Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

Women Still Have an Uphill Climb in the World of Sports

By Leon Kaye

Serena Williams

Despite the passage of Title IX over 40 years ago and the growing success of women’s athletics worldwide, both collegiate and professional sports are still very much a boy’s world.

The recent comments of Raymond Moore sum up the indignities female professional athletes endure. Moore, who was the director of the Indian Wells tournament near Palm Springs until he put his foot in his mouth, lit a firestorm with his cloddish comments about women tennis players -- and his boorish behavior made headlines across the globe.

Claiming that female tennis stars were riding on the success of their male counterparts, Moore told sports reporters that women tennis players should “go down every night on [their] knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport." Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle and also the owner of the Indian Wells tournament, did not wait long to give Moore his pink slip. Ellison really had little choice, as Serena Williams suggested a boycott against the tournament would be in order for next year. That threat alone shows that women professional athletes have economic power, at least in some sports.

Not wanting to be left out of the fracas, Novak Djokovic, currently the top-ranked men’s tennis player in the world, lobbed an ill-timed volley when he suggested men’s players should fight for more money since they attract more spectators. Of course he neglected to give examples while insisting that statistics backed up his statement.

One would think that, considering his background, Djokovic would have been more thoughtful for two reasons. First, he hails from Serbia, a country that ranks in the top-third of nations when it comes to women’s rights, indicative of the Balkan region’s progress on issues related to women despite a brutal war a generation ago. Given the pride Djokovic engenders from his countrymen and countrywomen, he should speak more carefully as a country representative.

Second, the surge in popularity of women’s tennis just does not support the idea that men are far more of a draw than women. The tickets to women's events, especially those for the Grand Slam tournaments, are highly coveted. That's in part why Wimbledon has doled out equal prize money for men's and women's matches since 2007, and the Australian, French and U.S. open tournaments followed suit shortly after.

The big difference in earnings, however, does not necessarily stem from what men and women make on these international tours by actually playing the game, but rather when it comes to sponsorship money. Many of the top-earning male athletes have made a mint on endorsements, especially boxers, male soccer icons, American football players, NBA stars and, of course, baseball players.

For women athletes, however, the total sponsorship money is relatively paltry. And one can make the case that race has an issue. Serena Williams may be the No. 1 player on the professional women’s circuit, but she made $10 million less from endorsements than Maria Sharapova, who is at the moment No. 12 within those rankings and has had an injury-riddled career.

Add the fact that men’s sports have often been an embarrassment at an international level, from boxer Manny Pacquiao’s description of gays, to Johnny Manziel’s abusive behavior, to footballer Adam Johnson’s recent conviction for having sex with an underage girl, the fact that women’s sports elicit little more interest than snark from many men and women is particularly galling.

The only other professional sports to guarantee equal prize money are the major world marathons and World Surf League. Nevertheless, despite the fact that women make up 57 percent of college students in the U.S., they only comprise 43 percent of student-athletes. Women’s collegiate sports are also lacking when it comes to scholarship dollars and operating expenses. With fewer opportunities during the university years come almost no opportunities at the professional level, except in women’s tennis and golf (and, in part because of Rhonda Rousey, martial arts).

The reasons why women’s professional sports have sputtered in popularity is in part economic. The four major sports leagues in the U.S. (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL) have become ingrained in North America’s sport culture -- there is little room for another sporting league, although Major League Soccer has thrived in some media markets (but nowhere near the level of the sport’s popularity in Europe and Latin America). Women’s soccer briefly hit a high point after the 1999 Women’s World Cup, and Brandi Chastain’s shirt-wielding moment at the Rose Bowl after a penalty kick shootout, but that sport, too, has struggled to gain traction.

The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has had some staying power, but it plays during the summer, between the NBA’s championship and opening days. Women who play in that league earn a sliver of their male counterparts, and many play in another women’s league overseas so they can make end’s meet.

So, if you have a sister, daughter or niece that is determined to make a living in professional sport, what are we to do? In two words, says the Women’s Sports Foundation: Be supportive. Attend games; patronize the companies that sponsor women’s sports; push the local media to cover women’s sporting events; offer to coach in a girl’s league if an opportunity comes up; and speak up and take action if you know of a female athlete who is being discriminated against. Such support will be needed from everyone if women's prowess on the field is to be celebrated more frequently than the Olympics every couple of years.

Image credit: Flickr/Yann Caredec

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye