Ever wondered why women’s team sports are watched and otherwise supported so meagerly by women themselves? The underlying premise here may strike one as obtuse, even churlish this week, what with thousands of women in the stands watching the 2019 Women’s World Cup in stadia all over France. But none of last week’s Round of 16 matches sold out and World Cup crowds can mislead. You’ll recall they were enormous during the 1999 Women’s World Cup, here in the U.S. That event was seen as a tipping point for the women’s game in North America, and yet three separate women’s professional leagues have been attempted in the two decades since. The first two folded and the third — the National Women’s Professional Soccer League — continues to teeter on the brink of financial collapse and cultural irrelevance.
Soccer remains a funny duck in America. More than those in other footballing nations, soccer fans here are beguiled by and pay outsized attention to their national teams — as opposed to the privately administered clubs that compete in domestic leagues. And surely there are entrenched gender biases that have worked against the serial iterations of women’s pro soccer in this country, or the WNBA, or women’s professional hockey wherein the Canadian professional league just folded. U.S. hockey international Kendall Coyne Schofield told the New York Times in April that, “People are drooling for women’s hockey. But the product we deliver isn’t being shown.”
Are they drooling for it really? And what does she mean when she says, “people”? I don’t have numbers on how many folks consume women’s hockey at the Olympics, for example, and how that audience breaks down by gender. But it might surprise you to learn that nearly 70 percent of the WNBA’s viewership is male. That surprised me.
The WNBA has been around since the late 1990s; it has never turned a profit, despite being financially backed and marketed by one of the most savvy organizations in world sport, the NBA — an organization that has every incentive to create a larger audience for both of its on-court products. The core of that new, larger audience would presumably be women who don’t otherwise follow the NBA. But women have responded to the WNBA with the same relative indifference they exhibit toward women’s professional soccer and hockey. Here’s Adam Silver on the subject in 2018:
“It’s interesting: Women’s basketball is largely supported — just in terms of the demographics — by older men, for whatever reason, who like fundamental basketball, and it’s something I’ve talked a lot to the players about,” he said. “We’re not connecting with almost the same demographic that our players are. I’m always saying our players are roughly, let’s say, 21 to 34, in that age range. I’m saying [to the players], ‘Why do you think it is that we’re not getting your peers to want to watch women’s basketball?’
“So in a way I think it’s a good problem to have in that I think the game looks fantastic, and it’s amazing where the league now is from over 20 years ago when it launched,” Silver added, “but we still have a marketing problem, and we gotta figure it out. We gotta figure out how we can do a better job connecting to young people and how they could become interested in women’s basketball.”
It would be foolish to look past the obvious cachet and allure of individual events like the World Cup, women’s Olympic hockey, or the NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament. These are very popular events by any measure, with men and women, but the NBA’s failure to create this young audience, among women, and the serial failure of women’s pro soccer leagues in North America should tell us something — namely, it’s really hard to get American and, I suspect, European women to watch and sustainably support women’s team sports. Episodic interest in annual or quadrennial events is a different animal, one that has never translated into the dependable, regular gates, television viewership, or profitability that viable professional sports leagues require.
Olympic Lyonnaise Feminin is the most successful club in the history of women’s futbol. Formed in 2004, it has claimed 14 French league titles (!), six European Championships, including the last four on the trot. OLF plays its league games in the Groupama Stadium, a 58,000-seat facility it shares with the OL men’s team. This past spring OLF hosted the Women’s Champions League semifinal first leg against English club Chelsea. That match, a final four contest in Europe’s premier club competition, drew 25,907 spectators — the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s football match in France.
Color me glass-half-empty, but why are crowds in football-mad Europe so very modest? Fourteen titles in 15 years and that’s the biggest-ever crowd to watch Lyon? More to the point, why are women packing stadia across France this week but not packing them in to watch OLF during its league season?
