Special thanks to Brody Elkins, Rohan Jaitley, Jordan Cohen, and Jason Beck for their invaluable contributions to this piece.
Part 1 - Misogyny and Sexism in Today's Society
In March of 2016, five members of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (USWNT) filed a wage discrimination complaint against the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Soccer stars Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, and Rebecca Sauerbrunn filed the lawsuit by focusing on figures from the USSF's 2015 Financial Report, which essentially states that the members of the USWNT are paid about a quarter of what the men earn, even though the women's team generated nearly $20 million more revenue in 2015 than the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (USMNT). The women's team has won three World Cups, with their most recent triumph occurring in 2015. The men's team has yet to advance past the quarterfinals of a World Cup, let alone win the whole tournament. In the lawsuit, the women's team cited some eye-opening statistics: the women would earn $99,000 each if they won 20 friendlies (an exhibition or non-tournament game), which is the minimum number of friendlies they are required to play each year. But the men would earn nearly $263,320 each for winning 20 friendlies, and would still get $100,000 even if they lost all 20 games. Additionally, the women get paid nothing for playing more than 20 games, while the men get between $5,000 (if they lose) and $17,625 (if they win) for each game played beyond 20. In essence, a female player who helps the women's national team win 20 friendlies earns just 38% of the compensation of a male player who helps the men's national team accomplish the same feat.
The pay inequity that clearly exists between the USWNT and USMNT is indicative of a larger issue in society today. Despite comprising nearly half of the workforce in the United States, working women still earn 77 cents to every dollar earned by men ("FACT SHEET"). Therefore, it is no surprise that a gender-based pay inequity exists in sports. Throughout history, men and women have never been viewed as equals. Cultural norms have ingrained in society the notion that women are inferior to men, and that notion has prevailed to this day (Hollander). The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States over female rival Hillary Rodham Clinton sheds light on this issue. In fact, the title of this article is based off of Trump's exact words when he was referring to women; "Grab them by the pussy." The 2016 election showcased the United States' true beliefs about women and their place in society, and how the inherent misogyny and sexism still prevalent in American society played a major role in Clinton's defeat (Hollander). For sports in particular, the mid-20th century ideology that "men and women are naturally and categorically different and should thus be sorted into different and unequal spheres that reflect their different natures and bodies" has led to the discrimination of female athletes (Messner 18).
This idea that men and women are different in composition and therefore unequal has led many to believe that male athletes perform better than female athletes, and are therefore paid more. But what constitutes "performance?" Performance is defined as the action or process of carrying out or accomplishing an action, task, or function ("Performance"). Perhaps in sports, the traditional definition of "performance" only as an athlete's on-field or on-court contribution needs to be reevaluated. In order to account for the true value the athletes can bring, performance should incorporate all aspects of the sport that the athlete is competing in, including the off-the-field or off-the-court aspects. With the influx of money and increasing public interest, the "job" of being a successful athlete now involves more than just on-field or on-court performance; it has come to incorporate aspects like endorsements, branding, social responsibility, and marketability (Shaw). We believe that the most important off-the-field or off-the-court aspect that should be included when defining the performance of an athlete is marketing. Could disparity in the marketing of female athletes compared to their male counterparts be contributing to the pay inequality in sports, particularly among the USWNT and USMNT? Examining the marketing-based factors that are potentially influencing the pay inequity that exists between the U.S. Men's and Women's National Soccer Teams can provide valuable insight on the larger issue of equal pay.
In the upcoming parts of this article, we will trace the history of gender inequality, and reviews the various initiatives, successful or not, that have been taken to foster gender equality over the last few decades. Next, we will seek to define and explain the marketability of athletes, and the marketing differences between male and female athletes. Lastly, we will detail the lack of visibility and exposure for female athletes, and the inherent inequality in the viewership and broadcasting of female sports, including some recommendations for the future.
Part 2 - History of Gender Inequality
Gender inequality has inarguably been a part of human society since the formation of our basic social institutions. Laid within these foundations of marriage, land ownership, and value are manifest and latent forms of misogyny that have survived to this day.
