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Comparative analysis of male and female athlete salaries

This is an excerpt from Applied Sport Business Analytics With HKPropel Access by Christopher Atwater,Robert E. Baker & Edward Kwartler.

By Lisa Delpy Neirotti, PhD

Women in sports have long been pushing for the right to equal play and equal pay. Major landmarks in this fight took place a half century ago with the passage of Title IX in 1972 and Billie Jean King’s U.S. Open Tennis boycott to ensure equal prize money in 1973. With the heightened global attention to equality and inclusion of historically marginalized people, coupled with the increased social activism of athletes, the pressure is on more than ever to narrow the gender pay gap in sports.

To better understand how much and why female athletes earn what they do, a numerical analysis was conducted for professional basketball, soccer, tennis, golf, softball, cricket, and esports. The discussion will begin with the most equal of all sports, tennis.

There are several variables to consider when comparing male versus female athlete salaries. For individual sport athletes, these variables include the number and level of tournaments and the prize money offered. For team sports, variables include the length of the season/number of games, the number of teams, and total spots available. Also, for sports where a few star players earn much more than others, the median versus mean should be considered, as the average may be skewed.

Tennis

It isn’t by chance that women’s professional tennis players are the highest-paid female athletes to date. The fight for equal pay started in 1970 when nine female tennis players founded their own tour, now the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), and in 1973 Billie Jean King threatened to boycott the U.S. Open resulting in the first Grand Slam tournament to offer equal prize money to men and women. It took until 2007 for all four Grand Slams to follow suit with Wimbledon being the last. Unfortunately, tournament prize money outside of the Grand Slams is not always equal. Only four other tournaments provide equal prize money: Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, and Beijing, with each offering $1,354,010 in prize money in 2019. Of the other Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and WTA tournaments, it is important to review the number and level of tournament when analyzing prize money. A New York Times study that looked outside the Grand Slam tournaments found the annual prize money for the top-100 earners in the WTA was roughly 80 cents to every dollar earned by the top-100 men in the ATP (Rothenberg, 2016).

Starting in 2021, WTA reorganized its tournament structure and merged the previous Premier Mandatory and Premier 5 tournaments into a single higher tier, referred to as WTA 1000 tournaments and the expected prize money is $1 million for each. The future continues to look bright, with the WTA tournament prize money worldwide doubling in 10 years from $86 million in 2009 to $179 million in 2019, the last full season played before Covid-19 (WTA Tour Press Release, 2021; WTA Tour Press Release, 2020; Reuters, 2020).

When comparing career prize money totals as of May 2021, Serena Williams, the highest-paid female, earned $94,253,246—which is 36.35 percent less than Novak Djokovic, the highest-paid male, who earned $148,092,073. Williams turned pro in 1995 at age 14 and Djokovic in 2003 at age 20 (Forbes, 2021).

Golf

When analyzing prize money in golf, like tennis, it is important to consider the number of tournaments in the men’s Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) versus the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). In 2019, there were 46 men’s and 33 women’s tournaments, with an average prize purse of $7,469,565.22 to $2,127,273, respectively (LPGA earning 28 percent of the PGA average). Overall, PGA tournament earning potential was five times higher than that of female golfers with a total prize pool of $343,600,000 to $70,200,000. Although the LPGA total prize pool increased by $3 million in 2021, the PGA’s increased by $45 million and added five tournaments.

Football (Soccer)

At the World Cup level, the Federation International Football Association (FIFA) has faced criticism for the prize pool for the 2019 Women’s World Cup of $30 million compared to the 2018 Men’s World Cup of $400 million. Thirty-two teams competed in the Men’s World Cup, with the winning team earning $38 million. This means the 24 Women’s World Cup teams that competed were all playing for less than what the one men’s champion team received. The women’s champion team earned $4 million. Looking at the prize pool as an average per team competing, the women averaged $1.25 million whereas the men averaged $12.5 million.

Regardless of how you analyze the numbers, the men’s prize pool is more than 12 times the women’s—or, conversely, the women receive 7.5 percent of what the men do. When comparing the commercial value of the women’s and men’s tournaments, the television viewership of 1.12 billion and 1.13 million live spectators for the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France were approximately a third of the 2018 Men’s World Cup 3.57 billion TV viewers and 3.03 million live spectators. If this percent was applied to the total prize pool available of $430 million for both men and women, the women’s total prize pool should have been a third or $141.90 million. FIFA has doubled the women’s prize pool from $15 million in 2015 to $30 million in 2019 and plans to double it again to $60 million for the 2023 tournament, but this is still not 33 percent of the men’s tournament earnings, and the gap continues as the men’s prize pool increased to $700 million for the 2022 World Cup, which is a 57 percent increase from 2018 and an 80 percent increase since the 2014 World Cup.

Since FIFA historically packaged the men’s and women’s tournaments together to sell broadcast and sponsorship rights, the association admits that the amount of revenue allocated to the Women’s World Cup is arbitrary. This has changed recently, so in the future, the value of Women’s World Cup will be truly measured. According to Fox Sports, the television ad revenue totaled $96 million for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, a 120 percent increase from expectations. Corporate sponsors like Visa are now including contract clauses that spending should be equal between men and women and have pledged to spend equal amounts in marketing of the men’s and women’s tournaments.

With 13.36 million women and girls now playing organized football globally, the pressure is expected to grow (Lange, 2020; BBC News, 2019). At the national level, the Women’s U.S. National Team entered a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. The case was dismissed because of differences in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The women’s CBA guarantees a base salary of $100,000 plus incentive-based bonuses, whereas the men’s CBA is entirely performance based with no guaranteed salary but higher bonuses. Considering that the minimum salary for women playing in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is 26 percent of the minimum salary for men playing in Major League Soccer (MLS)—$22,000 to $84,000—the option of a guaranteed salary was appealing to women, whereas depending on the success of the season could limit their earnings.

In November 2019, Australia’s women’s soccer team negotiated a landmark four-year deal with Football Federation Australia that ensured the women would be paid as much as their male counterparts. It also guaranteed equitable conditions, including business-class travel for international tournaments (something the men already had) and the same coaching and operational support. England, Brazil, Australia, Norway, and New Zealand have all since committed to equal pay. The gender disparity at major tournaments continues due to the discrepancy in prize money offered by FIFA, UEFA, and other tournament organizers.