Super Bowl XLIX Highlights XL Gap in Men’s and Women’s Sports

Super Bowl XLIX Stadium 1

It’s Super Bowl time, which for many means parties and crowding around the TV to watch two of the nation’s top football teams battle it out for the title of Super Bowl XLIX Champion. And at least for our President and CEO Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, it will mean cheering on her precious Patriots. We’ve got some big sports fans at The Women’s Foundation, and we also have many for whom the draw of the big game is the chance to watch the commercials. This year, each of those ad spots will cost companies roughly $4.5 million for 30 seconds of air time.

When I heard that number, my jaw dropped. The thought of that much money being spent in 30 seconds sort of makes my heart stop, and it got me thinking about the sheer amount of money that goes into, not just the Super Bowl, but men’s sports in general. For example, every member of the winning Super Bowl team this year will receive a cash bonus of $97,000. Even the members of the losing team receive an additional $49,000 just for playing in the game. That means that the winning team’s players alone get more than $5 million in bonuses.

Want to make that number feel very, very small? The winning team of the Men’s 2014 Soccer World Cup in Brazil walked away with more than $35 million in prize money. The total prize pool was a record $576 million. The World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world, so it is fitting that the prize pool would also be the largest. But what about the prize pool for the upcoming Women’s 2015 Soccer World Cup in Canada? After all, FIFA bills the Women’s World Cup as the largest female sporting event in the world. Answer? $15 million, all in. That’s not what the winning team gets; that is the number that is divided among all the prize-winning teams. On the positive side, that number represents a 50% increase in prize money from four years ago. The winning team walks away with $2 million this year, doubling from the winner’s prize of $1 million at the last Women’s World Cup.

While the prize money gap seems staggering, the more concerning issue with the Women’s World Cup, may be that these world class female athletes will be playing on sub-par surfaces. Even after many athletes filed a lawsuit against FIFA accusing the organizers of discrimination, saying that elite men’s teams would never be forced to play on an artificial surface instead of natural grass, FIFA refused to upgrade the playing surfaces on all but one field. And so, the players in this year’s Women’s World Cup will be playing on artificial turf, a surface that puts players at a higher risk for injury. In an interview with NPR, U.S. Women’s National Team player Heather O’Reilly, said the plan to use fake grass “is a blatant demonstration of FIFA not placing the women side by side with the men. Many men’s players refuse to play on artificial turf, actually, and the thought of it being played in the World Cup is almost laughable.”

WUSA Soccer

It would take about $3 million to upgrade the turf to sod. That is no small number, but when we look at the money being thrown at men’s sports, it really does start to feel very minuscule.

The common refrain is that women’s professional sporting events just don’t bring in the cash the same way that men’s do. And that is true. It is a vicious cycle. The Women’s Sports Foundation reports that in 2009 network affiliates dedicated only 1.6% of airtime to women’s sports, down from 6.3% in 2004. This male-dominated media coverage perpetuates smaller audiences for women’s sports. It takes money to break this vicious cycle and kick-start a virtuous one. If women’s teams had more money to invest in their talent, equipment, facilities and marketing efforts, could we see an increase in the cash earned by these teams?

I think the answer is yes. Men’s Major League Soccer (MLS) actually provides a good example. MLS reportedly lost an estimated $250 million during its first five years. But then, Adidas injected $150 million into MLS over 10 years. The league started building soccer-specific stadiums and investing in their talent and equipment. They signed a television deal. The average franchise is now worth $103 million, up more than 175% over the last five years, and the league keeps growing. Compare this to the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), which folded in 2003 after only three years despite a world champion national team and national excitement from the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Their losses were only about $100 million, not even close to the $250 million MLS weathered. Could similar confidence in women’s soccer and subsequent financial investments have saved WUSA like it did for the now profitable MLS? We’ll never know.

However, if we look to tennis, we have a great example of what could be possible if female and male athletes were treated more equitably. In 2007, Wimbledon announced for the first time, it would provide equal prize purses to male and female athletes. All four Grand Slam events now offer equal prize money to the champions. In 2013, the US Open women’s final scored higher TV ratings than the men’s final.

So while we all gather around to watch millions of dollars flood the airwaves and University of Phoenix Stadium this Sunday, let’s think about how we can channel just a fraction of that into leveling the playing field for female athletes in the future.

I’m with you! What can I do?

Great question! The Women’s Sports Foundation has some good ways we can all help increase gender equality in sports:

  • Attend women’s sporting events
  • Support companies that advocate for women’s athletics
  • Encourage television stations and newspapers to cover women’s sports
  • Sign up to coach a girls’ sports team, whether at the recreational or high school level
  • Encourage young women to participate in sports
  • Become an advocate: if you are or know a female athlete that is being discriminated against – advocate for her rights.

The World Cup and 42 Years of Title IX

Women's World Cup Soccer TeamThe World Cup is on.

