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OF MARGINAL INTEREST | A Losing Game: The Economics of Women’s Sports

On Saturday, November 11th, at approximately 9:49 PM EST as Alec McCrea slapped a shot into the Harvard goal with 1.4 seconds left on the clock, I contentedly filed away another Cherished Cornell Memory. As the chants of “Harvard SU-UCKS” crescendoed while adonic men whizzed around on the ice, life was looking pretty good from Section C, Row 1. Hockey games always remind me why I love this institution: the peculiar traditions, the camaraderie, the soul-sucking cold.

Hockey season, it would also seem, is the start of a robust sales season for Cornell Athletics. The Harvard game is particularly coveted by Cornell students, who will dutifully camp outside Bartels to pay double the price of a regular season ticket, jump on a $50 ticket from a scalper after tickets sell out almost immediately, and occasionally even buy $200 season tickets for the express purpose of securing seats for this particular game. Aside from the Harvard game, Cornell Men’s Hockey does pretty well for itself between its popular season tickets, Lynah Faithful merchandise, concessions, and rink-side ad sales. Currently, the new Big Red Sports Pass grants Cornell students free admission to all ticketed athletic events except Men’s Hockey, pointing to the team’s overall commercial dominance in the Cornell Athletics sphere.

Ever the enthusiastic sports fan, I decided to ruin everything by looking a little closer. A cursory check of hockey ticket prices confirmed a fairly significant price disparity between men’s and women’s sporting events. For the 2016-2017 Ice Hockey season, season tickets were a whopping $300 ($16.67 per game) for adults, seniors, staff, and children (children!) and $199 ($11.06 per game) for Cornell students. Meanwhile, a season ticket for Cornell Women’s Ice Hockey was a mere $66 ($4.13 per game) for adults and seniors and $48 ($4.00 per game) for Cornell staff and children. A recent advertisement for Men’s Basketball season tickets on the Cornell Athletics website was both kind of funny and perturbing at the same time:

Maybe for three more dollars you could finagle yourself a nice order of cheese fries too!

There are a few interesting things at play here. First, of course, the stark contrast between $99 chairback seats and $10 season tickets for women. Perhaps even more meaningful, however, is the completely unabashed acknowledgement of women’s basketball as an “add”-on–an afterthought, akin to that bag of chips you buy at Jason’s to push you past the five-dollar card minimum and kind of regret later when you find out you accidentally bought the reduced sodium version.

But women’s sports are no bag of chips! My unfortunate paucity of any form of athletic prowess has not prohibited me from witnessing firsthand the key teamwork and leadership skills close friends have cultivated through their involvement in collegiate athletics. The commitment is not easy, either–athletes of both genders sacrifice study time, partying, and other extracurricular activities to dedicate themselves to their sport. Isn’t it a little lame to be considered an add-on after years of hard work and sacrifice?

What is concerning is that this price disparity is not at all shocking. If I informed a random Cornellian that the cost of attending a Women’s Hockey game was approximately 25% that of attending the Men’s counterpart, I would probably receive in response something like “Oh, that sucks but that’s not surprising.” Most would probably justify the difference with the lower attendance at women’s sporting events, which necessitates some sort of incentive for potential spectators. I, however, would argue that the negative externalities of such a pricing scheme–first and foremost the implication that women’s sports are less interesting/engaging/relevant and thus must be set at a discount to men’s prices–may well hinder spectatorship of women’s sports in the long term more than lowering prices helps them.

Furthermore, I would claim that lowering ticket prices as a means of generating more revenue is probably not entirely effective, as the current subset of fans consistently attending women’s sporting events would/should probably not be deterred by ticket prices that are suddenly equal to those of men’s sporting events. A different tactic Cornell Athletics could try in order to increase attendance is equity in convenience of game times for the general public! As an insider within Cornell Athletics management told me, “The women’s games are also usually at a more inconvenient time so they can always have the men’s games at the usual times. It’s a combination of [multiple] factors that really puts women’s teams at a disadvantage.”

Whereas gender inequities manifest themselves fairly clearly in the pricing of tickets and attendance of college women’s sports, in the arena of professional sports a few other metrics illuminate the cultural and economic gaps between men and women. One of the key culprits in professional sports is the lack of media coverage and corporate sponsorship that female athletes receive in comparison to their male counterparts—in 2013 women’s sports received approximately 7% of total athletic television coverage and 0.4% of commercial sponsorships, according to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation. The 2015 US Women’s World Cup brought in $17 million in sponsorship revenue; meanwhile, in 2014 the Men’s World Cup attracted more than $529 million. If women in sports are not as widely watched, they will receive fewer sponsorships and airtime; if they receive less airtime and fewer sponsorships, it is harder for them to broaden their appeal.

