Trends & Features

Sexism in sport: far from a relic of a bygone era

By Tim Groves

Shane Sutton’s recent departure from British Cycling following a raft of allegations of discrimination shone a light on the trouble that exists in the cultures of various sports and sporting organisations, but the issue is a broader one than that, with more layers than a mille-feuille.

That controversy came hot on the heels of Novak Djokovic’s claims that women shouldn’t be earning as much as men in tennis, backing up the Indian Wells Masters CEO Raymond Moore’s assertion that the WTA Tour “rides on the coat-tails of the men” and reigniting the age old gender pay gap debate.

Equal prize money
Tennis was the first sport to pay equal prize money to women at the US Open in 1973 after the efforts of Billie Jean King, but there are still apparently question marks over whether that’s right 43 years on.

Equal prize money for men and women is a reality in a host of sports and has been for some time – it’s been the status quo in the London marathon since it was first staged in 1981, for example, and it happened in athletics for the first time at the 1995 world championships – but there are some alarming disparities as well.

In America, the average salary for a basketball player in the WNBA was around $75,000 last year, whereas there is a minimum salary in the NBA of over $500,000 and the average player earns around $5 million per year.

The women’s football team in the same country also highlighted the issue by filing a federal wage discrimination complaint after they won the World Cup and the final against Japan was the most watched football match in American history, but they were still paid as little as 40 per cent of what their male counterparts took home.

It’s a complex issue and many will point to the commercial realities, but it has to be a concern that Maria Sharapova ($29.7 million) and Serena Williams ($24.6 million) are the only women in Forbes magazine’s list of the top 100 highest paid athletes in the world – and neither are in the top 25.

Progress is being made
Attitudes have changed since the founder of the modern Olympics Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s opposition to women competing in the Games at the beginning of the 20th century and accusations they were too weak for sport and it was bad for their health but, evidently, there is still a long way to go.

Members of Muirfield in Scotland recently failed to vote in favour of allowing women to join the golf club in sufficient numbers, the Augusta National Golf Club in America still has a men-only membership policy and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club only lifted a long-standing ban on women playing at the Open Championship in 2005.

Those anachronisms aside, huge strides have been made towards levelling the playing field between the genders in sport in recent times.

While the gap between the number of men and women exercising regularly has begun to narrow, there are still almost two million fewer 14 to 40-year-old women taking part in sport in the UK compared to men. And, more worryingly, just 18 per cent of qualified coaches and nine per cent of senior coaches are women.

Research by the organisation Women In Sport recently highlighted the fact that just 27 per cent of the boards of national governing bodies for UK sports are women. There are high profile examples, with Jennie Price leading Sport England, Liz Nicholl at the top of UK Sport, Dame Heather Rabbatts now on The FA’s board and Debbie Jevans having played a major role in London 2012 and the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but not nearly enough of them.

Lack of commercial investment

Particularly alarmingly, only 0.4 per cent of all commercial investment goes into women’s sport.

That’s the area that most needs addressing if the problem of sexism and gender inequality in sport is to be improved. Broadcast revenue is increasingly dwarfing other commercial revenue streams in the biggest sports and just seven per cent of all sports coverage in the UK’s media is of women’s sport.

Various surveys and polls suggest that the demand is there for women’s sport, but the key now lies in proving the interest levels are sufficiently high and that they can be turned into greater commercial revenues and doing a better job of selling women’s sport to broadcasters and sponsors.

Tennis is ahead of other women’s sports in this respect, but the WTA Tour’s latest media deal is thought to be worth £365 million over 10 years, while the men’s equivalent is expected to generate three times that much.

In other sports there’s a lot more ground to make up. While female footballers in America are battling for more equal pay, they are streets ahead of their counterparts in the UK.

Around 53,000 fans watched Dick Kerr’s Ladies play St Helen’s Ladies on Boxing Day in 1920 and there were as many as 150 women’s teams in England at the time. However, The FA banned women from playing football on FA-affiliated pitches in December 1921 and as good as prohibited them from playing at all by saying it was: “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. The ban was not lifted until 1971.

Fast forward 40 years and the FA finally launched the semi-professional Women’s Super League in 2011. It’s growing every year, but the initial annual funding of £1 million and combined broadcast and sponsorship revenue of £700,000 show just how far it has to go when you consider the Premier League in the men’s game signed a three-year broadcasting deal worth £5.1 billion last year.

Major battles ahead
Many major battles have been won and hurdles overcome in the long history of women’s participation in sport, but it’s clear there are more ahead. The drive to see more women in positions of power and the commercial success of women’s sport improved might just hold the key to bridging the gender gap.

Attitudes may have come a long way in the past century, but the events of 2016 have shown us we are still some distance from achieving equality in sport. Let’s hope it isn’t another 100 years before we get to where we should be.

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