’s highest-paid athletes this month. The top 100 exemplified the stark contrast in pay between professional male and female athletes. The gender pay gap spans almost every industry and sports are no different. But within individual sports, there are vast discrepancies in pay for men and women, ranging from tennis, where pay is comparable, to basketball, where players are in entirely different zip codes.

Tennis players are the only female athletes to rank among the top earners over the past decade with Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Li Na all appearing multiple times on Forbes’ list. Excluding star Roger Federer, elite female tennis players compare very well with their male counterparts in terms of endorsement earnings.

“In team sports, it’s more difficult to stand out,” says Scott Minto, the head of the MBA Sports Program at San Diego State University. The most marketable tennis players made four times as much from endorsements and appearance fees as from prize money over the last year. Among the 10 highest paid female athletes, 9 are tennis players. Women in male-dominated sports such as race car driver Danica Patrick and UFC star Ronda Rousey ranked among the top earners in their sports when they were active.

The picture for women is bleak in terms of team sports, despite the players’ talent and success. The top WNBA salary was $117,500 last season compared to $37.4 million in the NBA. The team salary cap for the National Pro Fastpitch softball league is $175,000, yet the Boston Red Sox players will split $227 million in 2019. “The Yankees bat boy salary is more than my professional softball contract,” wrote NPF player and U.S. Women’s National Team member Delanie Gourley in a since-deleted tweet.

Women used to rank more prominently among the top-earning athletes, but over the past 25 years, media companies have spent billions on TV deals for live sports content. The result is an explosion in player salaries in the major sports leagues. Team sport athletes represent 82% of Forbes’ highest-paid athletes top 100.

The gulf in TV money between men’s and women’s sports leagues is massive. Major League Baseball is a $10 billion-in-revenue giant, while the NPF players make an average of $5,000 to $6,000 due to little revenue. The WNBA generates roughly $25 million annually from its TV deal with ESPN, while NBA TV revenue from ESPN and TNT is 100 times that. The WNBA recently added a multi-year partnership with CBS Sports Network to air 40 games next season. The new pact is in addition to the league’s existing deal with ESPN. More TV exposure for the players will lead to more visibility and more visibility could lead to major deals with endorsers in the future. Nike hasn’t made a signature shoe for a WNBA player in over 20 years.

WNBA players’ union opted out of its collective bargaining agreement in November. “This is not purely about salaries. This is about small changes the league can make that will impact the players. This is about a six-foot-nine superstar taking a red-eye cross-country and having to sit in an economy seat instead of an exit row,” wrote Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks who is the president of the WNBA union. They will negotiate a new deal with the league in October.

The pay disparities in baseball/softball and basketball come down almost entirely to the revenue their leagues generate. The case is a bit murkier for the U.S. women’s national team, which is on the prowl for back-to-back World Cup titles and faces Spain tomorrow after sweeping its three pool play matches. The team filed a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer in March. The lawsuit specifies: “Female WNT players would earn a maximum of $99,000 or $4,950 per game, while similarly situated male MNT players would earn an average of $263,320 or $13,166 per game.” The players claim they face discrimination when it comes to where and how often they play, how they train and travel, the medical treatment and coaching they receive, and obviously their salaries.

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