Struggling for Women’s Sports Equality

Exclusive: The huge crowds watching the U.S. women’s soccer team win the World Cup marked a moment of hope for Americans who lament the gross disparity between the support for men’s and women’s sports, but it’s still an uphill struggle for anything close to parity, as Chelsea Gilmour explains.

By Chelsea Gilmour

This year’s Women’s World Cup Final between the U.S. and Japan, which the U.S. team won 5-2, drew a record-breaking American audience for soccer, with an average total viewership of 25.4 million on Fox. And that wasn’t just record-breaking for women’s soccer.

More U.S. viewers tuned into the game than any other men’s or women’s soccer event, including last year’s celebrated men’s match between the U.S. and Portugal during the World Cup in Brazil, broadcast on ESPN, which drew 18.7 million.

U.S. Women's National Team (Soccer), winners of the 2015 World Cup. (Via Twitter.)

U.S. Women’s National Team (Soccer), winners of the 2015 World Cup. (Via Twitter.)

Potential reasons why this year’s women’s cup matches may have attracted so many viewers include the location in Canada (which has similar time zones to the U.S.), the fact that the match aired on Sunday evening for Americans on the East Coast (a popular time to watch sports), and the likelihood that the game will be star-player Abby Wambach’s last World Cup appearance (she has scored more international goals than any player, male or female, in soccer history).

But, perhaps most importantly, the enthusiasm of Americans for a women’s team playing a game that is not considered a major U.S. sports suggests a growing respect for women in sports (as well as a greater appreciation for the game of soccer). The World Cup victory was followed by the team receiving a ticker-tape parade in New York City on Friday with crowds estimated in the tens of thousands and drawing significant coverage on U.S. cable news channels. Commentators noted the large number of young women and girls in the crowd.

On Saturday, the attention of the sports world again focused on an American female athlete, tennis star Serena Williams, who won the Wimbledon championship, marking her fourth consecutive Grand Slam title, known popularly as the “Serena Slam,” named in her honor after she accomplished this historic feat 12 years ago.

Yet, despite this growing respect, female athletes are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts make, both in salaries and advertising fees. For instance, the U.S. women’s team will split $2 million for winning the Cup, while last year the U.S. men’s team split $8 million for losing it. Typically, the explanation is that women’s soccer attracts fewer viewers then men’s soccer. But, clearly that wasn’t the case for last Sunday’s final.

Another explanation for the pay discrepancy is that, in the world of corporate sponsorship, women’s sports simply don’t translate into the name recognition of men’s sports and thus companies are less willing to pay large amounts to advertise with female athletes. The Women’s World Cup brought in $17 million in sponsors this year, compared to $529 million in sponsors for last year’s men’s World Cup, according to the Wall Street Journal.

On an individual level, the same holds true. According to an ad industry survey of the 75 highest-paid athlete endorsers in 2014, the first woman on the list at number 11 with $22 million was Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova. By contrast, golfer Tiger Woods, at number 1, earned $55 million. The next woman on the list was Li Na, a former Chinese tennis player, at number 15 with $18 million, followed by Serena Williams at 22 with $11 million.

While the list of the top sports endorsers is dotted with a number of male soccer stars, the list has no women soccer players. So, with a lack of both team and individual sponsorships, professional women’s soccer teams in the U.S. struggle to survive year after year. Two women’s soccer leagues have failed and the current one is beset by low attendance, only about 4,400 fans a game, according to CBS News.

An Inviting Market

Yet, as Shane Ferro of Business Insider wrote, based on last Sunday’s viewership, there is clearly a market for women’s soccer, but sponsors and fans alike have not sufficiently bought in. And the only way to fix that is to pay more attention to female sports year-round. Ferro pointed out, “you, dear reader, can do only one thing and it’s not complaining about prize money on social media. If you want to fix the income disparity in women’s sports, go buy a jersey or tickets for a game.”