With the Women’s World Cup down to the final 8, with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team having recently filed suit against its own Federation over equal-compensation issues — with another distaff March Madness done and dusted, amid mounting complaints of unequal marketing attentions from the NCAA — it seems an opportune-if-thorny time to flesh out some answers, for they get to the root of the USWNT suit (which, incidentally, has my support and deserves yours) and other gender-based inequities now prevailing, rightly and wrongly.
Some of those inequities can and should be righted. Others, as we’ll see, depend on women giving more fucks about team competitions between women.
On March 12, just two months before the 2019 Women’s World Cup kicked off in France, 28 members of the U.S. Women’s National Team filed a class action suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging pay inequities based on gender. It’s difficult to miss their point. As the brief details, “if both the men’s and the women’s teams were to win 20 non-tournament matches, the men would earn on average $263,320 — a little more than $13,000 per game, while the average women’s team player would earn a maximum of $99,000, which equals a little less than $5,000 per game.”
No one at the Federation has said much publicly about the suit or the prevailing issues (the U.S. Men’s National Team has said even less). And yet there are clear market forces that affect this remunerative discrepancy. It seems odd the USSF has declined to detail them in its own defense. Yes, it’s an awkward argument to make, but that doesn’t make the argument any less valid.
For example, if I were to assemble two separate all-star teams for an exhibition women’s softball match — one composed of high school English teachers and another composed of day care workers — it would cost me, the event organizer, more money to convince the teachers to participate. If they were obliged to forfeit their teacher’s pay in order to play that day, they’d be sacrificing more money in order to participate than would day-care workers, who are paid less. This has nothing to do with gender or the dignity of work. In monetary terms, teachers command more value in this respect. If teachers took paid-sick days to play softball for me, accounting for their absence would cost the school more than it would cost Little Cusses Day Care.
This is part of the reason the U.S. Soccer Federation has traditionally paid its Men’s National Team more to compete in international matches than its female counterpart. U.S. Soccer is more or less in the business of developing talent to stock men’s and women’s national teams, then monetizing the efforts of those teams. Male professionals make more money playing for their respective club teams than do women — a lot more. As a worldwide industry, men’s soccer is far more lucrative; billions more people (overwhelmingly male) watch men play futbol on TV; networks monetize that reality and pass along higher advertising rates to various corporate entities. Accordingly, individual clubs pay much larger salaries to male professionals compared to female professionals. That’s true here in the U.S.; it’s true in Europe, where nearly all of the truly elite U.S. male pros ply their trade.
Accordingly, a non-tournament, international match — what soccer folk call a “friendly” — is more costly for the Federation to organize when the competitors are men. It is also more lucrative for the Federation to organize, compared to friendly match featuring women, because more people watch men’s soccer compared to women’s soccer. Despite the remarkable growth of women’s soccer since 1999, that reality remains true for pretty much every national federation on earth, though there is evidence of a shift in the U.S. example since 2015, a result of the USMNT not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia,
Yes, the Women’s World Cup final in 2015 pulled a TV rating comparable to that of an NBA Finals or World Series game. But FIFA organizes the World Cup and reaps that financial reward, not the USSF. What’s more, a World Cup final comes but once every quadrennial while friendlies happen 20+ times a year without fail. Indeed, these matches and the money they command — from advertisers, who pony up based on viewership — are today the basis of financials supporting men’s and women’s pay scales, so far as the Federation is concerned, from year to year.
Nevertheless, the Federation should settle this suit and pay the athletes equally because the USSF should not operate its national team programs based on these market forces. The Federation should, in this regard, operate more or less as a public trust. [Ed.: It did in fact settle this suit, in March 2022, roughly along the lines I advocate above and describe below.]
The popularity of men’s sports vs. women’s sports should not matter in this context, in the same way it does not matter in the public school context, where it does not and should not make a difference whether parents better attend or otherwise more staunchly support boys’ high school sports. Public schools are obligated to provide equal opportunity among boys and girl to play those sports — so stipulates Title IX, which says, and let’s quote the U.S. Department of Education here, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
What’s more, the “friendly” pay received by U.S. national team players, men and women, cannot and should not slide on a scale based on how good a senior national team might be at any given time. Equity is equity. Accordingly, should the Federation settle this matter to the plaintiffs’ satisfaction, said plaintiffs (and the rest of us) should all stop referring to the fact that the USWNT is a perennial World Cup title contender while the USMNT is not.
