Critics are up in arms about the World Cup
gender gap. The prize money for women is far less than for men. Commentators attribute
the gap to sexism and what some call the grass ceiling. Could they be right? Let’s review the evidence.
Coming up next on the Factual Feminist. This summer, the U.S. women’s soccer team electrified
the nation when it defeated Germany 2–0 and then Japan 5–2 to win the World Cup.
Instead of celebrating the team’s brilliant play and the continuing growth of women’s
soccer, many in the media are fixating on what they see as a shameful “World Cup pay
gap.” The U.S. women’s team collected only $2 million in prize money for its victory
over Japan. But for the corresponding men’s competition in 2014, the winning German team
won $35 million—while the Americans, who lost in the round of 16, took home $8 million.
Spurred by the media reports, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont introduced a resolution on
the floor of the U.S. Senate urging FIFA, the organization that sponsors the World Cup,
to “immediately eliminate gender pay inequity”: Here is where I think the Senator and the
media critics go wrong. The prize disparity has much more to do with sports economics than sexism. The women’s players are
formidable athletes and the Women’s World Cup is growing rapidly in popularity, especially
in the U.S., but it’s still nowhere near the men’s cup in terms of world popularity.
According to FIFA, the 2011 Women’s World Cup had an audience reach of less than 250 million viewers. For the men’s World Cup in, 2010 the figure was 2.2 billion. That same year, the men’s World Cup generated nearly $3.7 billion in revenue, while the women’s World
Cup generated about $73 million. Now FIFA may be a troubled organization, and sexism can probably be counted among its many vices—but the differences in its men’s and women’s prizes
are actually less than the differences in its revenues from the two competitions. Market forces, rather than sexism, appear to explain the pay gap in soccer. Well, the sports equity activists have heard all of this before, and they have a reply. “Why accept market forces?” they ask. After all, these forces were shaped by a culture that
has been hostile to women, traditionally. Shane Ferro, a feminist business reporter at Business
Insider says it this way: “Most of us have been socialized to accept men’s sports
as dominant, and somehow automatically more interesting.” And once society internalizes
a falsehood, she says, “it’s very hard to correct it.” Hard, but apparently not impossible because now there is now a call by sports equity activists to change the market by re-socializing fans.
“Sports fans, for the most part, will watch whatever you put in front of them,” says
Kavitha Davidson at Bloomberg News. She thinks we should highlight the women’s teams, and fan interest and
excitement will come. A recently published study by two feminist sociologists
comes to the same conclusion. The authors lament that women’s sports receive only
about 3% of network TV attention, down from 5% in 1989. Major sports media, they say,
is a “place set up by men for men to celebrate men’s sensational athletic accomplishments”
while giving short shrift to women’s achievements. They acknowledge that there are fewer female
teams, so they suggest for now the media increase coverage of women’s sports to 12–18%.
They also specify that the sportscasters should report on women’s sports with the same “enthusiasm”
as men’s sports. More coverage plus more enthusiasm will increase the fan base, and
that will drive up women’s salaries and prizes. Well, I think it might be the gender sociologists and the feminist journalists—not the sports fans— who have internalized a falsehood.
There are athletic competitions where women attract more fans than men—figure skating
and gymnastics, for example. And women’s tennis, while not as popular as men’s, certainly
has a large and devoted audience. But when it comes to team sports like basketball, football
and soccer, no amount of affirmative-action enthusiasm is going to even the score. Men
are stronger, faster, and bigger than women, both on average and at the extremes. Most
fans—not all, but most—want to see the sport they love played at the highest level.
Men’s professional team sports are a fascination to many millions of fans because they offer
extreme competition, performance, and heroics. Women’s team sports, however skilled and
admirable, rarely compare in Promethean drama. There is a fallacy at the heart of the sports
equity argument. The equity activists insist that male and female athletes should be treated
the same; while accepting that the sexes are different and must play on separate teams.
To be consistent, they should call for integrated teams and let men and women compete together for the same audiences and same prizes. That would end the career of most female athletes, but a
few would make it and, if it’s a popular sport like basketball or soccer, they would
likely become the richest and most famous athletes of all time. I doubt that politicians
and activist journalists will actually propose this—but it makes as much sense as insisting
that women’s teams with separate standards of performance must be given the same salary,
prizes, publicity, and enthusiasm that the men’s teams enjoy. My suggestion: let’s
take the gender politics out of sports altogether and just enjoy the games. If you found this
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And thank you for watching the Factual Feminist.