Examining the Gender Pay Gap in Elite Sports - Updated 2020

Fiona Waters

July 12, 2020

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Revision of a piece by Andrea Casper

Today, the gender pay gap in sports is still extremely pronounced. Many leagues have acknowledged the disparity, but the issue still persists. In the past two years, equal pay in sports has progressed from simple awareness to being addressed with legal action. Now, with games being cancelled due to coronavirus, the effects of the pay gap are even more apparent. Women, who earn less than men, are hit even harder from the lost income.


A recent agreement pushed for by WNBA players increases players' pay, provides paid maternity leave, and includes even more benefits, while NBA players have agreed to a 25% pay cut in response to COVID-19. Even with these changes, a significant pay gap still exists. Coronavirus concerns threaten the pay of both the WNBA and NBA, with a shortened season expected to begin July 24th and July 30 respectively. For the NBA players who normally make millions, the threat of lost wages is insignificant. For new, "inexperienced" players of the WNBA who make a minimum of $57,000 in typical seasons, losing income from cancelled games means losing a major chunk of their salaries.

It is no secret that players in the NBA make significantly more than players in the WNBA. Zion Williamson is guaranteed a minimum of $8,131,200 with the opportunity to earn more as this season's first pick, compared to Sabrina Ionescu, whose contract stipulates $68,000. A large part of the pay gap is due to the lack of recognition from fans, media, and sponsors.

Women have been playing basketball since shortly after its creation in 1892, but it is the all male NBA that has captured the United States' attention. The first pick of the WNBA, Sabrina Ionescu, also has a deal with Nike and interest from Under Armour and Puma. Compare this, though, to the NBA, where multiple NBA players regularly secure lucrative deals with brands like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Gatorade, Nike, Adidas, and others. Unlike the NBA, WNBA tournaments are also not televised as frequently. A 2019 deal increased the number of WNBA games that were nationally televised, though they were televised on the smaller CBS Sports Network instead of CBS.

Before the WNBA reached a collective bargaining agreement, it also paid "about 20 percent of its revenue to its players, while the NBA paid 50 percent to its players." With a 53% pay raise in the January agreement, that's an estimated 31% of revenue paid out to players for future seasons. That revenue comes from financial success rooted in the interest of fans, TV deals, and sponsorships.


Since 2007, when the four Grand Slam tournaments agreed to equal prize money for men and women, tennis has been treated as a template for achieving equal pay in other sports. Both Roger Federer and Serena Williams, for instance, received $4 million for winning the 2018 Australian Open while Rafael Nadal and Bianca Andreescu both took home $3.85 million as 2019 U.S. Open champions. Matches leading up to these high-profile events and the events themselves, however, have been rescheduled or cancelled this year.

Achieving equal pay in tennis is primarily a concern outside of major competitions. The New York Times reports female tennis players earn 80 cents for each dollar earned by male players, and this discrepancy "matches the general pay gap in American workplaces." This gap translates to a difference of roughly $120,624 in total earnings.

This difference means the 15th ranked male player in the world, on average, makes $120,624 more compared to a female player with the same ranking. Just like other professional sports, a considerable pay gap is still apparent in tennis. Thankfully for female tennis players, the discrepancy is not as glaring as in the case of the WNBA and the NBA, or United States (and global) soccer.


Some of the highest-earning sports stars are in fact male soccer players, as outlined in a May 2020 Forbes article. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar take up three of the top five slots for players with the highest earnings. This season, they will each make $105 million, $104 million, and $95.5 million respectively from a combination of high salaries and endorsements, even with games being cancelled due to Coronavirus. The three men are arguably some of the best players in soccer -- Neymar specifically is infamous in the soccer world -- yet he is still one of the top paid players despite his negative reputation.

If we use that pay-for-performance argument, it is clear that the United States Women's National Team is grossly underpaid. They have far outperformed their male counterparts and have the hardware to prove it (four Olympic Gold medals and three World Cups). They even generate more revenue than the men's U.S. soccer team. Despite this, in non-tournament games, they still only earn 38% of what men would have earned.

