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What Will It Take to Close the Gender Gap in Sports?

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Last year, Randy Waldrum, head coach of the Houston Dash, got on camera to basically beg fans to come to the games. He was disappointed with low opening-day ticket sales. Season ticket sales were low, too. And so were large-group sales, he said.

His pleas were near doomsday-like, and in ways a serious warning about the future of women’s soccer: The fans need to start understanding, he told the Houston Chronicle, that if they want their daughters to have a team to look up to five or ten years from now, they need to start coming to games

“My appeal is not just about the Dash,” he said. “My appeal is, I want this league to survive. I want women in sports to have an opportunity. And the only way to ensure that is you guys have to get out and buy a ticket. If you sit back and expect others to do it, then in a couple of years when this team is no longer around, we as a fan base will only have ourselves to blame.”

Waldrum, in a way, was doing exactly what one of his own players, Carli Lloyd, did last week: outwardly asking to close the gender gap in sports. Last week, Lloyd, along with four other soccer players on the U.S. Women’s National Team, filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation of paying female soccer players significantly less than men despite the fact that they bring in more revenue than the men’s team and are more successful.

And that’s what makes this case groundbreaking, according to Dr. Elizabeth Gregory, director of the University of Houston Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. Lack of interest in and attendance at women’s games, regardless of talent, has been a long-standing cultural problem, one that’s often inseparable from the pay gap in women’s sports, she said. But here, the women’s soccer players are claiming that, even when they’re bringing in more revenue than men and competing on the World Cup stage, their work is still valued less than men’s, as evidenced by their pay.

According to the complaint, the U.S. women’s teams are projected to pull in $17.6 million in revenue in 2017, while the men’s teams are projected to pull in half that, at $9 million. (U.S. Soccer, however, said it could prove those numbers are misleading and that men's teams still pull in better TV ratings and attendance; in a statement, it called the complaint "disappointing.") Yet for whatever reason, the most money that even the most talented women can make, if they win every game in the season, is $99,000, while men can make up to $263,000 if they win every game, and $100,000 even if they lose every game.

To change the way society values women’s sports at all levels, though, Gregory said, is going to require a culture change.

“One of the things that people have said over the years — and this is a blame-the-victim sort of thing — is that women don’t ask for more money,” Gregory said, adding that UH actually offers salary negotiation for women on campus for this very reason. “So this is one of those moments where women are saying, ‘Well, we will ask. We’re not just going to depend on or wait for somebody to be equitable — we’re going to have to make the case.’”

Addressing the more deep-seated gender disparities in sports may be more complicated, though, stretching beyond facts laid out in a wage-discrimination lawsuit. “It has to be a full-court press, when we’re acting on all the different fronts,” Gregory said. She said it has to start with getting people to attend girls’ and women’s games — as Waldrum asked — and getting them to care about the games in the way they care about men’s games. That goes back to marketing: Perhaps people care less because women’s sports are not hyped up in the way that men’s sports are. Gregory said it’s a “chicken-or-the-egg phenomenon”: Are advertisers not investing more in women’s teams because people show less interest in their games? Or would people show more interest in their games if they invested more in marketing them?

But Dr. George Cunningham, a sports management professor at Texas A&M and director of the Laboratory for Diversity in Sport, said that even when marketers do pay attention to women’s sports, there remains a disparity in how they are marketed. Cunningham said that women athletes are often sexualized, with attention paid to their physical appearance, or they’re “'othered,’ meaning men’s sports are seen as the standard while women’s sports are portrayed as the addition or exception,” he said. He pointed to NCAA March Madness as a prime example: The men play in the Final Four, while women play, specifically, in the “Women’s Final Four.”

“When we put this together with patriarchal society norms,” Cunningham said, “it’s no wonder women athletes and women’s teams receive less than men, despite superior performance.”

A CNN reporter also pointed out last month the disparity in news coverage among men’s and women’s team. She had noticed men’s March Madness coverage on the front page of The New York Times, while “women’s” March Madness was “a story without a photo deep in the sports section.” She and her husband had also recently taken their daughters to a sparsely attended Columbia University women's basketball game, prompting her to wonder “what it was going to take for women's sports to get the same attention as men's sports — meaning an equal number of fans, TV rights, marketing endorsements, you name it. Is such a day even possible?”

She asked the question of a three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who had grown disappointed about unequal facilities for men’s and women's sports — yet another gender-disparity problem in sports that can’t necessarily be solved by any number of fans. “When the leadership says, ‘We’re going to make this just as important,’ change will come,” Hogshead-Makar told CNN.

Hogshead-Makar was also part of the legal team that argued to FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association, on behalf of many U.S. and international women's soccer players, that the 2015 Women's World Cup should be played on real grass just like the men’s games, not on artificial turf. They didn’t win the case, but in announcing this new wage-discrimination suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, players like Alex Morgan called attention to it as yet more evidence of gender discrimination.

Others, like Carli Lloyd, said that they used to think they could be patient, believing the federation would eventually do the right thing for female athletes. But that patience apparently ran out.

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