Which brings us to the curious reality of female sports coverage in general. As the Washington Post noted, “About 40 percent of American athletes are female, yet only 4 percent of media coverage goes to female sports, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.”

And the trend isn’t getting better: “A 2010 study of ESPN’s SportsCenter and three network affiliates in Los Angeles found that only 1.5 percent of national and local airtime was devoted to covering women’s sports, the lowest in two decades of research.”

So, what do female soccer players need to get recognition? First, they should NOT follow the advice of outgoing FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who once suggested they might wear shorter shorts. The female soccer teams could, however, build on the excitement from the World Cup by marketing some of the stars from the U.S. team. Some of that marketing could target “alternative” audiences, rather than the traditional male-dominated viewership of sports shows.

First, let’s look at the fan base for women’s soccer in the U.S. and the time needed to gain traction. The Boston Globe pointed out, “female preteens and teenagers [are] often the default fan for women’s professional teams.” Many of these fans are likely soccer players themselves, who see the professional players as role models. This is a good start, but not enough to bring in the revenue or team loyalty needed for the teams to survive.

For real money to come in, there should be a much broader base of support and an increase in the sale of team paraphernalia. Besides marketing to different audiences, this can be achieved over the long run by those same preteen and teenage fans who will share their team loyalties with their eventual children, just as parents have done for generations with established male sports teams.

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told fans during Friday’s ticker-tape parade, “Young women who watched that game will grow up to tell their daughters and tell their sons.”

One reason that men’s teams have such a strong foothold is team tradition and loyalty. The Boston Globe explained, “Fans forget how long men’s leagues struggled before they broke through and became billion-dollar enterprises with worldwide followings. [Former NBA commissioner David] Stern points out that the NBA was founded in 1946, played to half-empty arenas for more than a decade, and, until the early 1980s, saw the Finals broadcast on tape delay.”

Men’s teams have therefore had the opportunity to grow their fan base over the years through family tradition. Parents take their children to a sports game for their hometown team and those children, after they grow up, take their children to see the same team (or, if they’ve moved, they may at least follow the team from a distance). In so doing, a family establishes a relationship with that team, almost like a second family. Following the team is a way for the family, across generations, to relate to one another.

So, just as loyalty to men’s teams is handed down, women’s teams need time to build the same momentum. In “passing the mantle,” the family will have forged an emotional connection to the team, akin to maintaining a family tradition, rather than just watching a game or team as a passing sports spectacle. The team is then solidified as part of a fan’s personal/familial identity, thereby ensuring the teams survival through that commitment.

Finding Fans

Unfortunately, building that sort of connection to a team takes a long time (generations even), so for the immediate future, women’s soccer teams may have to look to marketing to so-called “alternative” audiences, especially the twenty- and thirty-something crowd.

As the Boston Globe explained, citing Joanna Lohman, former midfielder for the Boston Breakers women’s soccer league (and currently playing for the Washington Spirit), “She understands that the [default fan base of preteen and teenage] girls and their parents lead busy lives filled with millions of distractions and other sports. So, she adds, that’s all the more reason to recruit twenty- and thirtysomethings, who grew up with soccer and might have a more developed understanding of the game[.]”

Many of these twenty- and thirty-somethings are also having children, making at least a start on that generational team loyalty building.

Meanwhile, some of the major male sports are expanding their marketing to women. The National Football League, for instance, began in 2009 to endorse National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October by decorating stadiums in pink, selling pink NFL gear, and encouraging players to accessorize their uniforms in pink. Pink, of course, is the color associated with breast cancer, as popularized by the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the pink ribbon.

Today, women are the fastest growing base of support (and income) for the NFL, making up an estimated 45 percent of the more than 150 million American football fans, according to the Washington Post. “Women, and the companies who depend on them, helped NFL revenue top a record $9.5 billion [in 2013], and Nielsen data shows women have grown to represent more than a third of the league’s average viewership.”

