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Sport more than almost any other industry is entrenched with gender inequality.

Women are arguably competing more for their rights to media coverage and equal pay than they are in their chosen sports, and have a tough time gaining recognition for their efforts within an industry dominated by men.

Higher viewership for male sports is usually the main argument provided by critics of gender equality within sports and although this isn’t strictly untrue, with male sport viewership dwarfing female’s, the issue is the failure to address why this may be the case; accessibility and coverage of female sports pales in comparison to men.

There is, however, one sport where critics argument doesn’t apply.

The Highest-Paid Female Athletes from June 2019 to June 2020
Source: Forbes

A Forbes article released recently showed how of the 10 highest-paid female athletes in sport, only one isn’t a tennis player. That individual being Tottenham and U.S. forward Alex Morgan, who’s sits some way short of Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams’ annual income.

So why are female tennis players paid significantly better than other female athletes?

Tennis has always been at the forefront of closing the gender pay gap in sports, and the first signs of social unrest occurred when Billie Jean King threatened to boycott the US Open in 1973.

That same year, the tournament became the first to pay male and female participants equal prize money, the other three Grand Slam tournaments soon followed, and 40 years later, tennis is easily the sport with the smallest disparity in terms of the gender pay gap.

Another progressive element of tennis is that it is the only major sport where female athletes have the ability to consistently draw more viewers than their male counterparts.

In the 2019 US Open final between Bianca Andreescu and Serena Williams, the pair averaged 3.22 million viewers. The male final which took place the next day between Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev only managed to draw 2.75 million viewers, despite being the most watched US Open men’s final since 2015.

The irony of this is that Nadal himself has stated that male tennis players should earn more than their female counterparts, reasoning that men have a larger following and gather a larger audience; shown to be untrue by his own match in the 2019 US Open final.

Equity of pay within tennis naturally boosts its viewership amongst females, who within this male dominated industry can feel represented better than in any other sport. This demonstrates that there is a demand for female representation, which pays off in viewership and thus, other sports should follow in tennis’ footsteps.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019 reached unprecedented levels of viewership for female football, reaching a total audience of 1.12 billion according to a report from FIFA. When England played the eventual winners USA in the semi-final, they recorded the highest TV audience in 2019 (at that time) with 11.7m viewers according to the BBC

The Women’s World Cup even had a higher viewership in the USA than the men’s World Cup did. In a statement from Fox Sports, using data from Nielsen, approximately 14.3 million U.S. viewers tuned in for the final of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, compared to the 11.4 million who watched the Men’s World Cup Final. 

It is proof that if you build it, they will come. The broadcasters who make female-played sports more accessible are rewarded with increased viewing figures, which becomes a growing weapon for female athletes in their fight for pay equity.

The onus is on those who organise and broadcast female athletes, rather than the women competing themselves, to ensure that the sexes are equally represented within media, bringing in higher viewership and pushing towards equal pay.

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March 2024