The relative scarcity of commercial sponsorships for professional female athletes begs the question: who is selling athletic apparel for women? Under Armor, which has been hailed as a company with a novel approach to marketing towards women, signed supermodel Gisele Bundchen to feature among the likes of Misty Copeland and Lindsey Vonn. Model Karlie Kloss is now a Nike rep, and Rihanna is the creative director of Puma. As this super-interesting blog post remarks, with athleisure apparel for women skyrocketing in popularity, female sportswear models need not be actual athletes — they need to be pretty so they can sell those $100 leggings. Models are scoring the advertising contracts that female athletes are not, suggesting that, whereas it is more important for males to be successful and command respect in their respective sports, female athletes (or athletic models) just need to be attractive and youthful; this focus only exacerbates the already-existing problem of female athletes being over-sexualized in advertising and media coverage. As the target market for sportswear shifts to the broader public, the path from athletic accomplishment to commercial success for female athletes becomes ever more elusive.

I hear Derek Zoolander is signing on with Adidas soon.

Another point of contention is the gendered double-standard that exists in expectations held for athletes with sports sponsorships: whereas Nike’s then-chairman Phil Knight dismissed Tiger Woods’s “indiscretions as a minor blip” and supported Lance Armstrong for years as he faced doping accusations, merely days after Maria Sharapova announced she tested positive for meldonium, Nike corporate decided to suspend their relationship. Corporate sponsorships, a nearly $40 billion global market, play a huge role in both the pay equity and perception of athletes; their unfair management speaks depths about both.

The unequal market for commercial sponsorships for female athletes is reflected in overall compensation for female athletes compared to their male counterparts. Serena Williams, the highest-paid female athlete of 2017 and the only woman to make the list of the 100 highest-paid athletes this year, earned $27 million, which includes $19 million in endorsements. By comparison, the top three highest-paid male athletes earned: $93 million (Cristiano Ronaldo), $86.2 million (LeBron James), and $80 million (Lionel Messi). That’s a bit more than your standard 77 cents to the dollar.

Prize money is an important factor in the compensation of women athletes and women’s athletic teams. Even in tennis, a sport that actually appears to be slightly ahead of the game in terms of pay/award equity, equal prize money for all four Grand Slams was only achieved in the mid-2000s after 30 years of slow progress. In 1973, the US Open was the first grand slam to offer equal pay for men and women, while the Wimbledon still awarded female champions less than 50% of what they awarded male winners. Even so, former professional tennis player Raymond Moore caused ripples in 2016 when he declared that if he were a “lady player” he would “go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.”

Other sports are still far behind: whereas the US Men lost the first round of the World Cup in 2014, they were still paid 400% of what the US Women’s Team was paid for winning the entire World Cup tournament.

The huge prize money gap appears in sporting tournaments as large and prominent as the World Cup, where awards are in the hundreds of millions (or tens of millions for women), to events as small as the Cliff Diving World Series, where women are paid approximately $4,080 to the $16,700 awarded to men. Other sporting contests are leaps and bounds behind tennis:

They had to be this petty.

They had to be this petty.

The disparity at hand is justified by the same logic that maintains lower ticket prices for women: people don’t actually want to watch women’s sports. In 2016, tennis champion Novak Djokovic infamously pushed for men to “fight for more [prize money]” and “fight for what we think we deserve,” noting that “as long as…there is data and stats available and information, you know, upon who attracts more attention, spectators, who sells more tickets and stuff like that, in relation to that it has to be fairly distributed.”

These “data and stats,” however, are without a doubt skewed by the scant coverage women’s sports receive: a 2015 USC study of media found that only 3.2% of airtime was devoted to women’s sports in LA, down from 5% in 1989; meanwhile, ESPN’s SportsCenter allotted approximately 2% of coverage to women’s sports. If women don’t get coverage, they don’t gain fans and viewership. If they don’t have fans and viewership, the don’t win endorsements, sponsorships, and equal prize money. If they don’t receive endorsements, sponsorships, and equal prize money, they are not perceived as seriously as their male counterparts. Ad infinitum. The cycle can’t be broken by women suddenly miraculously gaining a huge fan base and commercial success; change has to come from athletic apparel companies, advertisers, sports media, and tournament organizers — and it has to come from a heightened awareness from sports fans.

It has taken a while for women’s sports to come into any sort of public eye. The Cornell-Harvard Hockey Rivalry has an eight-section Wikipedia page detailing its early years and history dating back to 1910, a record of post-season ECAC Championship results, and even the appearance of the rivalry in film. Meanwhile, the Cornell Women’s Hockey team played its first game in 1972. Gender equity in sports, like in any domain, takes time. But the first and most necessary step is more exposure for female athletes so that they can avoid falling into the vicious cycle of lack of media/institutional interest and lack of audience. They need initial interest, spectator investment, and traditions of their own: it can start here on the Hill.

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