Visible Women

What the Forbes richest athletes list tells us about sexism in sport

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Moya Crockett
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It all comes down to how women’s sport is devalued in comparison to men’s.

As of this week, we learned that the list of the world’s 100 top-earning athletes includes convicted domestic abusers, known drug users and alleged homophobes. What is does not include is a single woman.

Forbes’ annual ranking of the world’s best-paid sportspeople was published on Wednesday, and it was made up entirely of men. Last year, one woman – Serena Williams – made the cut, but in a depressing sign that even superstar sportswomen can’t escape the financial impact of new motherhood, she has fallen off the list since having her first child.

It’s tempting to respond to news such as this with incredulous fury; to see it as yet more evidence of how gender inequality manifests in every aspect of life. And – of course – we should be outraged. How can we not be, when Floyd Mayweather, a man with a long and public history of violence against women, took home £212m last year? How can we not feel highly p**sed off that the world’s top-paid male footballer, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, earned £63m – not including sponsorship deals – in 2017, over 20,000% more than his closest female equivalent?

But once our anger has abated, it’s worth digging further into the Forbes stats, and considering what more they can tell us about gender inequality in sports – and how it can be addressed. The fact that Mayweather tops the list is distasteful, certainly, but not particularly surprising, because boxing is swimming in cash. The fighter was guaranteed at least £75m just for taking part in last August’s much-hyped match against Conor McGregor (who also appears near the top of the Forbes list), and is believed to have eventually raked in around £205m as a result.

Why? Because boxing, as with all male sports, is run as a business. The promotors, broadcasters and agents involved in the Mayweather-McGregor face-off knew they stood to make hundreds of millions through advertising and by charging fans to watch the match on a pay-per-view (PPV) basis. Consequently, the boxers’ fees were ‘worth it’.

The astronomical salaries paid to male Formula One drivers, footballers, basketball players and American football players can be explained in much the same way. Sports teams and motor brands know that the best players and drivers will bring in billions of pounds through broadcasting rights, merchandise, advertising and ticket sales; thus, they’re prepared to pay them millions. 

Usain Bolt makes most of his money through endorsement deals 

It’s not just sports teams and competition organisers who are prepared to spend vast amounts on male sports stars. Many male athletes make the bulk of their money through endorsements, rather than the sport directly. Almost 85% of Roger Federer’s overall £58m earnings, for example, comes from sponsorship deals with brands including Nike, Rolex and Credit Suisse. Actually winning races earned Usain Bolt £750,000 last year – a relatively paltry sum compared to the £22m he pulled in through endorsements.

All of this suggests that the issue is rather more complicated than a case of big, bad, sexist organisations not wanting to fairly compensate women athletes. (Indeed, a total of 83% of sports now reward men and women equal prize money, according to a global study by BBC Sport.) Rather, it comes down to entrenched views about the status, popularity and financial value of women’s sports in comparison to men’s – and how those views influence the amount that broadcasters, sponsors and teams are willing to spend on athletes. 

This might seem like an intractable problem, but it’s not. It is entirely possible to raise the profile – and thus the earning potential – of women in sport, but for this to happen, conscious effort needs to be made at the top. Women’s sport currently makes up just 7% of all sports media coverage, an unacceptable statistic that has a huge effect on female athletes’ earning power. We should demand that major women’s sporting events are broadcast live on TV, with money invested in marketing and promotion for those events – just like in men’s games.

There are some encouraging signs that this is already beginning to happen in the UK. BBC One broadcast the Women’s FA Cup final live for the first time last month, and the FA has reported unprecedented viewing figures for recent TV coverage of the women’s game. Sky Sports will air the Vitality Netball Superleague semi-finals and final in June and July, as well as highlights from the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series, while BT Sport will televise the Hockey Women’s World Cup in July and August. But we’ve still got a long way to go before women’s sport is as visible in mainstream media as men’s. 

“Why doesn’t Nike sell Chelsea football T-shirts emblazoned with the name of women’s captain Katie Chapman?”

Similarly, brands need to think outside the box when it comes to affiliating themselves with women in sport. If Mayweather can rake in over £7m of endorsement deals despite being a thoroughly unpleasant character, why aren’t inspirational sportswomen like boxer Nicola Adams, gymnast Simone Biles or footballer Steph Houghton being showered in sponsorship opportunities? Why doesn’t Nike sell Chelsea football T-shirts emblazoned with the name of women’s captain Katie Chapman, as well as that of men’s midfielder Eden Hazard? 

Change can also come from the bottom. Campaigns such as #ShowUp aim to raise the profile of women’s sports by encouraging people of all genders to watch events on TV and in person, with the goal of filling stands and seeing viewing figures rise. Explaining why she was backing the campaign, Wasps Netball coach Tamsin Greenaway said it was necessary to “[start] a shift in our culture by saying ‘go and watch your local team, follow them and support them’ and hopefully developing an environment in which people engage with women’s sport in a much deeper way”. 

Again, there have been some encouraging signs that the wider public is starting to take women’s sports seriously: a record 45,423 people turned out to watch this year’s women’s FA Cup final at Wembley, while the women’s cricket World Cup final last summer was watched by 1.1 million people on Sky Sports.

But ultimately, the responsibility for ensuring that more women athletes – indeed, any women athletes at all – appear on next year’s Forbes 100 list lies with those holding the purse strings. They must start investing in women – or nothing will change.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign aims to raise the profiles of women in positions of power and influence – and inspire future generations to follow their lead. See more Visible Women stories here

Images: Getty Images