Sally Kitch traces the history of gender inequality in the United States in her book The Specter of Sex. She argues that the origins of discrimination go all the way back to the founding of the United States, starting with the differences in perceptions of women's roles between European and Native American cultures. The relationship of gender inequality proliferates itself from these racial differences in the past, as Europeans marginalized and racialized native groups based on the differences in their sexual and reproductive practices. In both cultures, however, men were the decision makers and property owners (except in the case of certain Native American cultures), while women were confined to domestic work and childcare.
Moving forward to colonial times, settlers in Virginia used connections between race and gender to make distinctions between African and English women, and how they were taxed on their wages. Work done by African women was considered labor, and was taxable, while English women were considered to be doing domestic work and would not be taxed.
In the pre-modern era, these race restrictions manifested themselves into the laws of citizenship. Women would lose their U.S. citizenship if they married a foreign man, and if women had children with foreign-born men, they could not transfer their citizenship to their children (Kitch 254). There has been an undeniable relationship between racial and gender-based marginalization throughout U.S. history, and these are aspects that have contributed to how women are compensated for their work.
Marxist theories say that two sets of relations have been critical in defining the current stage of exploitation and inequality: the loss of control over the production process through division of labor by sex; and second, the emergence of dyadic relations of dependency within individual families as economic circumstances caused families to become separate economic entities rather than a part of communal groups (Leacock 268). Women's subordination began with this institutionalization of roles through the loss of economic power and labor opportunities in production. Additionally, it has created gender roles within families and has changed the structure, exchange, and division of labor. The women's position has thus shifted from valued members who cement networks and interests to that of service workers in the households who are "owned" by husbands (Leacock 270).
These historical developments have now grown into modern society, with the issue of equal pay at its head. Statistics indicate that the wage gap is at a 20.6% difference between men and women, without pro-rating the values for part-time work and off-days taken by women for childbearing and other duties, which would increase the wage gap percentage even further ("The Gender Wage Gap 2015").
Attempts have been made to reduce the large wage gap between men and women. These efforts started with the passing of Title IX in 1972 (discussed below), and have continued with legislation like the Executive Order signed by President Barack Obama in 2014. Obama's initiative aims at determining if equal pay laws are being violated, and gives employees a way to hold their employers accountable. Additionally, it instructed the Secretary of Labor to create new regulations that require employers to submit data to the Department of Labor on compensation paid to their employees based on sex and race ("FACT SHEET").
The larger problem of gender inequality and its historical development is best represented by the unequal compensation in sports, particularly through the claims and demands of the USWNT. Considering such evidence, the question of the fight put up by sports institutions against the issue of wage disparity and the legislation and protections around it is compelling to explore.
One of the major advancements in the fight for female athlete equality came in 1972 when Congress passed a law called Title IX. Title IX was designed to give both males and females equal opportunity in college athletics (Senne). The main focus of Title IX is that "no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance" ("Title IX"). The primary objective of Title IX was to create more opportunities for women in sports, and to give them the chance to receive a more well-rounded education. However, because men have been historically regarded as the dominant sex, they became the dominant figures in the sports world while women were often discriminated against and were labeled with negative stereotypes (Senne). This is reflected in the lack of leadership positions in professional men's and women's sports in the United States. For example, in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), women hold just 33% of the coaching positions (Senne).
One instance relating to Title IX that helped promote equality within women's sports was the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. King went on to beat Riggs, who was one of the best male tennis players at the time. The win was a pivotal moment for women and gender equality in sports, as it received national attention and proved that women could compete with the best male athletes in the country. This historic match occurred just one year after Title IX was passed, and King stated after her remarkable win that "Title IX had just passed, and I ... wanted to change the hearts and minds of people to match the [spirit of the] legislation" (Winslow).
While Title IX did not accomplish complete equality for women in sports, it certainly acted as a catalyst that gave women more opportunities to compete in sports and further pursue an athletic career. Furthermore, this legislation is at the forefront of every equal opportunity debate across all spheres of the media, making it nearly impossible to talk about gender equality without talking about Title IX.