For my family and I, that means a month of watching soccer together and cheering for our teams.  Once again, sports bring us together!  I started to follow soccer as a child with my grandmother who was an avid fan and now I share this with my two daughters.  Both are athletes and have benefited tremendously from their participation in sports.  They have celebrated victories with their teammates, powered through defeats, attended countless trainings and are developing into confident and strong young women.  I can observe first hand the positive impact that playing sports has on girls.  Each time I attend an awards ceremony, I am amazed at the number of girls who are not only recognized for their athletic performances but also for their academic achievements.  As a parent, I was dreading the high school years, but I now look at my oldest daughter’s friends, the majority of whom are either field hockey or soccer teammates, and feel that she has surrounded herself with an amazing network.  The experience of our girls is not unique.  Research has touted the benefits of sports in reducing the risk of obesity and increasing self-esteem.  Studies have shown that girls who play sports are less likely to use drugs or smoke, and that there is a lower risk of teen pregnancy among athletes.  Girls involved in sports are also overall less likely to drop out of school. The list goes on and the lessons athletes learn on the field carry benefits that will enrich their lives well beyond the high school years.

My husband and I feel privileged to be able to offer these opportunities to our children but realize that not all girls and women have had the same experience. June 23rd marked the 42nd anniversary of Title IX.   After Title IX was voted into law in 1972, over forty years ago, girls’ involvement in high school sports increased dramatically from 295,000 in 1972 to over 3.2 million in 2012-13, according to National Federation of State High School Associations, and girls are becoming involved in sports at an earlier age.  However, there is still a gender and race disparity.  In 2013, girls’ participation in high school sports remains lower than that of boys in 1972.  That is a participation gap that spans four decades!  According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, only 64% of African-American and Hispanic girls play sports while 76% of Caucasian girls do.  Of all the many benefits around sports participation, the direct link between sports and education is critical.  Beyond the obvious sports scholarships, research shows that student athletes are more likely to graduate, an important fact when one takes into account that while overall, 24% of girls fail to graduate on time with a diploma, that number increases to 35% for African American and 34% for Hispanic young women. Not surprisingly, African American and Hispanic girls who have less participation in sports during their teenage years are at a greater risk to drop out.

While we can certainly celebrate the progress that has been made since 1972, there is still some work ahead of us.  All girls deserve to experience the joys and lessons of sports.  Let’s continue to debunk the myths that still exist around Title IX and encourage all to play sports. The U.S. Men’s National Team might be out of the World Cup this year, but in my house, we’re just as excited to see the U.S. Women’s National Team tear it up at the Women’s World Cup in 2015!

If you want to cheer on DC’s own women’s soccer team, join us on July 30th at the Washington Spirit’s game against FC Kansas City, where the team will be highlighting local non-profits, including Washington Area Women’s Foundation.  For discounted tickets to this game (and the rest of this season’s games), click here.

Women’s History Month Q&A – March 18, 2014

Q: Which female athlete became the first to score more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon and still holds the women’s heptathlon world record?

A: Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Joyner-Kersee set the world record for heptathlon in 1986 and broke her own record three times after that, finally setting the current world record in 1988 that has remained unbroken since. She is a four time Olympian and has six Olympic medals – three gold, one silver, and two bronze. Sports Illustrated voted her the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.

Olympic Inspiration: Women I’ll Be Watching at Sochi

JLS brother and dad in snowTo say I’m a huge sports fan is a serious understatement. For as long as I can remember sports have been a big part of my life. My dad put me on skis right before my first birthday. I competed in gymnastics for 10 years; took up ballet (pointe no less) in high school just for fun when the physical toll of gymnastics caught up with me; played volleyball; raced in both downhill and cross country skiing; and competed in the hurdles and triple jump for high school track. If truth be told though, I really wanted to play soccer, hockey, or football. I played on my younger brother’s soccer team until I aged out and co-ed teams were no longer allowed. My brief bout with football ended after I broke my finger intercepting the ball from one of the boys on the playground in 6th grade. I believe my mom said that was enough of that. And despite my dad coaching hockey, somehow I never did make it out onto the ice….

But my real dream? My real dream was to be an Olympic athlete! Yes, I know the Buzzfeed quiz said that I am best suited to have a career as a humanitarian, and I suppose at the age of 41 it’s a little late to take up the Olympic challenge now, but to be an Olympic athlete would be the ultimate.

JLS long jumpSo it is with great anticipation that I eagerly await the Opening Ceremonies of the XXII Olympic Winter Games tonight in Sochi, Russia. For the next two weeks, I will revert to the sleep deprived days associated only with having a newborn. I will be glued to the television (and on occasion my computer screen) watching women and men defy all odds in pursuit of their Olympic dream.