For reasons we’ll explore below, women do compete entirely as part of a protected class, i.e. they play other women exclusively. That affects the quality of the on-field/televised product, which naturally affects the amount of people who consume said product — which is hugely relevant here because women, who might possess and added incentive to watch or otherwise support a women’s event, generally consume the product in far smaller numbers than men. That is the nub of the myriad commercial factors at issue here.
Indeed, only those organizations that receive federal funds or otherwise occupy a place of public, national trust, such as the U.S. Soccer Federation, should be bound by the obligations of Title IX or like compensation philosophies. Those entities existing outside of these narrow categories — sports leagues, TV networks, and companies looking to market themselves to fans of those leagues (via broadcast enabled by networks) — operate primarily according to market forces, not matters of the public trust. And here is where matters, when viewed objectively, get prickly A.F., because international soccer (i.e., competing for one’s country) is not where the money is. Club soccer is where the money is.
While federations like U.S. Soccer have played a role in the administration of women’s soccer leagues in the 21st century, federations generally hold little sway over the success or failure of club soccer or the professional leagues that exist from country to country.
A lot has been written, in wake of this USWNT suit, re. the investments a federation should be making to “support” the women’s game. This is particularly relevant in developing women’s soccer nations like Thailand, Chile and Cameroon. There, a national federation must spend (as a public trust should spend) on the broad identification, development and curation of footballing talent. In the U.S., those systems are already in place. The U.S. has indeed been the sport’s dominant team since the 1999 World Cup.
Unfortunately, in the soccer context (as in the basketball and hockey contexts), big crowds and robust television viewership related to Women’s World Cups have not yet translated into crowds and television audiences large enough to sustain women’s professional sports leagues — not in the U.S., not in France, not anywhere in Europe or the wider world, frankly. Indeed, all of the top women’s clubs in Europe are attached to established men’s clubs, in the same fashion that the WNBA is attached to the NBA. Without those affiliations, compensation for women at Europe’s biggest clubs — and the television audiences associated with league games — would be smaller still.
There are reasons for this disconnect between what sports women will play, what sports women will watch, in what sort of numbers, and why. Let’s unpack them.
Women’s college basketball is a useful straw entity here, for when it’s compared to the men’s game, the yawning, ever-widening gaps relating to fan interest, media exposure and revenue production are difficult to miss. March Madness, the NCAA post-season championship, invites this comparison annually, more than the WNBA and the NBA, frankly. Those leagues conduct their seasons at different times, while the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments essentially run concurrently, according to identical formats, administered by the same organization. And yet, the men’s event commands far more fan interest, media exposure and revenue.
On its face, these gaps strikes one as entirely unfair, as men’s and women’s college basketball should be treated comparably. This was the argument advanced by former college star (now WNBA star) Brianna Stewart in March 2019 when she alleged the NCAA was disrespecting and shortchanging women’s basketball by not promoting it more robustly alongside the men’s tournament.
While the men’s game becomes ever more popular and lucrative, the women’s college game has not enjoyed anywhere near the same growth, in terms of viewership or commercial value. That’s not a function of marketing. With all due respect to Ms. Stewart, the same gaps exist between NBA basketball and WNBA basketball (where ownership is shared), between Major League Soccer and the serial iterations of women’s professional soccer in America, between the National Hockey League and the now defunct women’s Canadian league.
Why is this?
Here’s why, and please forgive my blunt tone, for these arguments have for too long been obscured by euphemism:
• Women don’t support or watch women’s team sports in anywhere near the same numbers that men watch or support men’s team sports. If they did, women’s college basketball would in fact be a commercial juggernaut today — as would the WNBA, and women’s pro soccer in this country.