While it may be an easier transition to acquire female fans for male sports than male fans for female sports, it isn’t impossible. A frequently heard assessment of why female sports don’t have as large a following as their male counterparts is that, as the Boston Globe puts it, “fans [get] stuck on the fact that female athletes aren’t as fast, strong, or physical as their male counterparts.” This may be true for sports like football and, to a lesser extent, basketball, but for women’s soccer, these factors are less important and may even favor the women.

For instance, female soccer players are more likely to play through injury and are less likely to fake being hurt, whereas male soccer players are notorious for flopping and whining about their opponents not getting a yellow or a red card.

According to a study done by a team headed by Daryl Rosenbaum, a sports medicine physician who works with the U.S. Soccer Federation and the soccer program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after analyzing videos of male and female soccer tournaments, his “research indicates that apparent injury incidents for women are much less frequent than for men, occurring at a rate of 5.74 per match as compared to 11.26 per men’s match. The proportion of apparent injuries that were classified as ‘definite’ was nearly twice as high for women, 13.7 percent, as compared to 7.2 percent for men.”

Which means men are twice as likely to fake an injury during play, thereby slowing the pace of the game with their pleas for the referees to punish opponents.

“Look how often women pop right back up when they run into someone,” Rosenbaum said. “They continue through contact, and we found they are more likely to just keep playing.”

A More Appealing Game

Another reason physical disparities between the sexes may work to women’s advantage in soccer is the quality of play. Because women are generally smaller and therefore have a smaller lung capacity, they cannot run as quickly for as long as men can. This leads to less “explosive” play and a more methodical game, which is easier for fans to follow.

As Emily Sohn explained for Discovery, “Even better for reluctant American viewers, women’s soccer games have the potential to be higher scoring than men’s matches. Because of their smaller size, there is more space on the field for women to work with, giving them more options to attack. And with smaller athletes trying to defend a goal designed for men, women strikers have that much more room to shoot for.”

This was evident during last Sunday’s Final high-scoring game. For sports fans in the United States, the opportunity to see a higher scoring soccer game could be a real draw.

Despite the currently precarious position of the National Women’s Soccer League, Friday’s ticker-tape parade in New York City in honor of the Women’s World Cup champions provided the national women’s team a chance to celebrate their victory and a chance for fans young and old to celebrate their role models.

Amy Stainton, a former Monmouth teammate of U.S. team captain Christie Rampone, brought her husband and two daughters to the event. “‘There were a lot of times in the parade today when I actually wasn’t watching the parade, and I was watching them,’ [Stainton] said, motioning to her daughters, who wore matching team apparel. ‘To have role models, people to aspire to, that’s something as a parent you always want to give your children,’” according to The New York Times.

Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, asked the City Hall crowd at Friday’s parade to extend its enthusiasm to domestic leagues: “Go out and be a fan. Watch those games on television,” he said.

Mayor de Blasio noted that the Friday celebration was the first time a women’s sports team received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, saying “It’s about time, isn’t it?”

The Washington Post reported, “More than 19 million girls played basketball, soccer and volleyball [in 2013], according to the National Sporting Goods Association, and girls’ participation in sports has grown an average of 50 percent a year over the last half-decade.”

The trend is heading in the right direction for women’s inclusion in the mainstream athletic world, if only the women’s sports leagues in America can survive long enough to benefit from the changing attitudes.

Chelsea Gilmour is an assistant editor at She has previously published “The Mystery of the Civil War’s Camp Casey” and Jeb Bushs Tangled Past.

9 comments for “Struggling for Women’s Sports Equality

  1. July 19, 2015 at 17:13

    A man of vast gravitas in the US Senate is also upset that the US Chick Soccer side is being stiffed as they are getting a pittance for their world-historic victory while the dude team is getting huge bucks even though they were eliminated early on.

    Normally, I do not take notice of panem et circuses events. Nevertheless, I agree the enrichment of the wimpy lads and the impoverishment of the macho babes is an injustice. Fortunately, there is a solution.

