SportswomanIn recent weeks, salaries in women’s sports have been featuring frequently in the headlines.

In the US, female ice hockey players are locked in heated negotiations with USA Hockey (the IOC-recognised governing body of organised amateur ice hockey in the USA) over wages, with the players threatening to boycott the upcoming wold championship if an acceptable agreement cannot be reached.  This follows a similar dispute between the US Women’s Soccer Team and US Soccer, which culminated in US Soccer filing a lawsuit against the US Women’s National Players’ Association (covered by Sports Shorts here).

On the other side of the globe, Cricket Australia has just offered a massive 125% pay increase for elite female players.

The USA Hockey dispute is the culmination of more than a year of negotiations.  On a basic level, female players on the national team (who compete in the Olympics and World Championships, as well as other competitions) are seeking an increase in the financial compensation received but, beyond that, they also claim that USA Hockey is failing to promote the women’s sport in the same way as the men’s, and failing to provide women with the same basic benefits, such as travel arrangements and disability insurance.  Pay from USA Hockey is not the only income the female players receive, as they also benefit from financial support from the US Olympic Committee but, as Sports Shorts has previously discussed in the context of the IOC’s Rule 40, Olympic athletes can often struggle in non-Olympic years and this is a key aspect of the dispute.  Understandably, the players are looking for more consistency in their income.

Over in Australia, the female cricket players’ pay increase has also been borne out of long-running negotiations (in relation to both men’s and women’s pay), as the current Memorandum of Understanding between the Australian Cricketers’ Association (“ACA”) (which represents the players)  and Cricket Australia is set to expire in June 2017.  However, Cricket Australia and the ACA have been at loggerheads over a proposed move from the existing revenue sharing model to a guaranteed minimum model, as well as more gender-specific issues such as the “outdated… and rather condescending” “pregnancy clause” included in female players’ contracts.  It seems clear, however, that whatever the final deal eventually agreed, female players are in line for a sizeable pay rise.  Whilst the pay increase is undoubtedly a ‘win’ for the female athletes, the men still earn around 4 times more than the women (reflecting the larger crowds and TV audiences their matches attract).  However, there is a clear upwards trajectory in the women’s game: until around five years ago when centralised contracts were introduced (a trend which occurred in a number of major cricketing nations at around the same time and more recently by India), women’s cricket in Australia was “all but invisible”, played on an amateur and semi-professional basis only.

As this shows, professionalising is only the beginning of the journey.  The benefits of being able to offer realistic, attractive and consistent salaries include the ability to attract and sustain talent, leading to the improvement of the sport as a whole and the hope that greater audiences and commercial investment will follow as a result, but the talent pipeline can take years to develop.  Moreover, as England Netball discovered when it struggled to fill all of its new full-time contracts, difficulties which can arise in the early stages of professionalising, when revenues and funding are not yet at levels which permit the maintenance of salaries sufficient to attract players away from the security of their non-sporting careers.

Pay disputes are by no means confined to women’s sport and the extent to which governing bodies should share revenue with athletes is a frequent point of dispute.  As mentioned above, the Cricket Australia pay dispute related to both men’s and women’s pay (focusing largely on concerns on the part of the CAA that less than 20% of total cricket revenue is shared with players – $400m apart from what the players say was contained in an earlier MOU).  In the 1990s and early 2000s, the English Rugby Football Union found itself the subject of criticism in this regard, as rugby union’s increasing popularity and revenue generation was not mirrored in players’ remuneration. This famously culminated in the England rugby team striking (only 3 years before they went on to win the World Cup), and the RFU eventually capitulating to player demands with a new pay package.   Yet, for female athletes, bridging the gender remuneration gap remains on the agenda, not only in respect of pay but in relation to basic benefits and protections, such as disability insurance.

All of the above examples raise aspects of the wider issues around the promotion and remuneration of female athletes and women’s sport, something that Sports Shorts has touched upon previously.  Inevitably the remuneration of athletes is, to a significant extent, commensurate with the revenues generated by their activities and it is an undeniable truth that men’s sports generally continue to attract greater audiences, both in the stadium and on the television, making women’s sport less attractive as a commercial investment.  This is reflected by the fact that, in the UK, between 2011 and 2013, sponsorship of women’s sport accounted for a mere 0.4% of total sports sponsorship, and media coverage of women’s sport accounted for only 7% of total sport coverage.  In many respects, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy (put basically, women’s sport will not increase its television audiences if it is not on television). Breaking the cycle, and bridging the sizeable gap between remuneration of male and female athletes, will require a change in attitude, rhetoric and quite possibly policy.  This is already well on its way in many sports and, more broadly, awareness of the untapped commercial opportunity in women’s sport is increasing.

The culture change will take time but it is on its way and, importantly, there is a generation of girls growing up with the knowledge that it is possible to play professionally in an ever-increasing number of sports.