While I love the competition – watching the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” as the old ABC Sports promo stated – what I love most is hearing the stories of the athletes. The level of commitment and dedication, the willingness to sacrifice everything for this one moment is unlike anything most of us will ever aspire to or experience in our lifetimes.

There are so many stories of heartbreak and triumph amongst the 230 U.S. athletes who will compete over the next two weeks. Nearly half of the athletes are women. Of course, there are those athletes who are well-known, have significant endorsements, and huge name recognition – Lindsey Vonn, even though she is not competing, and Lolo Jones come to mind – and then there are the lesser known athletes; those who may grab the spotlight for five minutes as they put everything on the line, whether they are medal contenders or not. Some will say it’s just enough to make the team and compete. Others will be devastated when they miss the podium by just .03 seconds. And others will stand on the podium and watch tearfully as the American flag is raised and the Star Spangled Banner is played.

There are too many stories to share on this blog, but the stories of two women in particular really resonated with me personally:

Noelle Pikus-Pace is a 31-year-old mother of two who had retired from skeleton racing in 2010. Just two years later she decided that “she had a little bit more to give,” and announced her intention to come out of retirement to qualify for the 2014 Olympics. Rather than fully sacrificing time with her family, she raised the $70,000 necessary for her husband and two children to travel with her on the World Cup circuit. As a working mom, I can only imagine the juggling act that Noelle, her husband, and their two kids have managed in dogged pursuit of her dream. It is a testament to love, support, and sheer determination.

In 2009, Lindsey Van became the first world champion in women’s ski jumping. Until the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, she held the hill record for the longest jump by a man or women at the Vancouver venue, and for 10 years Lindsey fought to JLS and brother ski jumpget women’s ski jumping recognized by the International Olympic Committee. This year, women will compete in ski jumping for the first time in the history of the Winter Games. As a little girl, I remember attending a ski jump championship at Gunstock Mountain Resort, the New Hampshire mountain that I learned to ski on. I remember the ski jump being enormous and super scary, especially after hiking up the hill to the top, but I also remember being intrigued by what it would be like to fly.

Each of these women may have taken a different path to get to the Olympics, but each of them started out as a little girl with a dream, and when the Olympics open today I’m hoping that they both soar to new heights.

You can follow the stories of these women and many more on either the NBC Olympics or Team USA sites. And while these Olympic Games are not without controversy – the discriminating anti-gay laws, the unprecedented cost, the hotel rooms not finished, the corruption – I will be watching, and I will be cheering. I will be inspired. Who will you be watching in the days to come?

Photo 1: The author (center), her brother and their father. Photo 2: The author competes in the long jump. Photo 3: The author and her brother in New Hampshire.

Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat is vice president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

Playing on girls' sports teams is part of why I can hold my own on a guys' team now.

This morning I got up at 5:10 a.m. and drove to the Potomac river to hang out with a bunch of boys.

I’m a coxswain for Thompson Boat Club’s U-23 Men’s Development Camp, a summer rowing program for college rowers.

Male rowers. Big, tall boys.

So what am I, a young woman, doing on a team with young men?

Coxswains need to be small and light and it’s a lot easier to find small, light girls than it is to find small, light boys on a college campus, which is how I ended up coxing for Columbia University’s heavyweight men’s program.

It’s an interesting situation to be in. 

I’m in charge of steering the boat and often running practice, calling drills, and executing strategy during races. 

But I’m as much as a foot shorter than some of the rowers in my boat. 

And I’m a girl. 

But my gender is never an issue for my teammates. I’m their coxswain and they trust and respect me as another one of their teammates.

That isn’t to say that it’s always easy.

Coxing is hard.  I have good practices and bad practices just like anyone else on my team.  And, although it is a strange experience being a woman on a men’s team, I love it. 

It’s like having 20 brothers.

Lisa recently wrote a blog post about Title IX and athletic opportunities for girls, which got me thinking about my own experiences.  I was a four-year varsity athlete in high school where I played field hockey and rowed.

Being on a team with other young women was a lot of fun, great for my self-esteem, my discipline, and for building leadership skills.  I think that part of the reason I’m able to hold my own among guys who weigh twice as much as me is because of the skills I learned while playing on all-female sports teams.

While my experiences don’t necessarily mirror those of other female athletes, (And, for the record, I do consider myself an athlete; I regularly run and lift weights in addition to coxing.), I think they have been equally important and empowering. 

A year after the U.S. women’s 8+ won a gold medal in Beijing, and a month after the University of Washington Huskies (whose coxswains are all female) swept the IRA national championship men’s heavyweight 8+ events, I can’t help but feel optimistic about women’s athletics and the future of women and feminism in general.

SaraEllen Strongman is a summer intern at The Women’s Foundation. Raised in Bethesda, Maryland, Sara is a junior at Columbia University majoring in women’s and gender studies. In addition to rowing, she likes to read, run, and do yoga.