    I propose a “grudge” match. Winner take all the money awarded. We anticipate justice being served by the trouncing of the boys. Please, however, do not contact suggesting a wager.

    There that is done and Senator Leahy can get back to other less important causes.

  2. July 19, 2015 at 17:13

    A man of vast gravitas in the US Senate is also upset that the US Chick Soccer side is being stiffed as they are getting a pittance for their world-historic victory while the dude team is getting huge bucks even though they were eliminated early on.

    Normally, I do not take notice of panem et circuses events. Nevertheless, I agree the enrichment of the wimpy lads and the impoverishment of the macho babes is an injustice. Fortunately, there is a solution.

    I propose a “grudge” match. Winner take all the money awarded. We anticipate justice being served by the trouncing of the boys. Please, however, do not contact suggesting a wager.

    There that is done and Senator Leahy can get back to other less important causes.

  3. Brian
    July 15, 2015 at 15:14

    We have been gleefully cheering our women’s soccer team for winning the World Cup. In the minds of most people this feat is infinitely admirable because it won by an American team in a sport that is truly worldwide. It is considered sweet because Americans have been thought to be not good at Soccer. Therefore we find it befitting to provide the winners an extraordinary reception in New York, exceptional coverage on network television, unprecedented cover stories in Sports Illustrated, appearances in talk shows, monetary rewards and. In short, the victory has been followed with extraordinary jubilation.

    Any World Cup win must be rejoiced. After all a world cup is an open invitation to all nations under one banner (FIFA in this case) to fairly compete for a top spot. However, not all World Cups are truly representative of the “World”. Cricket and Rugby are played only in few nations. Despite the competitions’ moniker, World Cups in Cricket and Rugby can hardly be considered a “World” Cup. Yes, Soccer is truly a World sport, but perhaps due to our ignorance of Soccer, we do not realize that it Men’ soccer that is the World sport. Women’s soccer on the other hand is rather parochial; more advanced in nations where men’s Soccer is not the primal sport.

    Soccer is so dominantly a man’s sport in Soccer crazy nations that women those nations do not even attempt to pursue the sport. Instead, for them to carve their niche in sports like Tennis, Badminton or Volleyball is far more rewarding. The situation is similar to our own women’s approach to Football. In the US, football is considered purely a man’s game. Yes, one may be surprised to know that there is indeed a Women’s football league just like the NFL. It is called the Independent Football League. But our complete ignorance of the women’s league precisely explains why American women would think pursuing a career in it would be so unrewarding. To the contrary, Soccer in the US is promoted as a women’s game. Little girls are enrolled into Soccer camps as much as they are enrolled into Piano lessons and Ballet classes. Unlike the rest of the world, in the US, Soccer has become the leading choice in sports for women – even ahead of Tennis and Basketball. One might even say, while Men’s soccer is bona-fide worldwide sport, Women’s soccer like Baseball is genuine American sport.

    Consider this, the 2015 FIFA World Cup final was contested between USA and Japan. This match-up for the top spot is unthinkable in men’s Soccer, let alone in back to back world cups. England – home to the world’s richest Soccer league – barely had its first good outing. Spain – home to the second most prosperous – just made its debut, Italy – the third biggest generator of revenue – does not even qualify! France has qualified only three times, Argentina twice, Colombia twice. Brazil with one runner up position and Germany with one title are just but saving graces. Through the history of Women’s World Cup, the most dominant teams – figuring most often in the top four positions – have been US, Japan, China, the Scandinavian nations. These dominant teams would be considered minnows in the world of sharks and whales of Men’s Soccer! For most of the world, the Women’s world cup was sadly a non-event. South Americans were immersed in the Copa America, (arguably third most prestigious Soccer event after the Men’s world cup and Champions league). Europeans were curiously watching the transfers in and out of their beloved clubs. In the UK the games were telecast on an internet channel. In South America there was no coverage at all.