Women represent a slight majority of the U.S. population (51 percent). Women have money and indeed, over time, according to AdWeek, “men have become less important to advertisers who want to reach viewers with control over disposable income. (According to the Boston Consulting Group, women control or influence 73 percent of all household purchases.)” Studies vary but women tend to watch about the same amount of television as men (between 2.6 and 2.8 hours per day, according to The Neilsen Co.). If women watched women’s basketball and women’s soccer in numbers anywhere near comparable to the number of men watching the NBA and MLS, the WNBA and National Women’s Professional Soccer Leagues would be rolling in dough and exposure.
But they don’t, and this paucity of female viewership translates quite directly into smaller TV viewership, smaller commercial revenues stemming from associated TV contracts, more meager merchandizing opportunities, and smaller gates at stadia themselves.
I don’t claim to know why women don’t watch women’s soccer or women’s basketball in the same numbers. It could be yet another function of the patriarchy — i.e., men have dominated these realms since the onset of organized professional sports at the turn of the 19th century; soccer and hoops are two sports created by men, for men, and women might well better prefer to watch/support sports created by women, for women. It could be a relative genetic aversion to team sports. I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone knows. But I can’t think of a single team sport, even those ostensibly cordoned off for women (field hockey, in this country, for example), where women watch/support with anywhere near the same ardor, in the same numbers as men do.
There are plenty of live TV events that draw strong majorities of female viewers. According to Forbes, the Oscars definitely skew female, which is reflected in the advertising of products and themes geared toward women. CivicScience found roughly twice as many women as men watched the 2019 ceremony in late February. The Olympic television phenomenon — once a quadrennial bonanza, now merely a biennial happening — was built during the 1970s. It remains in large part reliant upon the fact that Olympic sports generally command an inordinately large “cross-over” viewership — another euphemism that essentially means viewership comprising larger-than-normal female viewership. Women accounted for 56 percent of 2016 Summer Olympic viewership in the U.S., according to Nielsen. Women represented 46 percent of the Super Bowl viewership in 2016, though that figure falls below 35 percent for NFL games that aren’t the Super Bowl, which are generally parties where there happens to be a football game on the TV.
There are sports that women do in fact consume more rabidly, in greater numbers, than men. Figure skating is one example. Gymnastics is another. Both are primarily individual sports, however. Women’s golf and tennis also produce individuals that can transcend gender when it comes to the ability to draw eyeballs, in person and on television. But they are comparatively rare (Serena Williams), highly nationalized (Korean golfers are rock stars, but only in Korea), and again, these are not team sports.
U.S. women simply do not watch/support team sports in numbers reflective of their numbers in the culture, and it’s taken on the quality of a dirty little sports secret — something no one in the U.S. seems willing to discuss openly and in detail, despite being demonstrably true, obvious, and vital to the fortunes of ventures like the WNBA and women’s pro soccer and hockey leagues.
There’s an important disconnect that stems from this disinterest: There remains the clear expectation among world-class female soccer, basketball and hockey players that international success should necessarily translate into commercial, professional, league/club success — but it does not, and it says here that, for once, the patriarchy is not responsible. Rather, it’s more attributable to the paucity of women who actually follow these sports day to day, week to week, month to month.
Men comprise an overwhelming majority of the American sports viewership; they account for more than 70 percent of NFL/MLB/NBA viewers, for example. This much we know. So, they outnumber women when match competitors happen to be men.
But here’s the sobering bit: Men outnumber women even when the match competitors happen to be women. According to Sports Business Daily from 2016, “Unsurprisingly, ESPN says the majority of the WNBA’s audience continues to be made up of men, as it has for years, not women: 66 percent of ESPN’s WNBA audience is male.” That figure is going up. It’s now more than 70 percent.
Taking all this on board, does it not follow that if women watched women’s sports in numbers anywhere near commensurate with their percentage of the U.S. population, women’s basketball and soccer would be a lot more popular and lucrative? But they don’t. So they aren’t.
Above lies a quantitative explanation. Let us turn to its qualitative cousin, whereupon significantly more fur will surely fly:
• Fewer consumers of sports programming, men and women, watch or otherwise support women’s team sports because, when those sports are objectively compared to direct counterpart sports, played by men, they are invariably viewed inferior sporting products.