Part 3 - Marketability of an Athlete
In attempting to understand the inherent pay inequity between the USWNT and USMNT, we first asked ourselves what exactly athletes are paid for. Traditional thinking would conclude that athletes are paid for their performance on the field; the better they play, the more they are paid. This is simple and fair, but it is not the complete definition of performance. An athlete's performance must be understood in terms of any and all value an athlete can bring to his/herself, team, and sport. From this, we concluded that an athlete's marketability is the most significant component in understanding their off-field or off-court value. Therefore, in order to understand why the USWNT is paid less despite having better on-field performance than the USMNT, we chose to understand how an athlete's marketability affects the pay inequity.
The working idea behind marketing is for brands to attach or associate themselves to the athlete or team in an effort to attract a certain segment of fans to their brand (Simmers). For sports in particular, fan devotion and zeal is almost unmatched in other industries and is therefore highly regarded. In this sense, athletes reach a unique celebrity status, in which they become influencers who have the power to shape the buying behavior of their engaged audience (Herd). Through marketing and advertising, brands can harness this power and direct it towards their own products in the hopes of increasing sales.
This idea requires athletes to maintain a personal brand and a positive image in order to be successful, because winning athletic contests is no longer the sole factor that determines their value. So, what makes an athlete marketable? This requires a complete understanding of the sport's audience, because the audience determines the choices that marketers make. Brands want to work with athletes that fit with their values and speak to the audience they wish to sell to (Herd). For example, many of the brands that work with professional golfer Tiger Woods, market towards a male audience that would not be turned away from his marriage scandal (Mitsis). Additionally, former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow exemplifies how brands choose athletes that represent their core values. Tebow landed a Super Bowl commercial in 2015 with the charity "Focus on the Family," as he has publicly proclaimed his strong beliefs in family and moral values (Mitsis).
Since an athlete's marketability depends entirely on sports audiences, it is easier to understand why female athletes make less money than their male counterparts. Throughout American history, men have been deemed superior to women, and this societal construct has been ingrained in sports from the very beginning. Even today, sports audiences are mainly male, and therefore brands market in ways that are appealing to these overwhelmingly male audiences (Lavoi).
Therefore, female athletes are in some ways less marketable than male athletes and are not able to generate as much value through their image. Since their marketability is a large part of their overall performance, it is understandable that female athletes are paid less than men. Despite having an inferior on-field performance compared to the USWNT, the USMNT is superior off-the-field due to the male-dominated audience in sports.
A major influence for the pay of female athletes is their public perception compared to male athletes. When a company promotes a male athlete, they tend to display them as a unique physical specimen by highlighting their physique and athletic attributes, such as speed and strength. For female athletes, this is not the case. They tend to be shown for their physical attractiveness, and very rarely for their physical ability. American culture is quite patriarchal, which pushes companies to use the sex appeal of female athletes to sell a product. The "Sex sells" mentality is degrading towards females, and this form of marketing has been proven ineffective and unnecessary (Kane et al.). In general, it belittles female athletes, as well as the organization they play for. This leads to a distorted public perception that women's athletics are inferior to men's. Since female athletes are marketed for their physical attractiveness and not their skill, large portions of sports audiences are conditioned to watch female athletes for their looks instead of their on-field or on-court performance. This is evident in the Legends Football League, a league where women play the male-dominated sport of football. However, instead of playing in full protective equipment like a full-contact sport would require, the women play in sports bras and compression shorts that emphasize their physical features.
The public perception of USWNT players is that they are attractive women playing the sport of soccer. The USMNT, on the other hand, are as seen as top soccer players in the country who are physically superior to the average person. There are very few female athletes who have substantial marketing power, but even their advertisements are based predominantly around their looks. Alex Morgan is one of the most well know USWNT players, but most of her appearances are for magazines such as the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue or Vogue, where her physical features are the focus (Richards). These outlets emphasize her physical attractiveness rather than her impressive physical abilities.
A major roadblock for women's sports organizations is the history that men's sports organizations, such as the MLB, NFL, NBA, and MLS, have. Today, teams in these leagues are fully ingrained into the identities of their respective cities, so establishing a new team for a similar sport is incredibly difficult. For example, in a situation where a consumer decides between a men's team that their family has supported for years versus a new female team, the fan will choose the team they have closer ties with. Especially since many fans of these teams are fans because of their family. These leagues have set up traditions for families and communities, so their popularity is significantly larger than the relatively new women's sports leagues (Hall et al.). In order to change the way people perceive female athletes, companies must change the way that women are marketed. But this is only possible if sports audiences are readily receptive to women being presented in ways different from how they've been presented throughout history.
