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While Women's Soccer Fights Inequality in Court, Sexism Remains Rampant in Sports Media

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The US team celebrates victory of the 2015 Women's World Cup, on July 7, 2015 in Los Angeles.  (Harry How/Getty Images)

Last Friday, citing the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Right's Act, the US women's soccer team filed an "institutionalized gender discrimination" lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation—and with good reason. Not only is the women's soccer team paid much less than the men's team, they are also not provided with the same standards when it comes to coaching, medical attention and pitch quality. (The men play on real grass, while the women's team is consistently provided with artificial turf, which causes burns. The women have been objecting to this double standard for years, including a 2014 lawsuit against FIFA.)

Arguments have consistently been made that women don't deserve equal pay in soccer because the men's team generates more money. In a 2015 article titled "Equal Pay For Women World Cup Players? Seriously?" NBC Sports cited figures from 2011, when "the Women's World Cup brought in almost $73 million [and] the 2010 Men's World Cup in South Africa made almost $4 billion." But these figures don't reflect what has happened in the years since. According to the New York Times, in 2016, the US women’s national team brought in a profit of $6.6 million, while the men's team managed only $2 million. What's more, between 2012 and 2016, the women played significantly more games (sometimes as much as 50 percent more) and earned twice as many wins as their male counterparts.

Even if you ignore the boom in popularity of women's soccer in the last few years, it's impossible to fathom why male players are paid $75 a day for expenses, while female players receive only $60, or why male players make $3,750 for sponsored appearances, while the female players receive $3,000. At its core, this lawsuit has the potential to be as important for the future of women's soccer as Billie Jean King's legendary fight for equal prize money in tennis was.

Even if the lawsuit is successful though, there is still a major stumbling block standing in the way of female athletic progress: sports media. Despite the fact that women make up 40 percent of all sports participants, female athletes receive only three to four percent of media coverage, with industry giants like ESPN and Fox Sports granting them a paltry one to two percent of air time. According to 2015 research, women's sports received less TV coverage this decade than they did in the '80s. It doesn't help that in 2014, less than five percent of sports anchors were women.


Not only does this disparity impact the amount of money offered to female athletes in sponsorship deals, but it's also a huge barrier to the accessibility—and therefore overall popularity—of women's sports. Of the tiny fraction of airtime given to female athletes, nearly 82 percent of it is granted to basketball, which is probably why WNBA popularity has been on the increase since 2012. As long as women's sports are denied TV coverage, they are always going to be treated as fringe prospects by the organizations in charge of them.

University of Southern California professor, Michael Messner, noted in 2015: “We’ve had this incredible explosion of girls and women going into sports in the last 40 years... What’s puzzling to us is that the increased interest and participation in women’s sports has not at all been reflected in news and highlights shows.”

(L-R) Alex Morgan, Lauren Holiday, Abby Wambach and Whitney Engen celebrate after winning the final 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup match in Vancouver, July 5, 2015.
(L-R) Alex Morgan, Lauren Holiday, Abby Wambach and Whitney Engen celebrate after winning the final 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup match in Vancouver, July 5, 2015. (FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

Perplexingly, the fact that the 2015 Women's World Cup final was the most watched US soccer match in history remains almost entirely ignored. Fox initially faced criticism over its decision to devote 200 hours to that World Cup, but the decision wound up making the network 400 percent more in advertising and sponsorship revenue than it managed during the 2011 championship. By any normal business standards, it should have been both a vindication for the channel and a signal to sports media at large to make some changes. Instead, it was dismissed as a one-off, and, as soon as it was all over, the channel and its peers went back to exclusion as usual.

In refusing to give them their due, not only is the mainstream sports media complicit in holding female athletes back financially, it is shooting itself in the foot by ignoring a growing market that remains almost entirely untapped. The same thinking that excluded female leads from blockbuster movies for so long is the same thinking that's keeping female athletes off television, throttling their full career potential and making their inspiring successes nearly invisible for the girls wishing to one day follow in their footsteps.

As soccer player Megan Rapinoe told ABC News, “We know in our hearts, and we know with the facts that we have, that we’re on the right side of this… For us, it’s not only about leaving our sport in a better place, [it's about] leaving it better for the young girls that will come after.” While a legal victory would be a great step forward, true equality will remain evasive until the big hitters in sports media step up and give female champions the full respect they have earned.

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