Yeah, you read that right. People are loath to voice this explanation out loud, as well. And yet, to me, this is the other primary reason why women’s soccer does not attract the gates, the TV audiences nor the revenues that viable professional sports leagues require in order to thrive. It is the reason why women’s hoops will never experience levels of popularity, commercial appeal and compensation approaching those of men’s basketball, at the college or professional levels. Ditto for women’s hockey. These respective sporting products just aren’t very good or compelling by comparison — a comparison that women themselves recognize, a comparison that increasingly works against women’s sport as the universe of televised men’s sports continues to expand in the digital age.
Apologists often argue that women’s basketball (or soccer) is just “different”, that it requires viewers/attendees to appreciate different aspects of the game. This is true to an extent. When one women’s team plays another, it can be compelling. Hence the demonstrably good fun we’re having with the World Cup in France… I have a good friend whose daughter was part of a very good high school basketball team: three state finals in four years. He and I didn’t just attend dozens and dozens of their games over those four years; we broadcast dozens more via various live streams. It was great fun. I love basketball. Any individual contest, played at any skill level, by men or women, boys or girls, has the potential to be competitive and captivating in its own right.
But women’s sports are by definition a competitive construct, an accommodation, an acknowledgement that women constitute a protected class of athlete that requires and deserves its own distinct competitive arena based on a qualitative reality.
Here’s the blunt end of this assertion: If there were but a single unisex U.S. National Soccer Team, its roster would be stocked exclusively with men. If there had been a single U-12 soccer team where I grew up, in Greater Boston, back in the 1970s, it would have been all boys. Serena Williams in her prime may well be the finest female tennis player of all time; she wouldn’t win a play-in match at a unisex U.S. Open. Perhaps not a single set.
Once the testosterone kicks into high gear, in male bodies, the athletic consequences are clear. And so we create girls’ teams, and ultimately women’s teams, to serve this protected class — to allow the broadest possible participation, which is both ethically the right thing to do and adherent to federal statutes like Title IX.
But the moment you qualitatively compare girls’ and boys’ high school soccer, or basketball, the differences are striking. They become no less striking at the elite or otherwise professional levels, where they similarly do not work in women’s favor — not when it comes to attracting viewers and potential ticket-purchasers who (and this is vitally important) have so many other forms of soccer and basketball from which to freely choose.
Again, this is sticky shit but it’s also established fact: Into adulthood and enduringly, female players are slower, less athletic and aside from free-throw shooting, not as skillful. Even this trope — that girls/women are better foul shooters — is questionable, in my view. They play with a smaller ball on standard rims; they should make more unmolested shots from the line… I recognize this all sounds horribly boorish. The one upside: my politically correct alma mater, boho Wesleyan University, may just stop asking me for money. However, I’m trying to assert a clear, persistent reality that, in my view, helps explain why elite women’s soccer and basketball do not command the money and attention of counterpart sports played and watched by men — and why such sports organizations cannot seem to build the lucrative professional leagues their competitors seek.
For the entirety of human existence, the patriarchy (which I learned about in the 1980s, at Wesleyan, to be fair) and flat-out gender discrimination surely outweighed market forces in this regard. But Title IX, changes in the culture, and the subsequent/serial launch of professional women’s sports leagues argue that, today, market forces (women don’t watch women’s team sports) combined with the qualitative realities are working more damagingly against the financial growth of women’s professional sports.
Think of it this way: Why don’t we pay more attention to the NCAA Division III men’s soccer tournament? We can agree it’s a very good brand of soccer. However, no one is suggesting that because D3 players are uniformly smaller, slower and less skilled than their D1 or professional counterparts, we should find some way to recognize D3 games as being just as good, just as worthy of our attention and fandom, in their own way. More critically, there is so much soccer on TV these days, the D3 men’s game simply cannot compete for eyeballs, much less in-person spectators. Hell, the Division I College Cup — soccer’s version of the Final Four — barely gets on live cable television. Why? Because there are a dozen different levels of clearly superior, more compelling futbol product available to the American sports consumer today.