Male soccer players earn as much as six times more than women in bonuses from participating in the World Cup. While FIFA has communicated its intent to raise the price of awards for the Women's World Cup, there is still a $370 million gap between the two competitions.

Fans, sponsors, and even the men's U.S soccer team have vocalized their support for raising pay for women. A lawsuit addressing many of the above issues was filed by the women's U.S. soccer team in March of 2019. Key parts of it were dismissed in May. The fight for pay equality in soccer continues, and we are currently in the thick of it. The NWSL 2020 season began on June 27th with a modified tournament plan and regular coronavirus testing.

American Football

Unlike many sports which have separate teams for men and women, the National Football League (NFL) allowed Lauren Silberman to try out in 2012 and has since hired eight female coaches. Despite these exceptions, players and coaches in the NFL are exclusively male. Women who want to play professionally typically join the Women's Football Alliance (WFA).

While the Superbowl garners millions of viewers every season and is the excuse for parties nationwide, the WFA has completed its seasons with little attention. Women's American football suffers from the same lack of recognition as women's basketball. Besides the lack of notoriety, the pay gap is jarring. An average NFL player makes a yearly salary of $2.4 million while an WFA member actually pays a fee, usually between $250 and $800, and must purchase her own equipment to play. On top of the costs of playing, members are often tasked with hosting fundraisers and drawing sponsors.

Women today are leading the transition from American football to flag football after researchers uncovered links between American football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Even before finding this connection, youth and high school participation in traditional tackle football was declining. As tackle football becomes less popular, the NFL has partnered with 15 colleges to establish flag football programs with potential scholarships.

The length of this year's NFL season has been cut in half due to coronavirus. With the declining popularity of tackle football, its health risks, and a shortened season, the sport of American football will likely make some significant changes. Moving forward, it will be a priority to keep the gender pay gap closed between male and female teams.


Before the pandemic, the gender pay gap in sports was already a major issue. Game cancellations, lost revenue from fans, and reduced endorsement budgets have only widened that gap. For someone making millions, such as most male players or a handful of female players (most of whom are tennis players), a little bit of lost income does not have a huge impact. For a woman who might make around $55,000 yearly, however, the lost income from games, prizes, and endorsements could be the difference between pursuing sports and focusing on a higher paying career.

With children out of school and daycares being potential breeding grounds for coronavirus, parents must also make difficult, and sometimes financially costly, decisions about childcare. Staying home may be the only option for a parent, further reducing income.

As coronavirus continues to exacerbate the gender pay gap in sports, it is important that we remember to keep pushing for change. Serena Williams reminded us in her 2017 essay that the pay gap "hits women of color the hardest." With the CDC reporting up to five times the rate of COVID-19 in non-white populations, lower pay for women, particularly women of color, is an even more immediate concern than usual. Her essay also advocates for equal pay in all areas of work -- not just in sports. Even when women have equal qualifications to men, they are still paid less. The trend of pay in professional sports is following a national one.

A controversy still forthcoming in professional sports is one which students are experiencing today. Legal battles have swept the nation attempting to bar transgender athletes from competing on girls' sports teams in schools, with the argument that transgender girls are not girls, based solely on their chromosomes. Experts agree that sex cannot simply be reduced to an individual's chromosomes, however, and is determined by a number of factors. Young adults encompass the largest demographic of transgender people, the same demographic professional sports recruit. As gender-affirming surgeries are on the rise after Medicare lifted its ban on them, professional sports will confront a new perspective in the fight for pay equality.

In sports, changing the attitudes of the players (both men and women), the fans, the media, the sponsors, and the governing organizations are a few of the steps towards achieving pay equality. In general, speaking out about pay inequality and being transparent about one's salary are effective methods of closing the wage gap. While we wait to see how coronavirus affects athlete's wages in the long-term, the struggles female players face will only be amplified.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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