Can Women’s Sports Ever Win?

Did you watch Serena Williams win Wimbledon over Garbine Muguruza in straight sets? It was Williams’ third major tournament victory this year on her way to a possible Grand Slam at age 33.

Williams is not only the top tennis player in the U.S. with 21 major titles, but perhaps the best American professional athlete, period. That’s what sportswriter Aaron Randle of Complex suggested recently when he called Williams “the greatest athlete we’ve witnessed in the last 20 years.”

If that statement surprises you, it might be because women’s sports still only gets a sliver of media coverage, sponsorship money and television deals.

The Women’s World Cup was the latest example. FOX took in just $40 million in ads from corporate sponsors for airing the soccer tournament, a fraction of the $529 million that ESPN gobbled up for airing the 2014 Men’s World Cup.

This lack of sponsorship and TV deals also tend to hurt how much women athletes get paid as well.

The U.S. Women’s National Team made $2 million for their victory in this year’s World Cup. The German Men’s National Team made $35 million for their victory. The pay gap is just as stark in the pro leagues. In the National Women’s Soccer League, where stars like Carli Lloyd and Abby Wambachplay, salaries range from $6,000 to $30,000. Men’s Major League Soccer — where the salaries were called“staggeringly low” by The New York Times — has a median salary of $92,000, and some MLS players, like Clint Dempsey, make over $5 million.

Even in the WNBA, which has a six-year, $72 million television deal with ESPN, players are paid a fraction of their NBA counterparts. Buzzfeed pointed out that in 2014 there were 52 NBA players whose individual salary was greater than all WNBA players’ wages combined.

The justification for this massive pay gap is that women’s sports don’t have as many fans or viewers. That cause isn’t helped, of course, by the fact that major sports media rarely covers women’s sports in the first place.

ESPN’s SportsCenter used only 2% of their time to showwomen sports in 2014 according to the The Atlantic. ESPN will only air nine National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) games this season, compared with the 34 they will air of Major League Soccer, which is part of a $750 million, 8-yearjoint TV deal with Fox.

Is there any hope for a little more R-E-S-P-E-C-T and some money to boot?

If so, it starts with viewing and maybe spending habits.

As Dennis Coates, a U. of Maryland economics professor who focuses on sports, said recently, “the demand for watching women’s sports even at the highest level just isn’t as big as the demand for watching men’s sports, and as a consequence the pay isn’t very high.”

The raging success of the Women’s World Cup Final suggests this long-held assumption might be out of date: 26.7 million viewers watched the U.S. women defeat Japan 5–2, making it the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history. Its TV audience was bigger than the NBA finals and last year’s World Series.

Shane Ferro, economics writer at Business Insider, wrote that, “It’s becoming clear that there is a market there, if someone is willing to figure out how to take advantage of it.”

But how can demand build if the supply is consistently choked? If professional women’s sports — whether basketball, soccer or otherwise — aren’t on television consistently, how can they develop a steady fan base?

Ferro offers one simple suggestion to jump-start the change: skip the middle man. “If you want to fix the income disparity in women’s sports, go buy a jersey or tickets for a game.”

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