This is exactly the problem faced by women’s soccer or women’s basketball, even if women watched in numbers commensurate with men: The product cannot compete from a qualitative standpoint with the myriad brands of superior futbol and hoops now available for live consumption on television. That’s not right or wrong. That just is.
When one bears this in mind, alongside the quantitative reality, that far few women themselves bother to watch women play soccer or basketball — that men in fact watch women’s sports more than women themselves — the disparate picture seems to me relatively clear and straightforward. It’s the reason the WNBA limps along (propped up financially, as it is, by the NBA); it’s the reason women’s pro soccer keeps playing to meager crowds (with paltry TV coverage) here and abroad; it’s the reason women’s pro hockey just went belly up. In Canada!
Is this sexism? I don’t believe that’s what it is. I’ve been fighting the patriarchy, against my own self-interest, since 1984. It seems to me the controlling factors today are market driven and I don’t see how or why they would change — until, that is, women start watching women’s sports in larger numbers, deploying their identities as women to obscure or render moot their own demonstrable abilities to tell first-rate soccer from third-rate soccer. People do indulge in this behavior: men and women. We make this allowance to watch a D3 soccer game played by an alma mater, or a high school basketball game in which our son or daughter is participating. There are examples where this can serve as a platform for pretty big-time revenue production. Think of the way a public university can market its sports teams to a group of alumni, to the region it serves.
On the one hand, women stepping up in this regard could be viewed a reasonable act of solidarity. On the other, why would we condescend to women in this way? They understand soccer perfectly well. They can differentiate between better/lesser soccer as well as any man. To demand the suspension of these abilities seems to me the height of condescension.
The USWNT suit is about more than compensation. It’s a more general howl of righteous protest re. what these athletes consider a lack of respect. The money, the poor facilities, the lack of co-equal marketing efforts… It’s all of a piece. It’s what Brianna Stewart was talking about. It’s essentially what female hockey professionals allege, when noting that 9 of the 10 directors of USA Hockey are men.
But these slights have little if anything to do with why these athletes don’t play in commercially viable, professional leagues from season to season. That unfortunate reality is down to the product those leagues produce — and the inordinate indifference of the one demographic that would conceivably look past qualitative realities to consume the product anyway.
With the World Cup in full swing, there is a presumed-but-formless momentum for women’s soccer that reminds me of the momentum we perceived to be taking hold back in 1994. Those good feelings about soccer, at that time, were entirely centered on the men’s game. Yet even in hindsight it’s difficult to connect them to the success of professional club soccer in this country. Major League Soccer was launched 2 years later, in 1996. It’s taken 25 years to achieve what MLS has achieved, which, we can agree, remains a mixed bag. The league has created extraordinary fan culture and gate receipts, but it continues to pull TV numbers that pale beside domestic ratings achieved by European and South American national leagues.
Women’s soccer at the international level is clearly taking off in Europe. The national teams of Spain, Holland, Italy and England had been also-rans; in 2019, they have raised their games to compete with the world’s elite (if you can find a sports book to take the bet, put $1,000 on Spain in 2023). But there is no indication that professional leagues in those countries will emerge to provide salaries above those commanded today, in France or the U.S. The attachment of women’s teams to top clubs in Europe means the French, Spanish and German leagues will never fold up and disappear, as they have in North America. But the 25 years it has taken MLS to reach its modicum of success and stability? This should sober everyone to the task of building women’s pro soccer into a viable concern.
The NBA, it seems to me, has already reckoned the size of its challenge. It has come under considerable fire for not better supporting and marketing the WNBA. Players complain that rosters are too small, that salaries are so meager that players feel the need to compete 12 months a year, in foreign leagues, during the WNBA off season, to make ends meet. Yet despite its built-in cost efficiencies (stemming from its NBA relationships; think arena-sharing), the WNBA loses some $12 million annually. That is chump change by NBA standards, but I find it hard to believe that the NBA would be unwilling to spend another $100 million on marketing and player salaries if the braintrust in NYC felt it would make that back in WNBA-related TV, merchandize and gate revenues.
