Photo source: Mafue via Flickr – commons.wikimedia.org
Abby Wambach’s retirement from professional soccer, becoming the leading scorer in the sport globally, caps off an incredible run for female athletes. The US Women’s National Team (USWNT) World Cup victory, Serena Williams’s selection as sportsperson of the year, and the social media mania surrounding mixed martial arts fighters Holly Holm and Ronda Rousey constitute more than a moment. They crush the outdated view (and notorious tweet) that women’s sports aren’t worth watching, heralding a new era.
It’s taken decades of work to get here. In fact before the passage of Title IX in 1972, options for female athletes were mainly limited to tennis and the Olympics. A long-term study on media coverage of women’s sports over the past thirty years found female athletes received a fraction of the airtime or attention. Professional women’s divisions have had to make do with modest budgets and salaries that barely covered basic living expenses, which decision makers justified as a matter of economics.
Well think again. With epic performances and box office breakthroughs, it’s likely we’ll look back on 2015 as a tipping point for women in sports.
The World Cup victory in July by the US Women’s National Team (USWNT), viewed by 26.7 million in the US, set an English language record for soccer and had the entire country cheering. It also exceeded viewership of the NBA Final, World Series, and the men’s 2014 World Cup Final. The USWNT’s success earned them a ticker tape parade in New York City, a first for female athletes. Ticket sales surged for the remaining matches of the 2015 National Women’s Soccer League, where average game attendance this season increased nearly 25 percent; inquiries for 2016 subscriptions also rose sharply. With over one million girls playing soccer in teams around the country and a growing fan base, the National Women’s Soccer League hopes to build on this year’s success.
Women’s professional tennis has been around longer, and tennis players dominate Forbes’ list of top-grossing female athletes, reflecting major sponsor endorsements for the upscale sport. It also set a precedent at the US Open this year, when the women’s final sold out before the men’s final, motivated in part by Serena Williams’ quest for a grand slam of all four major tennis titles in one year, a feat not achieved by any player since 1988. Thanks to the efforts of Billie Jean King and others, all the major international tennis tournaments have awarded male and female singles champions the same top prize for years. This demonstrates a clear principle: top performing athletes get top dollar, regardless of their sex.
UFC President Dana White has now followed suit, a remarkable turnaround for a man who stated in 2011 we would never see women fight in the Octagon. Four years later, he concedes astonishment at the depth of the talent pool in the UFC women’s division – which has become a vital ingredient behind the mixed martial arts juggernaut. Last month’s co-female headlined event — a first for the UFC– set a slew of records, including attendance and stadium ticket sales, with revenue estimated at over $66 million dollars. Prior to her upset, Ronda Rousey enjoyed a string of twelve wins, becoming the highest paid UFC fighter, cracking the Forbes top ten list of female athletes. New bantam weight champion Holly Holm, the first athlete (male or female) to win titles in both boxing and mixed martial arts, appears ready to follow in her footsteps.
It spite of all these gains, there’s a long road ahead before female athletes get the respect, coverage, and compensation they deserve. This includes consistent broadcasting or streaming of games, as well as infrastructure and facilities upgrades. For the 2015 World Cup, women lost their battle to play on grass rather than artificial turf, an issue which resurfaced recently when poor playing conditions led the US Women’s National Soccer Team to cancel a match in Hawaii.
And consider that the winning US Women’s National team shared a $2 million bonus compared with the $35 million awarded to the winning men’s World Cup team last year. That’s not a gender pay gap — it’s a canyon.
And yet, judging by the success of the UFC, developing a viable women’s circuit makes a sound investment. Female athletes not only turn in epic performances – from Carli Lloyd’s hat trick to Elena Della Donne’s outstanding WNBA season, they also have fewer sex, drug, and crime scandals that have become endemic to men’s sports in the US. In 2015 female athletes boosted ratings on news and talk shows, increased bar and restaurant revenue, and have won over legions of new fans excited to watch them play.
Even if the events of 2015 prove exceptional, men and women discovered it was fun to cheer together for female athletes whose skills exceed their egos. Millions of girls playing sports in school will grow up to become fans and consumers, with their ranks increasing every year. The message to media, corporate executives and the sports industry is clear: the tide is turning in women’s athletics, and it’s time to hop on board.
Readers can watch a Feminomics video blog on the subject here.
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