Gender Pay Gap in Sports: A Misplaced Truism

On 22 February 2022, the US women’s football team achieved a historic victory. Not on the pitch, where Megan Rapinoe’s teammates still sit top of the FIFA world rankings, but off it, where the Americans have won the battle against their federation. The courts have determined that two-time defending world champions should be given equal pay with the men’s team, a belief also shared by the latter. A small revolution in the world of sports. On this International Women’s Day issue, it seems a good opportunity to take stock of gender equality in the world of sport.

In the world of football, this small revolution on the other side of the Atlantic has had the merit of awakening the debate. However, as Wendie Renard, captain of France’s national team pointed out: “Today, [the US Women’s National Team] have titles, they have a track record, so they can afford to have this fight with their federation. In terms of media coverage, they are really popular, whereas this is not the case in Europe with the national teams. It’s certainly interesting but you have to keep working to win. And then when you win you have more power to ask for things.” (February 2022, right after the U.S. ruling). There is still a long way to go to get to the same point in Europe. For example, France’s men’s team received a bonus of 400,000 euros after winning the 2018 World Cup. The bonus for the women in case of victory at the 2019 World Cup was barely 40,000 euros. A discrepancy, argued by the federation, by applying “a principle of equality” linked to the difference in FIFA’s allocations for the Women’s World Cup (30 million euros) and the Men’s World Cup (400 million euros). 

France captain Wendie Renard has spoken out as to why pay equality is currently inconceivable in football (Molly Darlington / Reuters)

This fight while essential is at the very least premature. Female football players will often be the first to argue that there are more immediate fights to win than that of pay. Ada Hegerberg, the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner, has been vocal in defending bigger investments in women’s infrastructure to develop the sport, believing that a reduction in the pay gap would be a natural progression once the market becomes bigger. Pay is not a driver but only an outcome of women’s emancipation in sports.

When looking at the top 50 highest-paid athletes in 2022, only two women made the list, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, both tennis players. Tennis was the first sport to offer equal pay at the US Open in 1973. At that time, women had only been allowed to play football for three years. Since then, prize-money equality has become widespread and the winners of the Grand Slams (Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, US Open) receive the same prize money. One of the main drivers of this equality is the parity in media coverage both genders receive throughout these major tournaments, which has also enabled a near 50/50 gender split in terms of tennis players worldwide. It is important to note however, that this is not the case for many other tournaments, often due to the fact that they are either only male or female competitions.

Serena Williams and Andy Murray playing mixed doubles at Wimbledon (Matthias Hangst / Getty)

Following the example of tennis, several disciplines have also implemented changes, including speed skating, beach volleyball and more recently surfing. For the latter, the World Surf League retains the distinction of being the first American professional league to implement equal pay. While being important steps in the right direction, these disciplines receive little media attention without any influence on the most popular sports, especially football and basketball. 

With regards to basketball, WNBA players earn 115 times less ($130,000 versus $15 million per year) than their NBA counterparts, according to figures collected in 2021. A fact that basketball players such as Stephen Curry have addressed in prominent sports magazines such as The Players Tribute. The hope is that with greater discourse, there will be greater pressure on organisations, federations and media to address these issues.

In the face of this inequality, many ideas are being put forwards. The capping of male players’ salaries is possible on an individual level, as the Chinese football league recently did for foreign players with a ceiling of 3 million euros per year, but it is also possible on a collective level with a “salary cap” system used by American sports. This cap on men’s salaries could in fact be a means of releasing budget surpluses that could be transferred to investments in top-level women’s football and thus generate the fervour it deserves. However, such a measure must be taken on a European scale, so that a national league taking this initiative does not see all of its star players migrate to other, more lucrative ones. Finally, it is also conceivable that the TV rights of the men’s and women’s leagues of each discipline could be purchased together, so that the TV revenues are divided equally between men and women.

Beyond the reluctance of many top governing bodies to fully address the issue, there is still hope for the future. In the wake of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, whose Games will be the first with equal numbers of men and women athletes, its President, Tony Estanguet, has spread the message of “same gestures, the same medals, the same emotions, the same rage to win, the same pride, the same power to inspire […]” between men and women. While many will describe this as naive optimism as this still does not guarantee equal salaries, one can hope that this opens doors to better female sports coverage. 

Because yes, it is clear that while sport as a male activity is still a trope shared by many around the world, stakeholders cannot stay silent. It is also clear that, in most disciplines, women still find it more difficult to make a living from their sport than men. But the fight is not one of pay but one of recognition first, the hope that soon we will not talk about “men’s sport” or “women’s sport” but simply of “sport”.

By Thomas Loubeyeres