The NBA knows the basketball business pretty well by now. Adam Silver & Co. aren’t skimping on WNBA marketing and salaries because they’re part of the patriarchy. I think it’s clear to the NBA Suits that, with 20 years of track record, the most meaningful segment of the WNBA’s potential viewership (women) will not watch a midweek game pitting the L.A. Sparks and the Connecticut Sun, no matter how much money is thrown at marketing the league enterprise. And even if they did fling that cash, any discerning hoops fan, man or woman, would sooner watch a superior brand of basketball, of which there are six different examples on the air at any time of the day or night, all year long.
The NCAA is in completely different situation. It is obligated by law to hold women’s soccer and basketball championships on more or less equal bases when it comes to format (per Title IX), which is right and proper.
U.S. Soccer Federation receives no federal funding, to my knowledge, so Title IX does not obligate it to pay senior nationals of both genders in a strictly equitable fashion — but that’s exactly what it should do nevertheless. This should extend to the facilities of which these elite players avail themselves, which is a key aspect of the USWNT suit. That the USWNT has for too long been obliged to practice and play on substandard, potentially dangerous surfaces (read: artificial turf, which, let’s be real, is even more dangerous to female players whose knees have evolved in ways that make them far more susceptible to ACL and MCLs injuries) is shameful. The U.S. Federation should throw all its support to all players, from all nations, by insisting on natural surfaces in all international contexts, not merely the world’s premier competition.
All that said, the market forces at play here would appear far less correctable when it comes to matters of financial equity.
In 2011, ESPN reached a long-term, multi-platform agreement with the NCAA for expanded rights to 24 collegiate championships, including continued broadcast coverage of the women’s Division I basketball tournament and College World Series. The $500 million, 14-year deal runs through the 2023-24 academic year. It also covers exclusive multimedia rights outside the U.S. (its territories and Bermuda) for the Division 1 men’s basketball tournament. Five-hundred million isn’t chump change, but that money is spread over 13 years and 24 different championships, each one contested annually. As context, understand that CBS/TNT paid $8.8 billion in 2016 to broadcast the men’s NCAA tournament domestically through 2024.
The qualitative and quantitative disparities in the way men and women watch/support college basketball in this country, not the patriarchy, fairly well explain this yawning chasm of revenue disparity.
And here we’d be loath to exclude a related but pretty hidebound and dubious argument — namely, that revenue created by any men’s Division I basketball program (or football program) serves the greater good because it enables said Division I college or university to better cover expenses related to non-revenue sports, which would include every women’s sport with the exception of all but a handful of soccer and basketball programs. This point is trotted out whenever financial disparities are discussed, as a way of softening the blow. Some argue this glut of major sports money — generated entirely by men’s sports — works largely to the benefit of women’s collegiate sports.
This strikes me as a crock of excrement. The great majority of U.S. colleges and universities today somehow manage to maintain varsity and JV teams in all sorts of obscure, non-revenue sports. These institutions, D2 and D3 included, have turned this trick for a century or more without this trickle-down funding mechanism/mentality.
At the college level, I’d be more concerned frankly that such non-revenue sports are continually dragged this way and that on account of major-sport revenues, in pursuit of such revenues, to the detriment of those who compete in non-revenue sports. As football and men’s basketball teams jump from conference to conference in search of greater TV revenue and branding opportunities, field hockey teams travel further and further. In 2011, when Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big 10, it did so to enrich its men’s basketball and football programs. Yet all the varsity sports at Nebraska were obliged to follow these “revenue sports” into the Big 10, as well. I’d love to know what the women’s soccer folk in Lincoln think about that. Last fall its schedule included away matches at Rutgers, Maryland and Ohio State. That’s a long way to travel for regular-season games. Perhaps that is resented by the players themselves. Or perhaps they feel it is evidence of them having come a long way.