Despite the increase in participation of women in sports since the passing of Title IX, the media exposure for the same sports in a professional sphere has stagnated or declined in the last 20 years (Cooky et al.). Women's presence in the media peaked in the mid-to-late 90s, as many sport networks and magazines launched campaigns to increase visibility for these athletes. However, there has been a sharp decline since then, with 2009 being the lowest point in media visibility and exposure for women's sports since the early 1970s.
For example, a study conducted by the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, titled "Where are the female athletes in Sports Illustrated," analyzed the covers of the Sports Illustrated magazine and found that less than five percent of covers from 2000 to 2011 included women, of which about two percent included another man with them (Weber and Carini). Furthermore, the manner of portraying these female athletes trivializes their participation in their particular sport. Requiring certain female athletes to "share the spotlight" and pose with a male, a standard that was not set for their male counterparts, devalues their image as a prominent athlete. In other instances, they were visually minimized by being included in an "inset," or smaller image, within a larger background.
Television rights fees are known to be one of the biggest revenue drivers in modern sports business. According to a study conducted in 2014 by the peer-reviewed quarterly journal Communication & Sport, titled "It's Dude Time! A Quarter Century of Excluding Women's Sports in Televised News and Highlight Shows," the proportion of airtime devoted to covering women's sports on regular network news is just 3.2%, while the amount of ESPN SportsCenter coverage devoted to women's sports is just 2.0% (while 98.0% is devoted to men's sports). Moreover, this study finds that since 1999, where the coverage of women's sports on regular network news peaked at 8.7% of total broadcast coverage, women's sports coverage has been experiencing a serious decline, with the lowest level of coverage at 1.6% in 2009. ESPN SportsCenter coverage of women's sports has been relatively stagnant, and has hovered between 1.3-2.2% since 1999. Since there is a lower fan interest in women's sports compared to men's sports, the television rights fees to cover women's sports are substantially lower. Thus, less revenue is generated for women's sports, resulting in less compensation for female athletes.
The study by Weber and Carini argued that any efforts to resolve this lack of equal visibility and viewership would be slow because "it requires the enactment of simultaneous social forces, like greater representation of women in sports organizations and media outlets" to bring about any change. Furthermore, the study contends that the change would also have to offset an undeniable current lack of interest in major women's sports in comparison to men's. This claim is under threat today as the USWNT drew record viewers to the final of their 2015 World Cup triumph.
Media and society have always had a symbiotic relationship. They can influence ideologies, reactions, and levels of attention to certain sports and athletes. Most media outlets have explicitly covered the larger and more popular men's sports like American football, basketball, baseball, and even hockey over the last 30 years. The underrepresentation of female athletes in the media has essentially prevented fans from effectively interacting with women's sports, and therefore, increasing demand for the product.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Because pay inequity stems from ideas and constructs so ingrained in our society, such as media, movies, television, and tradition, it is difficult to combat the issue. I believe that a solution to equal pay will come in time, as history has shown with other civil rights issues. That being said, we cannot just sit back and wait for it to happen. Mia Hamm captured the essence of societal gender bias in stating, "My coach said I run like a girl, and I said if he ran a little faster, he could too." The change, wherein the true and honest image of female athletes emerges, will only come if when a strategic shift occurs in how female athletes are portrayed to the public. When female athletes are no longer marketed for their physical feminine attractiveness, but are marketed for their true athletic ability, the way they are perceived will begin to shift to a more true and honest image. The sports media industry as a whole, in conjunction with men's and women's sports leagues, will have to make a concerted effort to change the perceptions of the public through equal and honest coverage of men's and women's sports. Carli Lloyd has reflected on countering this bias - "When I joined four teammates in filing a wage-discrimination complaint against U.S. Soccer late last month, it had nothing to do with how much I love to play for my country. It had everything to do with what's right and what's fair and with upholding a fundamental American concept: Equal pay for equal play." (Lloyd). This stand is, perhaps, the start of a fundamental change.
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