Why you should care
Equal pay is a must, but female athletes also need equal time in the public eye.
In 2018, the U.S. men’s national soccer team didn’t even make it to the World Cup. It lost a qualifying match 2–1 to Trinidad and Tobago, a team then ranked 99th in the world and has only competed in the World Cup once, in 2006.
The gap between the U.S. men’s soccer team and the women’s — which has won half of the eight Women’s World Cups, including last week’s, and dominated the sport for decades — has been made explicit this season by a lawsuit. While kicking ass on the pitch, the women’s team is also suing the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) for gender discrimination because they’re paid less than their male counterparts for the same job.
But it’s not just about money. In addition to paying female athletes the same as their male counterparts — an obvious move — broadcasters worldwide should be mandated to give equal TV time to men’s and women’s sports. There are rules in place regulating content for other types of TV, like those requiring channels to air a certain amount of children’s educational programming and restrict advertising in shows aimed at kids.
“There is one important difference between [the men’s and women’s] teams and it’s not gender,” says Jeffrey Kessler, the attorney for the women’s team. “The important difference between those teams is that the women are consistently the No. 1-ranked team in the world and the repeated world champion. And the men have not been as successful.” The women’s national team actually generated more revenue than the men’s as well, according to new reports — $50.9 million between 2016 and 2018 compared to the men’s $49.9 million.
Soccer is an exceptionally popular women’s sport, but it’s not the only one. There’s also tennis, for example, and viewership ratings at last year’s U.S. Open women’s final outranked those of the men’s final. And those aren’t the only sports where female superstars eclipse their male counterparts: Go ahead, name a male Olympic gymnast. We’ll wait.
But a 2015 study of Los Angeles–based sports news found that only 3.2 percent of media coverage was devoted to women’s sports and that the amount of coverage had actually fallen 63 percent from 15 years earlier. That’s not just in the U.S., which is notorious for its gender pay gaps, but around the world: Less than 10 percent of sports coverage globally is thought to be dedicated to women’s sports. That may have something to do with the lack of diversity in sports media. According to the Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card, 90 percent of sports editors in North America are men.
Past legislation to mandate certain programming spreads offers both hope and caution. The Children’s Television Act of 1990 aimed to boost educational programming for kids — but those regulations weren’t really given teeth until 1996, showing that while TV providers can be made to do the right thing, there needs to be real FCC oversight to make that happen.
Also, this doesn’t apply to cable networks, which dominate when it comes to most sports on U.S. television. In fact, the U.S. tradition of lack of regulation over cable TV might be a bigger barrier than the tradition of resistance to giving women’s sports their due.
To be sure, some will argue that women’s sports aren’t aired because they’re not as fun to watch, but, respectfully, they need to think again. Nearly a third of major sports fans are women, and a 2018 Nielsen study found that 84 percent of those surveyed were interested in women’s sports. If the viewers are there and coverage hasn’t caught up, the best way to give sports media (and sponsoring brands) a kick in the pants is to make them air women’s events half the time. Yes, even the sports that don’t have a popular women’s team. They’ll get popular soon enough once people can actually see them play.