Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Women in professional sports- fantasy or reality? (Part II)

To follow up on my last post, I decided to explore women's professional sports in more detail. Why is it that women's professional sports are less popular than men's despite the increase in women's participation in sports and their improved skill level during the forty years since Title IX's passage? What are the inequalities that professional female athletes experience as a result?

A recent CNN Money article entitled "Sex, muscles, and basketball: How do you sell an athletic woman?" touches on a point made in my previous post- that "Americans have a complicated relationship with female athletes." The 2012 Olympics featured more American female athletes than male athletes for the first time in history- and we loved them. Several female athletes were not only closely watched, but transformed into pop culture icons. Gabby Douglas (gymnastics) and Missy Franklin (swimming) are examples of this phenomenon appearing on the Today show and the MTV Video Music Awards (respectively).

But as the article points out, many professional-caliber female athletes have nowhere to play upon their return to the U.S. For example, there is currently no professional women's soccer league in the U.S. (however, an NBC article published during the Olympics reported that a new league has been formed and will begin play in Spring 2013). Furthermore, for the professional women's leagues that do exist, stark differences appear in their fan base sizes and ticket prices as compared to their male counterparts. Take the WNBA, for example. Popular NBA teams average twice the number of fans per game and tickets are much more expensive (court-side seats at a Knicks game sell for $2,500 per seat, while the same seats at a Liberty game cost $250 per seat).

So, why is it that we don't see women's sports in the media more outside of Olympic broadcasts? The CNN Money article referenced above (and its title) suggest that one issue may be marketing athletic women- especially those that don't conform to traditional notions of femininity.

One strategy that has been employed to overcome this obstacle is to market "female athletes" as simply "athletes." Adrienne Lofton Shaw, Under Armour's senior director of women's marketing said, "We listen in these focus groups with these female athletes and the first thing they say is, 'I'm not a female athlete. I'm an athlete. So stop qualifying me before you talk to me.'" Gatorade has taken a similar approach, eliminating feminine and sexualized portrayals of female athletes in their advertisements (see here for commercial featuring Abby Wambach of the U.S. Women's Soccer team).

In addition to women's professional sports being less popular in the media than men's professional sports, there is also a great disparity in pay between men and women in the professional arena. The Women's Sports Foundation reports that during the 2005 WNBA season, the minimum salary was $31,200, the maximum was $89,000, and the team salary cap was $673,000. For NBA players during the same season, the minimum salary was $385,227, the maximum was $15.355 million, and the team salary cap was $46 million. The Foundation also reports that the total prize money for the LPGA tour is $50 million, while the total winnings for the PGA tour equal $256 million- more than five times those of the LPGA.

A USA Today Article from May of this year reports that with respect to professional basketball, the figures haven't improved much since the 2005 season. The article compared the earning capacity of Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever with Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics. Even as the WBNA's reigning Most Valuable Player and a four-time defensive player of the year, Catchings's salary is $105,500- the current league maximum. Garnett, on the other hand, makes $21 million per year. In response to the wage gap, the Fever's chief operating officer, Kelly Krauskopf, said that the WBNA's business model does not resemble the NBA's and that it can't support such salaries.

An obvious reason for the wage disparity is the relative popularity of women's professional sports, as previously discussed. Steve Herz, president of a New York-based sports and media talent agency said that the WNBA "...probably need[s] to catch lightning in a bottle with some incredible athlete who is charismatic like Dr. J or Michael Jordan" to approach the popularity of the NBA.

In the meantime, Catchings said that if in 50 years WBNA players make more than she does now, she would be happy because she would have contributed to that increase.

The Women's Sports Foundation has a few suggestions for improving the status of women's professional sports. They include attending women's sporting events, supporting companies that advocate for women's athletics, encouraging news outlets to cover women's sports, and volunteering to coach a girls' sports team, whether at the recreational or high school level.


Charlene said...

A few thoughts come to mind when reading this post:

The realm of professional sports is so driven by the audience. It is the audience's demand that often determines who and what we see in the media.

For audience members of the same sex, it seems men watch men's professional sports to idolize a level of physical prowess they wish they had, but will never attain. The difference for women is that it seems while women respect other women's physical accomplishment, it is not an ideal that society wishes most would aspire to.

Also, there is the cultural place of men's sports in America. Fathers watch men's sports with their sons and daughters. The image of a dad taking his kids to a baseball game seems as old as time. However, mothers are not seen to do the same.

In the end though, I never watched women's professional sports or men's professional sports. I don't think that lack of desired is gendered, but personal. But at least on that level then, where does that leave me?

Patricija said...

I really like the tactic of focusing on women's athletes as just athletes. I have to admit I really struggled with the Cover Girl commercials that featured female athletes (including the female boxer). They were saying you could be both strong and pretty, and in some way that strong IS pretty. But to me, I felt this second prong got lost to the pretty, the plump muscle was justified by plump lashes. I just felt that this reminded women that its great to get a medal, but these women shouldn't forget that they are women first. I wondered what you all thought about that? While male athletes are definitely objectified as well (the Lochte and Phelps were fodders for sexualized media). I just don't feel anyone would every push a non-athlete male stereotype on these athletes. And maybe, just maybe, it is because there isn't one?

KB said...

At first I thought the CNN article title said it all- that the way to increase the popularity of women’s sports is to make the women look sexy (an idea that instantly made me uncomfortable). However, after reading this blog post and the article I was happy to find that more companies are showing female athletes just as athletes. In addition, the article also mentioned some studies have shown negative reactions from both men and women to sexualized female athletes and more positive reactions to images of women demonstrating their athletic skills.

Given the new trend and the studies, I feel as though the Cover Girl ad is even more offensive. I agree with Patricija that it implies that female athletes cannot just be athletes- they are women first who must be feminized and sexualized through makeup, and only then are they desirable. Isn’t being an amazing athlete sexy enough? Athletics should be and are an arena where women can feel good about their bodies, and sexualizing athletes helps to erode such a wonderful benefit of athletics. The ad is also impractical- who wants sweaty mascara running down her face when she is trying to win a volleyball game?

I hope that someday our culture will acclimate to seeing female athletes as just athletes, and then maybe it will not be as odd for a mom to be the one watching a soccer game on television (hopefully a women’s game) or bringing her children to a professional sporting event.