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Gender pay gap in sport – disparity, progress and the way forward?

Since celebrating International Women’s Day earlier this month, we have been reflecting on this year’s theme of “embracing equity” and what this means for women in sport. Equity is defined by Collins as “the quality of being fair and reasonable in a way that gives equal treatment to everyone.” One of the more tangible ways in which equity can be measured is by comparing the pay received by men and women for conducting the same work. In this piece, we explore what this means in the context of sport, including what progress has been made and what work needs to be done in order to both embrace and achieve equity in terms of pay.

The current landscape

In almost every popular sport in the UK, there is a significant discrepancy in the average wage between male and female athletes, but this is particularly the case for sports which have traditionally been male-dominated.  For example, the average salary for a male rugby union player in the English Premiership is around GBP150,000 while players with several international caps can earn up to GBP800,000 per annum. Conversely, clubs in the Premier 15s (the women’s equivalent of the English Premiership) are subject to a remuneration cap for the entire squad, meaning the clubs have a maximum of GBP190,000 to split between around 50 players. As for cricket, while the prize money in the Hundred cricket tournament is the same for both genders, there is still a big gap in the range of salary bands for the same tournament.  Women's salary bands range from GBP7,500 to 31,250, with men paid between GBP30,000 and 125,000.

Worldwide, the most prominent gender pay gap exists in football. The average yearly salary of a male footballer who plays for a top-league club in the UK is GBP2,800,000, whereas the equivalent for a female footballer playing in the Women’s’ Super League (WSL) is GBP30,000. Even after the Lionesses won the Women’s Euros in 2022 - following which the number of female players registered with the FA rose by 12.5%, the number of female coaches for female teams increased by 75%, and the average attendance at WSL matches increased by 227% - female footballers still earn a fraction of that earned by their male counterparts, both in relation to prize sums from tournaments and annual salaries. The Lionesses received a cumulative sum of GBP1,300,000 following their Women’s Euros victory, however, had the men’s English football team won the Euros in 2020, they would have received a cumulative sum of GBP9,500,000.  To further emphasise the point, Lioness Leah Williamson earned an annual salary of GBP200,000 in the season 2021/22, whereas Harry Kane earns this sum in a week.

The main explanation put forward by the popular press for the gender pay gap is that women’s sport is less popular than men’s, and therefore generates less revenue. This is largely because women have historically been restricted from participating in sport. For example, the first women’s professional sports league was introduced in the 1940s, along with strict standards for how women had to dress and act whilst competing; and it wasn’t until 1972 with the passing of Title IX of the Education Act 1972 that women were legally allowed to have equal opportunity in education and sports.  Furthermore, women were not allowed to participate in long-distance running events until the 1980s when women were finally deemed strong enough to run a marathon. Consequently, men's sport receives greater coverage and male athletes are typically awarded more profitable sponsorship deals and higher-value endorsements than their female counterparts (see also our recent article which references comments made by Olympic gold medallist Sally Gunnell on this topic). However, while the popularity argument has rung true in years gone by, this is evidently no longer the case. In 2019, the number of American viewers of the Women’s FIFA World Cup final was 22% higher than the audience for the men’s final the previous year and the US women's team generated more revenue in each of the last four years than the US men’s soccer team.

Nevertheless, the prize money awarded to the US women’s soccer team (USD4 million) for winning the Women’s FIFA World Cup amounted to just 7.5% of that offered to France’s men’s football team in 2018 (USD38 million). This discrepancy could be said to have motivated the US women’s team to sue US Soccer on the basis of gender discrimination. The women’s team cited that their US soccer male counterparts earned a USD5,000 bonus for a loss, while the women earned nothing for a loss or a draw. Moreover, the women received USD1,350 per win, whereas the men could earn as much as USD17,625. The parties reached a settlement of USD24,000,000, plus bonuses matching those of the men’s team in February 2022.

Progress to date

While there is still great inequality across most sports, tennis is helping to pave the way for change. Female winners of international tournaments, including all four Grand Slam tournaments, receive the same prize money as their male counterparts. The US open was the first of the four major tournaments to award men and women equal prize money after tennis legend Billie Jean King threatened to boycott the tournament in 1973. Wimbledon and Roland-Garros eventually followed suit when they awarded equal pay to male and female athletes in March 2007.  

In January 2023, the Football Association of Wales reached an agreement with the Welsh national men’s and women’s football teams, guaranteeing that both teams will receive equal pay for future international matches up until the FIFA World Cup in 2026 and the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2027. In order to achieve this agreement, the men’s team has agreed to take a 25% pay cut.

The way forward?

There are tangible steps that can be taken to move sport closer to achieving equity among male and female athletes. Firstly, broadcasters and reporters can assist by better highlighting and promoting women’s sports. In March 2020 Sky Sports launched a YouTube campaign called “Rise with Us”, showing several key women’s competitions including the Women’s Six Nations, the Netball Superleague, WNBA and women’s major golf tournaments. This focus on women’s sports appears to have increased viewership, with a record 50 million people tuning in to watch the Euros final in 2022 and a 62% increase in physical crowd numbers for the Women’s Six Nations in 2022 since 2019. 15.1 million people watched women’s sports in the first three months of 2022, more than any other year on record, and three times the amount that tuned in during the first quarter of 2019.  

Secondly, businesses should continue to invest in female sports teams and female athletes through commercial partnerships and sponsorships, which will make female athletes more widely recognisable. We are already seeing great examples of this e.g. following their successful partnership with Jack Grealish, an Italian luxury fashion brand signed Leah Williamson as an ambassador in 2022. In addition, Adidas is sponsoring the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023 and launched the “Nothing is Impossible” campaign which has featured seven high-profile female athletes, including Brazilian volleyballer Tifanny Abreu and basketball player Asma Elbadawi (who successfully challenged the International Basketball Federation in 2017 to remove their ban on religious headwear on the court). Ensuring that such high-profile partnerships with female athletes are more prevalent will only enhance the visibility and profitability of women in sport going forward.

Finally, governing bodies should take notice and look to address the pay gaps that exist in their sport by working with their male and female athletes. As evidenced recently in Wales, when governing bodies push for equality (particularly when they have the support of male athletes of the same sport) female athletes can be put on an equal footing with their male counterparts, leading to greater equity for female athletes.

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equality, sport, uk, usa, women in sport