    So yes, while a World Cup title must be cherished, it would be ignorant to consider it some kind of sensational feat. The over the top jubilation the soccer team has received specially feels a little ungracious when seen in the light of feats our Women’s Basketball team has achieved. Women’s basketball is a demonstrable worldwide sport. Men’s Basketball in the US is also extremely dominant, but unlike women trying to play soccer in Europe and South America, American women can channel their talent in the NCAA and the WNBA. We still care about Women’s Basketball.

    Now consider this; since its formation in 1995-96 the US Women’s National Basketball Team has been virtually unstoppable. In 2012, the US captured an unprecedented fifth-straight Olympic gold, a feat never before accomplished in any women’s traditional team sport. In 2014 the USA defended its title at the FIBA World Championship, bringing its total since 1996, and including the five Olympic golds, to four World Championship gold medals, one FIBA Americas Championship gold and one World Championship bronze medal. In all, since the 1996 Olympic Games, the USA Women’s National Teams in official competitions have compiled a staggering 86-1 record. After claiming gold with a 6-0 record at the 2014 FIBA World Championship, the USA owns a record nine gold medals, one silver medal and two bronze medals in World Championship play, while compiling an all-time 103-21 record at the event.

    Last summer around the same time, the U.S. basketball team defended its World title after rolling through its competition by an average margin of victory of 28.8 points a game. There was no parade for the victorious team in New York. Neither the team nor any player from that victorious team was featured in a Sports Illustrated cover. The games were telecast on ESPN 3. Most of America did not even know of the event.

    Now that is a disparity in Women’s sports worth talking about.

  4. dahoit
    July 14, 2015 at 11:14

    Sport in America;Our new religion,and feel good story for American dupes.Women athletes aren’t as good as male athletes,but not to worry ladies,you are better at childbirth and rearing children.Such are natures intentions,but it seems nature is another bound to be broken by pre modernism.

  5. Mike H
    July 13, 2015 at 18:02

    Female athletes will get paid as much as male athletes when they are as good as male athletes As good as the women’s team is, it has been beaten in exhibitions matches with college men’s teams.

  6. Anonymous
    July 13, 2015 at 00:48

    In the UK men’s Foorball exploded financially when Rupert Murdoch and Sky bought the TV rights, sponsorship increased and the game became rich, the players and clubs became rich. Changing it from a working class sport to one that crosses social classes.
    Womens football if bought into by sky and had personalities could soon grow in the same way.
    The fact that Shaparova earns more than Serena is a clear indication about what drives interest in women’s sport. Li Na also captures the lucrative asian market.
    Sport needs glamour, personality as well as high skill.

  7. Andrew
    July 12, 2015 at 22:22

    I find women’s mixed martial arts to be the only women’s sport I can really get behind. For whatever reason, the lack of athleticism isn’t as glaring as in a sport like basketball. The women fighters may not possess the knockout power that the males do, but I think this is almost like a silver-lining, as they are then forced to learn the more technical aspects of the fight game rather than just relying on a single powerful punch, which many of the male fighters have a tendency to do. I find myself getting just as excited for some of the female fights as I do the men’s and that’s something I never expected when women were introduced to the sport. Watch any Rhonda Rousey or Joanna Jedrzejczyk fight and tell me I’m wrong.

  8. dave
    July 12, 2015 at 21:41

    i couldnt care less about womens sports! i watched the big ticker tape ny parade for about 5 seconds
    get lost womens sports

    • July 14, 2015 at 15:47

      OK, so YOU don’t care at all about women’s sports. However maybe other people do.

      Your snarky and nasty response was really uncalled for.

  9. DR-Montreal
    July 12, 2015 at 21:13

    This team gets no sympathy from me after their corrupt referee-engineered “win” over the Canadian women’s team a few years ago. THe Canadians had them beat but a few flagrant fake referee “fouls” in the last minutes got the US team their win. Anything to win hey? Worst bit of sports corruption I have ever seen.

    Their karma sticks to them, sorry.

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