Let’s kick gender inequality out of professional sports

9 mins read

The U.S. women’s national soccer team is currently preparing itself for what they hope will be a successful 2015 Women’s World Cup. Usually, this is a time of excitement and anticipation, characterized by an energy brought about by the fact that the women’s team, unlike their male counterparts, actually have a chance of going the distance. However, the Women’s World Cup has been overshadowed by complaints of unequal gender treatment by the International Association of Federation Football (FIFA) ever since it decided to award the bid to Canada and, to the players’ detriment, announced that the games would be played on turf fields.

The basis for the claims? Turf fields heat up much more easily than grass fields and are, overall, much more inconvenient to play soccer on. As Abby Wambach, a veteran player on the U.S. women’s team points out, FIFA would never subject the men’s World Cup to the same conditions.

One could approach this issue from multiple fronts. Obviously, it is yet another instance where FIFA has upset many people, but plenty has been written on that already (including by me). It would be more interesting to use this as an opportunity to remind ourselves of the presence of gender inequality in the professional sports world. If we were to take a snapshot of professional sports today, how prevalent would the gender inequality be?

For the most part, the answer is that it is extremely prevalent. This is most apparent when it comes to wage disparities, starting as early as college athletics. Take Duke University for example, one of the elite athletic colleges. The men’s basketball team coach makes approximately $10 million per year, while the women’s basketball team coach makes roughly $700,000.

Such a conspicuous difference carries over to the professional sports world in basically the same manner. If we shift our focus back briefly to U.S. professional soccer, we find that men’s team coach Jurgen Klinsmann makes $2.5 million per year while his counterpart for the women’s team, Tom Sermanni, makes approximately $200,000.

What are some reasonable generalizations that can be made about the status of female vs. male professional sports? The massive disparities can almost be seen as demeaning to women athletes. Generally, it seems that it is much less profitable to be in charge of women athletes, and thus inherently less desirable on that front. The job of the coaches in charge of high-profile male athletes is more valued than that of coaches in charge of female athletes of similar caliber. The gender inequality in leadership issue is likewise entrenched in the sense that very few women are in important positions in institutions like FIFA and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, where, for example, only five of 120 athletic-director positions were held by women as of February 2011 in Division I-A football schools, the highest level of college athletics.

The actual female athletes are suffering similar issues, among others. The salaries of elite players in a women’s sport are often not comparable to the average salary of a mediocre male athlete of the same sport. Professional basketball is a great example, where the best of the best women make around $100,000 while the average male player makes around $5 million. In golf, the total prize money for the PGA (men’s) tour was as much as five times as much as that for the LPGA (women’s). Examples like these can be found all throughout professional sports.

There are, however, some indications of progress, with women’s tennis being the most notable. Women’s tennis is probably the most popular among women’s professional sports and, more importantly for this discussion, the most equal to its male counterpart. How so? When looking at the most apparent factor, wage, men and women can make the same at the highest level. This is due to the fact that all four Grand Slam events now have prize values that are the same for men and women, an innovative move that began with Wimbledon in 2007. One the surface, it appears that those in charge of major tennis events should be commended for equalizing the qualitative value of the best athletes in the sport; seeing as nothing of the sort has been done for any other professional sport, they do deserve credit there.

However, tennis was uniquely positioned to make this move earlier. Women’s tennis has been around and popular for much longer than most, if not all, other women’s professional sports. It gained traction around the same time as men’s tennis, whereas in other sports women’s professional sports leagues and institutions have only recently started arriving on the scene while men’s professional sports have had much more time to develop. The most interesting note here is that fans of tennis appear to prefer women and men’s professional tennis almost equally. The top players in both are household names, and are followed nearly as fervently as each other (e.g. the Williams sisters, among many others).

So does this issue really come down to the fans, those of us who follow and watch the professional sports, more so than the institutions? In the beginning stages, it seems as if it does. Wages are based on revenue generated, and men’s sports generate more because they are supported and followed more than women’s sports. If fans started to support women’s sports more, it seems sensible to expect that the female athletes will eventually benefit from the increased revenue. In simpler words, the resolution to the problem initially lies in fan preference. It doesn’t necessarily have to be financial contribution either: anything from increasing publicity to defending an unequally treated athlete or group of athletes will build a more apparent fan preference. From there, the institutions will have to pick up on such increased preference as it approaches the preference for men’s professional sports and act accordingly, as in the case with the Grand Slam events for tennis.

If we go back to the starting situation with the US women’s soccer team and the turf fields for the 2015 World Cup, it is worth noting that many fans have thrown their support behind the team’s efforts to push for a move to grass fields. Even if that isn’t successful, that level of support and more will be needed from fans if we want to begin establishing widespread gender equality across professional sports. We can blame institutions such as FIFA endlessly, but the initial responsibility, and the more more prudent one, might just lie with us.


  1. I am not seeing any “inequality” here. I see difference, not inequality.

    Can you tell me why it is that female models make so much more than male models? Is anyone fighting for male models to make equal amounts?

    Or is there something important to consider here.. perhaps it is about supply and demand. People pay good money to see men play sports.. women, not so much. So how could it possibly be justified to pay women the same when there is not the demand in sports? What happened in Tennis is ridiculous; women getting paid the same prize money when ticket prices for see the males was like 4 times higher. Also, the men play more sets. An equal.. wait, I can’t use that word, it is loaded.. identical monetary reward is not supported.

    Now you might ask, why don’t people want to see women play sports. I dunno, it’s just not as exciting. It’s not the greatest of human physical achievement. It might be great for a woman, but not compared to male accomplishment in sport. This is not discrimination this is just a general truth about gender differences. Men tend to be built better for physical activities.

    Female reward for playing sport will NEVER be identical to male reward as long as the fans prefer supporting male sport.

  2. I’ve never been given many opportunities to support or follow women’s sport, my country (South Africa) has never hosted a major women’s sport event and women’s events are barely televised.

    If I were exposed to more women’s sport, I’d undoubtedly watch these events but due to the lack of media coverage and disinterest of television stations, women’s sport is neglected. Most of my peers have never heard of names like Marta, Abby Wambach or Ralf Kellerman.

    For the 2014 FIFA world cup in Brazil, we saw adverts and commercials for the event daily, but most people around me are completely unaware that the Women’s World Cup is in Canada this year. We cannot expect equal fan bases for women’s sport, when they aren’t given equal coverage and advertising compared to male sport. Most people are not ignorant of women’s sport, but are simply unaware.

  3. When it comes to soccer I DO NOT UNDERSTAND IT because it is literally a sport where women are equally qualified. 6,000 to 30,000 a year is RIDICULOUS…

    Fans are consumers they support what they see.

    People can disagree but I enjoy women’s soccer (Futbol) more than men’s soccer.

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