To be able to live out a sports passion, to compete in front of thousands of fans, all while traveling around the world, perhaps a new country or team every nine months, and be fully immersed in the culture while getting paid to do it, it’s a dream right?
This is what thousands of athletes do when they decide to pursue a global professional athletic career. The glossy, catchy title of “professional athlete” makes most people stop, want to take pictures, inspires others, unites communities and even the world during the few weeks of the Olympics.
But if you’re a woman, people often are shocked that this is an option, as parodied by Ilona Maher’s USA Rugby 7’s recent video on Tiktok, where most reactions are “Oh really, that’s an option? How long have they been doing that?”
And it hasn’t been an option for women for that long. A little over 50 years ago, Title IX passed in the United States, which translated to hundreds of thousands of women being able to compete at the university level and millions more on high school teams.
In the same year in Europe, one line was written into French law that people should be paid for “equal pay/equal work,” regardless of gender. The U.S. Open is celebrating 50 years of equal prize money largely due to the fight of Billy Jean King and the original nine. This past year, the U.S.’s Equal Pay Act was passed after years of litigation, and the U.S. women’s national soccer team finally will be paid equally to their male counterparts.
WOMEN’S PLACE IN SPORTS
The founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, once said that “the real Olympic hero, in my eyes, is the individual adult male. At the Olympics, the role of women should above all else, like at the ancient tournaments, to crown the champions.”
Despite his overt disdain for women practicing sport, de Coubertin’s fellow compatriot Alice Milliat fought for women to be recognized in the 1928 games and now Paris 2024 will be the first Olympics in history that there will be full gender parity on the field.
Undoubtedly, great strides have been made to close the equality gap between men and women in sport, yet how do female athletes compete and train at the highest level compared to their male counterparts? What obstacles persist that prevent true parity?
In France, there exists two professional men’s divisions in each sport to every one that exists for women. In addition, the men’s leagues and clubs are more stable, often having branded sponsors for the leagues and the men’s teams have their own facilities and media rights. Women’s clubs rely more heavily on government subsidy support and funding and rarely make the jump from an association to a professional franchise.
For French volleyball, Ligue Nationale de Volleyball (LNV) also negotiates TV rights for both the men’s and women’s league. This season, the men have a guaranteed primetime spot each weekend, while the women settle for a livestream on Twitch with, at best, one camera attached to the gym wall with an amateur commentator.
DISPARITY IN SPORTS COMMENTATING
This exacerbates the disparity seen in pay and media. Ninety percent of sports writers are male and less than 4 percent of media coverage reports on women’s sports. Thus the vicious cycle of less media exposure, less advertising, less revenue and resources for women’s professional teams.
It comes then at no surprise that for an equal amount (or more) of work, female athletes are compensated only a fraction of their male counterparts. Then comes the pressure of how to negotiate a female athlete’s career when it comes to personal goals — can she start a family? Would she be able to and then come back and compete? It’s a question that male athletes have rarely had to grapple with.
Looking past the disparities, most female athletes agree that it is an unbelievable opportunity to compete at the highest level, something the grandmothers of these athletes could scarcely dream of and experience.
And women’s sports will continue to experience growth as people see that it’s good business to invest in women’s sports. The growth of the W Premier League in England after the European Championship in 2022 has also set up future success and hope for women’s football. Records continue to be broken for attendance during the regular season and this year’s upcoming World Cup in Australia and New Zealand looks to break even more records.
WOMEN IN PARIS 2024
With Paris 2024 around the corner, this will hopefully lead to more unprecedented growth in all women’s sports and to media shedding light on these incredible athletes and their compelling stories. If not, it would be the disappearance of many women’s national teams, which is exactly what happened after London 2012.