The gender gap in women’s sports

This past Feb. 24, after six years of fighting, the U.S. Women’s National Team won a settlement on discrimination and unequal pay. It was agreed that female U.S. soccer players will be paid $24 million to equalize pay and bonuses with the men’s team. 

Despite the victory, unequal pay is only one of the issues female athletes face. Data suggest that a leading cause of the gender disparity in sports is the minimal attention female athletes receive, which causes low rates of popularity on TV and in other media.   

In sports magazines, articles mainly address women’s ability to stay in shape and not their athletic prowess. A 2018 study of body image found female Olympic athletes featured in Sports Illustrated are often posed in ways unrelated to their sport (i.e. posed, facing the camera, smiling, tight clothing). By contrast, the magazine portrayed male athletes predominantly in action in their sport, highlighting their endurance and strength.  

The way the media portrays male and female athletes is completely opposite. Male athletes are depicted as being tall, muscular, fast and intimidating, with their arms crossed and intimidating grins. Female athletes are posed and described through the lens of traditional feminine values, including motherhood, beauty, grace and aesthetics.

Media often separates a female athlete from athletics, making it difficult to identify her by her sport. In a 2019 analysis of about 1,600 Instagram images from NBC, ESPN, FOX Sports and CBS Sports, researchers found that in the overwhelmingly small percentage of female athletes covered, almost half appear in a passive state and outside of their field of play. Male athletes were showcased in athletic positions in 80% of their pictures.   

It is common, and even standard, for men’s performance statistics and/or highlights to be a central part of their celebrity, but that is not the case when it comes to women. The data that is available for WNBA players is minimal compared to NBA players. Meanwhile the NBA website shows data such as Hustle Stats, which includes charges drawn, deflections, pull-up shooting efficiency, and even how much distance a player covers per game.

On the WNBA website, such data does not exist. The only numbers available are traditional box score data, “clutch time” stats, and lineup analysis. This leads to a gap in investment, sponsorship and media coverage. According to the WNBA, it is too expensive for them to collect and share the statistics as the NBA does. Second Spectrum, a company that the NBA uses to track its players, has been cost prohibitive for the WNBA. Not all WNBA arenas are equipped with the cameras needed to follow players throughout their in-game motions and data collection.  

Women’s sports are not marketed and promoted as much as men’s sports. Without marketing and promotion, it is nearly impossible to maintain fanbases at arenas and stadiums. This limitation of data collection makes it difficult to both educate fans on their favorite players and to create experiences that are attractive and engaging.

For example, a USC/Purdue study reported that 95% of TV coverage focused on men’s sports in 2019. Coverage devoted to women’s sports in the sample of daily online newsletters and social posts from publishers on Twitter was 8.7% and 10.2%, respectively. Of 93 stories that were reviewed, only eight were about women’s sports. 

Data helps drive conversations, strategy and decision-making. But it needs context and a storyteller. Data helps tells the story of a player, a team and an entire career.

Women’s sports would strongly benefit from two things: better data storytelling and increased acceptance. If more data on women’s sports existed and fans engaged with that data, women’s sports would eventually become more popular, therefore causing the gender gap to decrease.

Valeria is a senior majoring in Digital Communication with a concentration in Interactive Media and graduates next Spring. She is passionate about the aesthetic world. She also enjoys photography and producing videos.  Most of the photos and videos she takes are related to her family and her life.