How to Level the Playing Field for Women in Sports
Teamwork, focus, dedication, resilience. We often use these words to describe the power of sports to embolden girls. And it’s true: Athletic participation offers girls an opportunity to build self-esteem, courage, and independence. But, many of us don’t realize just how fundamental sports can be to the success of women. According to recent studies, almost all women senior managers and executives played sports at some level. Researchers have found that 90% of high-level women are current or former athletes. That proportion rises to 96% among women in the C-suite. The conclusion? Starting girls out on the field or court may be the best path to the boardroom.
In The FQ Lounge @ MLS All-Star in partnership with AT&T, top industry leaders joined us to push the conversation forward. They shared how their success on the field translates to success in everyday life and what we can all do to utilize sports as a vehicle for positive social change. Here are their key takeaways.
Share Her Story
In soccer alone, there are currently 30 million girls who are playing around the world today. Yet, 42% of Division I college athletics funding goes to men’s sports, and just 21% goes to women’s, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). How can we go about activating change? Taking action starts with bringing awareness to the transformative power of sports. “We need more role models, men, and women, who can show girls what’s possible and lead the way,” says Jennifer Cooper, Partner Specialist at UN Women. “My challenge has been spreading the word but, following this last World Cup, it looks like the cat’s already out of the bag.”
Carson Pickett, Defender for Orlando Pride, echoes this sentiment, adding, “Growing up, it was fun for me to watch different sports. But, nowadays, it’s getting easier for little girls to connect to women on the USWNT or any other team because we’re showing that there’s something more behind the game. Instead of just seeing ‘how’ women can play, we’re seeing ‘why’ they play. We’re never going to all be the same or play the same play, but if we can each relate to at least part of their story, women in sports will reach more people. That will make a huge impact.”
“Every athlete has their own story, whether it’s a story of them as mothers, businesswomen, or their relationship to the fans. We have to be committed to telling those stories,” says Elizabeth Lindsay, President of Brands and Properties at Wasserman.
Put Her at Center Stage
While 40% of all sports participants are female, only 4% of TV sports coverage is devoted to women’s sports, finds Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. As the USWNT showed the world, there is a massive market opportunity for women in sports. The final game scored a larger audience than both the NBA finals and the NHL finals.
“When you put effort behind raising the visibility of and opportunities for women in sports, whether that’s on the field or in the business of sports, we all win,” says Elizabeth. “The fans become more engaged, the quality of the athlete gets better, and the next generation grows more interested. All this helps to ensure that the passion, but also the economic engine of sports continues. As a brand, you can do good and do good business at the same time.” At the end of the day, “If you want to change the content that makes it through the gate and the visibility, then you have to change the gatekeeper.”
Give Her Equal Sponsorship
Although only .04% of all sponsorship dollars go to female sports competition, per GumGum, top brands are finally starting to focus on raising the profile of women who are changing the game. “For the last World Cup, we wanted to make sure we were telling women’s stories as much as we were leveraging the cultural phenomenon that was about to occur,” says Paul Hourigan, Director of Sponsorship, Coca-Cola. “We wanted to make sure it was more than just a product and that we were investing back into the sport.”
“At this point, it’s a well-known, accepted fact that women control between 75% to 85% of all household purchasing decisions, no matter the price point, whether it’s a can of soda or a car,” Elizabeth says. “More brand leaders need to realize that they have a big voice. When they respond to the demand for authenticity, people pay attention.”
Show Her the Money
Since winning the 2015 World Cup, the U.S. women’s games have generated more total revenue than U.S. men’s games, according to audited financial reports from the U.S. Soccer Federation. While the USWNT has dominated the industry for the past four years, they are still fighting for equal pay. Pay disparity exists for women across all sports. In the WNBA, the salary cap is $117,500 — while the minimum starting salary for NBA players is about $580,000. “When people talk to me about equality and equal pay, I like to point out the former athlete Billie Jean King and what she did to elevate the entire sport of tennis just by advocating for equal pay,” says Elizabeth.
Don’t Forget the Guys
When we talk about authenticity and equality in sports, we can’t forget to include the male fans. Just like we need to dispel the myth that Americans don’t love soccer as much as the rest of the world, we also have to bust the stereotype that women’s sports only have female fans.
The truth is that male fans can be just as passionate as female fans when it comes to women’s sports. In fact, one of the biggest stories to come out of the World Cup was the number of men who were demanding that Nike make a jersey with Alex Morgan’s name on it. “The bottom line is it’s just great soccer,” says Paul. “When you peel away the layers, it’s the best athletes in this country playing a game at the highest possible level.”
As a father and equality champion, Jimmy Conrad reminds us that supporting women off the field is just as important. The Former MLS Player and Current AT&T Influencer shares, “I try to have as many meaningful conversations with my daughters as possible.”
For Mallika Pereira, Vice President, Partnership Marketing, Major League Soccer (MLS), “The measurement of success will be when we no longer assume that women are watching ‘women’s’ sports and men are watching ‘men’s sports, but we’re all just watching plain ‘sports’ together.”
Sports can inspire girls to take initiative, raise their voices, and attempt things they never thought were possible. In order to motivate more girls to participate, we need to improve the portrayal and increase the visibility of women in sports. It’s simple: the more that girls see female athletes achieve great things, the more likely they are to recognize their own strength. For more, watch the full discussions here and here.