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‘The onus is on everyone to do more’: Where does sport stand on equal pay?

Women’s sport is on the rise but many female athletes still earn considerably less than their male counterparts. As progress starts to be felt, SportsPro speaks to executives at organisations across the industry to understand what further steps need to be taken to narrow the pay gap.

18 July 2022 Sam Carp

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Earlier this year, when the US women’s national soccer team (USWNT) finally secured pay parity with their male counterparts, Alex Morgan described it not simply as a win for herself and her teammates, but for “women in general”.

In many ways, the USWNT’s lengthy – and at-times ugly – pay dispute with their own federation became an issue of public interest, a microcosm of the barriers and prejudices that female athletes have had to fight against throughout history. In other words, it became a campaign for female athletes everywhere. And the longer the legal battle dragged on, the clearer its implications became: if even one of the most high-profile, successful women’s sports teams of all time were being denied equal pay, then what chance does everybody else have?

It is therefore little wonder that Morgan and her peers were keen to highlight the bigger picture after achieving arguably their most significant victory to date.

“I don’t think we’ll know for some time the true impact of this agreement – not only in soccer, but in sports in general and in corporate America as well,” Cindy Parlow Cone, the US Soccer president who led the equal pay negotiations, tells SportsPro. “This discrepancy doesn’t just exist in sports, it’s a part of society. So our hope is that this has a greater impact not only in soccer, not only in sports, but a global impact on society in how women are viewed and valued.”

“This issue is really simple”

Parlow Cone’s point is an important one. Sport is just one part of a society that is still working to remedy centuries of inequality. To illustrate the scale of the challenge, a recent PwC study claimed that women in the UK face a 100-year wait for the gender pay gap to be closed if progress on salaries continues to crawl along at the current rate.

But while other industries get their own house in order, there are signs that sport is starting to take steps in the right direction.

In fact, research published in March 2021 by BBC Sport found that an ‘overwhelming majority’ of sports now offer equal prize money to men and women at the top level. This was particularly true of more traditional Olympic sports such as athletics, skiing and triathlon, as well as others like badminton, handball and judo. Another positive example can be found in tennis, where all four Grand Slams have paid the same reward to their male and female champions since 2007, while the report also highlighted efforts that have been taken in cricket to narrow the divide.

However, BBC Sport’s research highlighted that there remains a gaping disparity in some of the highest revenue-grossing sports around, including soccer, golf and basketball. By way of example, the winners of this month’s Uefa Women’s Euro will lift the trophy in the same stadium as the Italian men’s side did at Euro 2020, yet the teams competing in the ongoing tournament are playing for around €315 million (US$321 million) less than the nations at last year’s event.

Similarly, the prize money for the Fifa World Cup in Qatar this winter will be more than seven times greater than what is up for grabs at the women’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand in 2023.

For many observers, it has also become somewhat of an annual tradition to lament just how few women appear on Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid athletes, with tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams the only two to appear in the most recent rankings – and only because of their endorsement deals, rather than what they earned on the court.

“In some ways this issue is really simple,” Annie Panter, a former Olympic athlete who now serves as managing director, ventures at the Two Circles agency, begins. “Do you believe that women should be paid the same as men? As a woman myself, working in a male-dominated sports industry and having previously been a professional athlete, the answer is overwhelmingly yes.

“However, the reality of how and when we get to universal equal pay in sport is certainly not straightforward as there are market dynamics at play which will take time to change.”

Efforts have been made to improve prize money in women’s cricket but there remains a gap between what the male and female World Cup winners receive

“We feel like we have the blueprint”

No two paths to equal pay are likely to be the same. The US Soccer story is documented proof that it can take decades to reach that stage. Parlow Cone, who was a member of the USWNT herself before moving into the governance of the sport, describes the process as “challenging” and says that “hard conversations had to be had” in order to deliver parity.

What’s also true is that no two equal pay agreements are likely to look the same. For instance, other soccer associations have committed to paying their men’s and women’s players the same match fee while on international duty, but what is so unique about the US Soccer agreement is that the two sides have agreed to pool and divide equally their World Cup prize money and commercial revenue.

It’s also worth highlighting that equal pay can at times be used as a catch-all term for men and women being remunerated the same amount for the same work, but it also extends beyond wages and prize money into other areas such as playing facilities, travel to and from games, and accommodation.

Yet while the nature of these agreements are likely to differ, that isn’t to say that there aren’t templates out there that sports looking to improve can learn from.

One business that has achieved equal pay is the Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO), an athlete-founded entity that was launched in 2014 and whose investors include Eckuity and Sequoia Capital partner Michael Moritz. The PTO Tour sees men and women compete for equal prize money, including during The Collins Cup, the flagship event on the calendar, which offers a purse of US$1.5 million. Male and female athletes also receive equal bonuses and the same amount of airtime, while PTO professionals are entitled to up to 15 months of maternity leave, during which time their world ranking is protected.

According to Jane Hansom, who recently moved from her role as the PTO’s head of communications to become an advisor to its board, equality has always been ingrained in triathlon.

“It’s standard for us,” she says. “We’re lucky because we inherited [triathlon] from the people who fought to make things gender equal from the start. It’s always been a gender-equal sport, so it’s hugely important for us that we operate like that. It’s in our mission, it’s in our charter, so everything we do is gender equal because we’re an organisation of both men and women equally.

“We feel very lucky to be in that situation, but we also feel like we have the blueprint for other sports to follow. And we’re hoping that people look at that and act in the right way.”

The PTO has allowed male and female triathletes to compete for an equal prize purse since it was established

It would be fair to say that being a new entity will have allowed the PTO to ensure that it offered equal pay from its inception, and it is likely to be more straightforward for some sports and organisations to reach something resembling equality sooner than others.

