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Gender pay equality in sport: a market distortion under the guise of equity

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Friday, 24 June 2016


Equal prize money for men's and women's Grand Slam tennis is a divisive topic with an interesting history. In 1972, Billy Jean King earned only US$10,000 for winning the women's US Open Tennis, compared to Ilie Năstase's US$25,000 for winning the men's. After King threatened to organise a boycott, the US Open in 1973 became the first major tennis tournament to offer equal prize money. Wimbledon in 2007 was the last Grand Slam tournament to yield. While women players strongly defend the equal pay policy, leading male tennis players generally avoid questions on the topic. Many obviously believe that the men deserve to be paid more, though maybe not two and a half times as much.

The BBC in 2014 looked at 56 global sports in an extensive study. Athletics, bowls, skating, marathons, shooting, and volleyball all were reported to have paid equal (though generally low) prize money. The BBC reported (in alphabetical order) the following sports as having the biggest gender disparity in prize money.

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Women's tennis is exceptional in that it is virtually the only sport, where female athletes are able to draw large audiences and very high pay. American basketball is also well paid but has a much larger gender pay gap. US$21 million is said to be a typical annual salary in the NBA, whereas in the WNBA it is only US$105,500. The vast majority of other women's sports struggle to fill a stadium or attract worthwhile pay.

One possible solution to issues of gender equity in sport would be to make all sports competitions unisex, with prize money and other conditions totally based on audience demand and competition on the sports field.

The main problem with this option is that, based on research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, women would be uncompetitive and end up with even less success/money than they currently do. According to these data, the mean gender gap in sports performance is 10.7% for running performances, 17.5% for jumps, 8.9% for swimming races, 7.0% for speed skating and 8.7% in cycling. Further evidencesuggests that, even though female sports records are regularly being broken, so too are the men's, so that the average sports performance gap of about 10 per cent between men and women is not narrowing.

Even in sports such as snooker anddarts, where skill is more important than strength, men are near totally dominant. Women are allowed to enter and compete alongside men at world snooker championships, provided they qualify, and there are also separate women's championships. Steve Davis (six-time world snooker champion) does not expect to ever see a woman compete in the final stages of the World Snooker Championship. Reanne Evans (who has won the Ladies World Championship for 10 successive years and was handed a wildcard to the World Snooker Tour for 2010-11 but failed to win a match) agreed. "I just think maybe men find it easier to focus on one thing at one time", she said.

One of the few field sports where females and males compete against each other as near equals is horse racing. Michelle Payne in 2015 was the first woman to ride a Melbourne Cup winner, and horses like Makybe Diva and Black Caviar were notable champion female horses. These achievements, however, need to be kept in perspective. 90 per cent of winning Melbourne Cup horses have been male. In Britain, 67 per cent of winning thoroughbreds are male, and in America, only three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby in its 138-year-history.

Currently, male and female Olympians compete head-to-head only in equestrianand sailing events. Men dominate the mixed sailing events, and in equestrian they dominate show-jumping and eventing. Women have been improving overall in equestrian but they have only truly been competitive in dressage, where females have recently won most of the medals.

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The bottom line overall appears to be that (with rare exceptions) women can be competitive in sport, only if gender segregated competitions are continued.

To return to tennis, the 2015 winners of the US Open Singles (both Men's and Women's) each received prize money of US$3.3 million each. Men's doubles and the women's doubles winners received US$550,000 per team but the winning mixed doubles team received only US$150,000! Women's events are only the best of three sets but leading female tennis players say they are willing to play the best of five, if required. Officials don't seek this change because it would drag out the duration of tournaments, and there is more demand to watch the men.

If you look at ATP and WTA tours, where men and women tennis players have separate tournaments, the relative prize money is remarkably different. The women's tour has 31 independent tournaments for a total pool of $24.6 million and an average $794,000. The men have 51 individual tournaments with a total pool $65 million for an average of $1.29 million prize money. Women's tennis, when left to its own devices, can generate only a fraction of the prize money that the men can attract.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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