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.