In certain sports there are various leagues and bodies responsible for governing different teams and competitions, which can fluctuate wildly in terms of how much money they bring in and therefore pay out to athletes. This is perhaps why progress is coming sooner at the federation level, or in sports where there is a sole organisation responsible for overseeing both male and female events throughout the year.

Sophie Goldschmidt was chief executive of the World Surf League (WSL) when the global surfing tour introduced equal prize money from the 2019 season and now serves in the same role at US Ski & Snowboard, which itself has established equal pay. Goldschmidt says the path to parity at the WSL was “a journey” and agrees that “there are definitely some cases that are more straightforward than others”.

“It’s really important that equal prize money is sustainable,” she continues. “It has to be looked at as an investment and taken one step at a time to be commercially viable for the sport.

“Snow sports has been leading by example and I’m delighted they have been so progressive in offering equal pay for many years now. In most of our sports, men and women compete at the same venues and in the same events, which has made it easier to put forward equal pay, and you can see the results of that equity.

“Many of the biggest names in skiing and snowboarding have been women, and that’s been the case for decades both in the US and around the world. Not many sports can say that.”

Goldschmidt’s career has also seen her hold senior positions at the National Basketball Association (NBA) and England Rugby, and not to be lost in the equal pay conversation is the importance of putting women in decision-making positions. Hansom, whose recent role change means men and women are equally represented on the PTO board, points out that certain sports are “super male-dominated”, not only in leadership positions but “operationally throughout the business”.

Prior to the arrival of Parlow Cone, who is just one of seven female federation presidents across Fifa’s 211 member associations, US Soccer had failed to make meaningful progress on equal pay, with her predecessors Carlos Cordeiro and Sunil Gulati persistently arguing parity could not be achieved. Parlow Cone delivered it in just over two years, which goes to show that having women in positions of authority will ensure the views of female athletes are represented, heard, and ultimately acted on.

“I think we need to make advancements at every level of the game,” says Parlow Cone. “While you may look at the top at the presidents, we also need to look at all senior leadership within organisations within sports. Whether that’s the CEO, president, chief commercial officer, chief legal officer, we need to continue to advance and advocate and promote women in the sports industry. It’s not just a soccer problem, it’s a problem throughout society and sports is a part of that.

“We need to continue to do work in this space and we need our male counterparts to be advocates and allies in order for us to really achieve and to also succeed. Because it’s not just about placing any woman into the spot, they need to be in a position where they can achieve and be successful as well.”

US Ski & Snowboard president and CEO Sophie Goldschmidt believes equal pay should be viewed “as an investment”

“It’s a joint effort”

While it may be easier to look inward, it is a misconception that delivering equal pay is purely down to the organisations that run sport. One argument consistently peddled – notably by the likes of Fifa president Gianni Infantino – is that prize money is or should be linked to revenue. The flaw in that argument, of course, is that women’s competitions – for reasons beyond their control – have historically struggled for visibility and airtime, which in turn has meant they have been unable to grow their audience and attract the kind of investment that would see female athletes paid more.

Efforts are ongoing to create a more virtuous cycle. In the UK, the Women’s Super League’s (WSL) new domestic broadcast deal with the BBC and Sky Sports has ensured that the soccer competition is televised on a more regular basis. Across the pond, Goldschmidt sits on the board of a new network dedicated to providing 24/7 coverage of women’s sport. But there is still room for media companies to be more proactive across the board.

“You’re only going to broaden the sport and get more viewership if you put the sport on TV in the first place,” Hansom asserts. “It’s a bit chicken and egg. We need everyone around women’s sport, any stakeholder in women’s sport, to actually bite the bullet and dedicate more profile time and TV coverage to the sport.

“That is what will bring people into the sport. That is the answer.”

In certain cases, sponsors have also been stepping up to the plate. Prize money for this year’s US Women’s Open nearly doubled to US$10 million on the back of a long-term partnership between the United States Golf Association (USGA) and healthcare company ProMedica. Elsewhere, the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL) title sponsorship deal with UKG means that the 2023 Challenge Cup will be the first women’s soccer tournament in the US to achieve pay equity with the men’s equivalent.

In addition, some brands have restructured their partnership agreements to ensure that funds are equally distributed between a federation’s men’s and women’s teams.

So while women’s sport might still be in the nascent stages of its commercial journey, there are reasons to be optimistic. A study published last year by the Women’s Sport Trust and Two Circles estimates that women’s sport in the UK could accrue UK£1 billion (US$1.2 billion) in annual revenue by 2030, tripling the roughly UK£350 million (US$419 million) it currently generates. That may be a headline figure, but as more money comes in, Panter says rights holders will have a decision to make.

“That external investment can be used by rights holders to further invest in the athletes through pay, the product and marketing,” she says. “Rights holders need to make carefully balanced decisions as to how much goes to compensating players and how much goes into further developing and growing the sport to get to the point of commercial sustainability.

“Different sports will be able to move at a different pace, as will different competitions, leagues and teams within a particular sport, just as is the case in men’s sport, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, it is critical to start with an ambition to get to equality and to be prepared to invest in the path to get there.”

As ever with such nuanced and often polarising issues, the answer is not a simple one. But what is clear is that everyone has a part to play in narrowing the gap.

“It’s a joint effort, we need everyone’s help and support,” states Goldschmidt. “As history has shown, progress has been much slower than one might have liked or expected. But the onus is on everyone – governing bodies, pro leagues, media, sponsors, athletes and others – to do more and to also get creative as needed to achieve equality.”

This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Women’s Sport Week, a week of coverage dedicated to the industry’s next great growth opportunity and co-hosted by Two Circles. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.

To find out more about SportsPro’s future themed weeks, click here.

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