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Why Should We Care about the Gender Pay Gap in Professional Sports?

Temika Hampton

Why Should We Care about the Gender Pay Gap in Professional Sports?
simonkr via iStock

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Even though the United States is championing equality and trying to bridge the wage gap, and the National Basketball Association (NBA) is partnering with the national “Lean In” campaign, there is still a staggering gap between the salaries of female sports stars compared to their male counterparts.

For example, per their respective collective bargaining agreements, the maximum salary for a WNBA player is $111,500 while the minimum salary for an NBA player is $525,093. What this means is that if you combine the salaries of Maya Moore, Skylar Diggins, Diana Taurasi, and Candace Parker, “the faces of the WNBA,” they collectively make less than the unknown bench player on any NBA team.

USWNT Files Wage Discrimination Action with EEOC

The argument has been made that WNBA players make less because the league revenue is less and their season is shorter. That argument fails when looking at the US Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT). In April 2016, after the two sides were unable to reach an agreement on the new collective bargaining agreement, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, and Becky Sauerbrunn, all members of the USWNT, filed a wage discrimination action with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the US Soccer Federation.

The allegations include a claim that, despite bringing in twenty million dollars more than the men’s team, the women still earn a quarter of the men’s salary. Per the allegations, “Each player on the USWNT earns $99,000 per year provided the team wins twenty ‘friendlies’ (exhibition matches), the minimum number of matches they would play. By contrast, each men’s player would earn $263,320 for the same feat and would still earn $100,000 if the team lost all twenty games. The women receive no extra pay for playing more than twenty matches, while the men earn anywhere between $5,000 and $17,625 for each match beyond twenty.”

Based upon the allegations, the EEOC will conduct an investigation and determine if the USWNT is due compensation. Instead of US Soccer negotiating a settlement with USWNT, it sued the team, seeking an injunction that requires USWNT to continue to play at least through the 2016 Olympics.

Lower Salaries for Women Is an Issue That Spreads Across Every Sport but Is Slowly Changing

In 2007, after a nine-year push by stars such as Venus Williams, for the first time ever, Wimbledon provided equal prizes to all its male and female players. Until then, the US Open was the only Grand Slam Tournament that awarded equal prize money to both male and female athletes. Records show that equal pay has not hurt Wimbledon, as prize money has nearly doubled in the last five years for men and women.

What Effect Does the Pay Gap Have on Women?

Quite frankly, paying men more for the same sport gives women less incentive to push themselves and discourages participation. A great example of this is WNBA star, Diana Taurasi. Even though her team, the Phoenix Mercury, is consistently mentioned as a WNBA title favorite, she sat out the entire 2015–16 WNBA season. She actually made more money sitting out than she would have made playing. Like many of her WNBA comrades, she plays professional basketball overseas during the off-season. While the US salary maxes out at $111,500, players of Taurasi’s caliber make more than a million dollars per season playing overseas. During the 2015–16 season, Taurasi’s overseas team paid her more than one million dollars to sit out the WNBA season. Without one of its stars, the WNBA suffered lower attendance and viewers, which ultimately reduced its revenue and provided owners with the necessary data to deny salary increases for their players.

What Can We Do to Help Bridge the Gap?

Some things that we as spectators can do include attending women’s sporting events, supporting companies that promote women’s athletics, encouraging television stations to cover women’s sports, and most importantly, continuing to encourage young women to participate in sports. In cases where discrimination is occurring, we must take on the challenge to advocate for their rights. According to Sheryl Sandberg, founder of LeanIn.Org, “Men leaning in is a win-win proposition. When they stand up for gender equality at work, they outperform their peers. Equality is not just the right thing . . . it’s the smart thing.”