They’ve brought home championships, and fought for their right to play. So, when it comes to the dollars, the denerio, the paper, why are women still considered second-class athletes?

When Billie Jean King walked onto the court at the Houston Astrodome in 1973, nearly 90 million pairs of eyes were dialed in to see if she could really do it, if she could beat self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. The Battle of the Sexes was an exhibition match meant for spectacle—King, a 29-year-old star playing at the peak of her competitive career, Riggs, a long-retired, former number one blabbering about a woman’s place being in the bedroom—but the stakes were very real for King. 

She was fresh off a watershed win at the U.S. Open, not on the court, but in the pursuit of gender parity. After threatening to boycott the tournament until female athletes earned the same prize money as their male counterparts (the previous year’s event saw the winning male player take home $25,000 to King’s $10,000), the governing body conceded, finding a last-minute sponsor to even out the scales. 

Just weeks later, King beat Riggs in walloping fashion, silencing the thinly veiled machismo that hung over tennis and the sports world at large. Even big-talking Riggs was stunned: “I should’ve taken you more seriously,” he allegedly told King after losing in straight sets. 

Her legendary win—one that’s regarded as a seminal moment in the greater equality movement—was meant to shake up the sexist status quo and shape a more equitable path forward. But even a cursory appraisal of the state of women’s sports in 2020 begs the question: nearly five decades on, why are women still considered second-class athletes?  

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs
(Photo:Bettmann Archive)

The Glass Ceiling

For women, there simply isn’t an uncomplicated trajectory to the big time. Nabbing one of the finite professional positions is its own feat, but once they’ve clinched a coveted role, female athletes are then forced to prove their viability at every turn—to sponsors, to fans, to the media, even to their own organizations (just ask the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League.) There’s the obvious financial ceiling to consider, too: it should come as no surprise that of the 100 highest-paid athletes in the world, not a single player is female-identifying. Women’s already shaky standing means the postponement of many professional sports and the 2020 Olympics hit a little differently too, potentially jeopardizing the entire future of their leagues. 

But despite the hurdles and crawling pace of evolution, the off-court wins, ones aimed at closing the socioeconomic disparity between men’s and women’s leagues, are amassing. After King led her sexism-slaying crusade back in the 70s, a slow-moving wave of egalitarian change, buoyed by outspoken allies like Venus Williams, took over professional tennis. It took almost 35 years, but by the time Williams won her fourth Wimbledon title in 2007, all four Majors would award equal prize money to male and female players.

Besides bestowing these players with tangible legitimacy, these parallel payouts also helped catapult top players to notable financial status.

Naomi Osaka
(WikiCommons/Peter Menzel)

In 2020, splashy newcomer Naomi Osaka racked up $37 million in earnings via prize money and endorsements, becoming the highest paid female athlete in history.

She joined a select few female athletes who’ve raked in $20 million or more in a single year, a seemingly exclusive club made up entirely of tennis players (Serena Wiliams, Maria Sharapova and Li Na). Still, the demand for equality isn’t to be considered a passing trend.

The Cost of Equality

 The WNBA experienced its own pay equity reckoning in early 2020, signing a groundbreaking new eight-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA). For the first time in the league’s history, the average player salary would exceed six figures. Big-time stars like Sue Bird and Elena Delle Donne would now earn $500k-plus salaries, more than tripling the maximum compensation under the previous deal. 

Collectively, the renegotiated terms, including expanded offseason career development opportunities, upgraded travel accommodations, and a $5,000 annual stipend for child care, would help pave the foundation to “chart a new course for women’s professional basketball,” a statement from the two parties read. It meant players like New York Liberty guard Kia Nurse, who moonlights in an Australian league during the off-season to supplement her $44k salary at home, could choose to pursue a side hustle, not depend on it out of future-protecting necessity. It meant that former New York Liberty Guard, Bria Hartley, could afford to upgrade her rented one-bedroom apartment to accommodate her growing son. 

The CBA win was a landmark moment, to be sure, but its context within the greater basketball world somewhat dims the revelry. At half a million dollars, the highest-ranking WNBA income still only represents 1.2 percent of what NBA top dog Steph Curry is earning this season. If you want to talk comparable wages, turn to little-known Houston Rockets rookie Chris Clemons (who is currently averaging 8.7 minutes and 4.9 points.)

These kinds of appraisals sting, but players like Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum have insisted that securing multi-million dollar contracts is not their aim. “I’m tired of people thinking that us players are asking for the same type of money as NBA players. We are asking for the same percentage of revenue shared within our CBA,” she tweeted at the time of the WNBPA’s opting-out, noting that NBA players received about 50 percent of shared revenue within their league to their 20 percent. In what’s considered the agreement’s most sizable triumph, WNBA players will now pocket a revenue percentage that matches their male counterparts.

In professional soccer, the battle for equity is decidedly more thorny. The United States Women’s National Team’s (USWNT) very public protest last March was hard to miss—turning their jerseys inside out at an invitational tournament, concealing the logo of their governing body during pre-game drills. All 28 members of the USWNT had just filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) for nearly $66 million in back pay. The discrepancy between their team and the Men’s National Team’s income (MNT) continues to be staggering: for each non-tournament win, the male players would take home just over $13,000 while the women would earn just under $5,000.

US Women's Soccer Team
(Photo: Action Foto Sport)

In court filings, attorneys for the federation claimed that the job of a men’s player “requires materially different skill and more responsibility” than that of a women’s player. This despite the women’s team generating greater revenue, plus their herculean back-to-back World Cup wins. The backlash towards the USSF was swift: sponsors like Coca-Cola, Visa and Deloitte publicly denounced the federation’s position, while the MNT players steadfastly supported their female colleagues. (“The federation continues to discriminate against the women in their wages and working conditions,” the team said in a statement.) 

Despite the onslaught of support, a judge rejected the team’s equal pay claim in early May. His reasoning was flimsy: since the female athletes had played more games than the men, thus earning more money, their case was null. The ruling was disappointing and utterly laughable—a common experience in the pursuit of equitable justice—but like their boundary-pushing foremothers and present-day peers on the precipice of change, the USWNT team isn’t backing down. “If anyone knows anything about the heart of this team…we’ll continue to fight together for this,” said striker Alex Morgan, announcing the USWNT would be appealing the judge’s decision. 

Standing on the shoulders of those who played before them, outspoken athletes continue to chip away at the long-practiced discriminatory systems that mar female athletes’ path towards greatness. The equality win-loss record might yo-yo across disciplines, but the goal remains the same as King’s back in 1973: that every girl, no matter her circumstance, would have a place to compete.

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