Saturday, June 15, 2013

Highest paid female athletes play individual sports

ESPNW reported that the highest paid female athletes out of 57 countries are predominantly tennis players, followed by golfers,  a few long-distance runners, two skiers and a squash athlete. The article focused on the WTA's business model and illustrated how the LPGA tries to promote women's sports.

Quoting Carol Oglesby, the vice president of WomenSport International and a past principal contributor with the United Nations Division of Advancement for Women, the article also points out that tennis and golf are two sports that demand serious financial investment in terms of coaching and equipment. Thus, these two sports may not be universally accessible for girls and women.

I was glad to see that the article highlighted the issue of access, as particularly in tennis, because participating in tournaments with lower prize money amount, such as $10,000, $25,000 or even some categories above that, do not even come close to covering the expenses a professional tennis player encounters. It may take years on the tour until a female athlete (and male athlete) turns a career into a profitable job.

However, a really important element of analysis is missing from the article. All these sports--tennis, golf, skiing, long-distance running, squash--are individual sports. Whatever happened to female athletes who play team sports? Why aren't any on this list? Of course, it is possible that the revenue is distributed more evenly among female team sport athletes: that rather than one female athlete, such as Victoria Azarenka, standing out with millions, a number of female athletes who play team sports "share" an amount of a similar total value.

But I doubt that's the case. In the U.S., it is common knowledge that women's professional leagues struggle. The women's professional soccer league is taking its fifth (?) attempt at surviving financially, women's basketball players often travel oversees to Europe or China for better opportunities rather than staying in the WNBA, and the league continues to try to find away to attract audiences (recently the Phoenix Mercury gave out free tickets to men to their games to increase attendance).

Perhaps these individual sports on the list generate revenue because of the deeply engrained ideas we hold about gender norms.

After all, there is no contact in tennis or golf or squash or skiing, let alone distance running. There is no over-powering the other, which would certainly trigger some resemblance of masculine values our society associates with men's team sports. Women in tennis and golf also tend to be able to conform to ideals of elite, white femininity--and if they don't, they receive criticism (see coverage of Serena Williams or Amelie Mauresmo for examples).

So perhaps what generates revenue for women's sports is when the sport is able to "absorb gender performance," as Marie Hardin, associate director of the Curley Center for Sports Journalism said. Women who play team sports, thus, continue to have low marketing potential.

For this to change, certain cultural norms we hold about gendered bodies and sport also need to change. And that has to be addressed before we celebrate that women are, at least, making money in tennis and golf.

-- Dunja Antunovic