The Main Issue in Women's Sports Isn't Equal Pay

We are told female athletes are paid less than men because they generate less money. But that will always be the case if women’s sports aren’t marketed properly

By Major League Girls Founder, Anya Alvarez

In women’s sports we talk a lot about equal pay. The focus of the conversation is usually on how women make less than men, the unfairness of the disparity despite the equal amount of work they put in, and how female athletes often have to work full-time jobs on top of being full-time athletes.

The US women’s soccer team has brought the conversation to the forefront over the last three years. After they won the World Cup in 2015, it was revealed that the US women’s team were paid a quarter of what the men earned. This was despite the women generating $20m more than the men that year.

The women’s national team filed a wage discrimination act against US Soccer, and in turn received a significant raise, increased game bonuses, improved per diem stipends, better travel benefits, and more financial aid for players who are pregnant or adopting.

But that was not enough.

In March, the women’s team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against US Soccer. The media lasered in on the equal pay portion of the lawsuit, but ignored other facets. And there’s one issue in the lawsuit that is more important than equal pay: the argument that the women’s team is not marketed or promoted as much as the men, which leads to lower attendances and merchandise sales.

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This point should not be ignored. In fact, it should be the headline, but writing “Women’s soccer doesn’t receive as many marketing dollars”isn’t as attention grabbing as “Women’s soccer team, wildly more successful than the men, makes less than half of what men earn”.

I have written about equal pay quite a bit, but I am beginning to think that my argument, while rooted in a desire for equality, was misguided. The issue isn’t equal pay. The issue is marketing and promotion.

There is systematic sexism in sports that leads to unequal pay, which starts with how women are marketed by their own leagues. Let’s look at the WNBA, whose marketing budget makes it difficult to build a fanbase – and therefore revenue – to support its athletes.

As Washington Mystics player Elena Delle Donne said last year: “We absolutely do not get promoted as our male counterparts do. Yes, I’m talking about the NBA. When you put millions of dollars into marketing athletes and allowing fans to get to know a player they develop a connection with someone or something you are more engaged and continue to want to see/learn more. How is anyone going to get to know me or any of my colleagues if we aren’t marketed as much?”

The root of the problem isn’t what women are getting paid: it is the lack of foundation that they have to build from to capitalize on their talent. When we make equal pay the central part of the conversation, we miss all the smaller things that enable a system that hurts women’s advancement in sports and their opportunity to generate equal revenue, and in return warrant equal pay. And when the marketing isn’t there, it gives ammo to the usual critics who say: “See? They don’t generate enough interest.”

Recently, the US Soccer Federation said the women’s team generates less revenue from game ticket sales, although they had “invested in marketing and promoting the USWNT.” US Soccer did not disclose how much it spent on marketing the women in comparison to the men, an important part of information needed to decipher if they are trying to generate real interest in the women’s game.

And it’s not just the governing bodies that need to step up and give more money to promote women’s leagues. We also need to look at corporate sponsors. According to a 2018 Statista report, women’s sports receive only 0.4% of total sponsorships.

When we look at these numbers, how can we ever expect that women will have the funds to fully develop leagues and players? Sure, equal pay is a hot topic, but in women’s sports it’s irrelevant until we start looking at the hurdles set in place to keep women from ever crossing the finish line.

The truth is, women’s sports will not achieve parity if the barriers that keep them in the trenches remain. We can talk about equal pay all we want, but it doesn’t matter until we start investing equally in how we market and promote these athletes.

Anya Alvarez