Critics are up in arms about the World Cup gender gap. The prize money for women is far less than for men. Commentators attribute the gap to sexism and structural inequities. Could they be right? Let’s review the evidence.
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This summer, the U.S. women’s soccer team electrified the nation when it defeated Germany 2–0 and then Japan 5–2 to win the World Cup. Instead of celebrating the team’s brilliant play and the continuing growth of women’s soccer, many in the media are fixating on what they see as a shameful “World Cup pay gap.” The U.S. women’s team collected only $2 million in prize money for its victory over Japan. But for the corresponding men’s competition in 2014, the winning German team won $35 million—while the Americans, who lost in the first round, took home $8 million. Spurred by the media reports, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont introduced a resolution on the floor of the U.S. Senate urging FIFA, the organization that sponsors the World Cup, to “immediately eliminate gender pay inequity”: Here is where I think the Senator and the media critics go wrong. The prize disparity has much more to do with sports economics than sexism. The World Cup is a world competition—hence its title—and its prizes are based on paid viewership, in stadiums but mainly on television, the world over. The women’s players are formidable athletes and the Women’s World Cup is growing rapidly in popularity, especially in the U.S., but it’s still nowhere near the men’s cup in terms of world popularity. According to FIFA, the 2011 Women’s World Cup was watched by nearly 408 million people around the world; for the men’s World Cup in, 2010 the figure was 3.2 billion. In 2010, the men’s World Cup generated nearly $3.7 billion in revenue, while the women’s World Cup generated about $73 million. FIFA is a shady organization, and sexism can probably be counted among its many vices—but the differences in its men’s and women’s prizes are actually less than the differences in its revenues from the two competitions. Well, the sports equity activists have heard all of this before, and they have a reply. “Why accept market forces?” they ask. After all, these forces were shaped by a culture that has been traditionally hostile to women. Shane Ferro, a feminist business reporter at Business Insider explains it this way: “Most of us have been socialized to accept men’s sports as dominant, and somehow automatically more interesting.” And once society internalizes a falsehood, she says, “it’s not so easy to correct it.” Hard, but not impossible. There is now a call by sports equity activists to change the market by re-socializing fans. “Sports fans, for the most part, will watch whatever you put in front of them,” says Kavitha Davidson at Bloomberg News. Highlight the women’s teams, and fan interest and excitement will come. A recently published study by two feminist sociologists [SHOW] comes to the same conclusion. The authors lament that women’s sports receive only about 3% of network TV attention, down from 5% in 1989. Major sports media, they say, is a “place set up by men for men to celebrate men’s sensational athletic accomplishments” while giving short shrift to women’s achievements. They acknowledge that there are fewer female teams, so they suggest for now the media increase coverage of women’s sports to 12–18%. They also specify that the sportscasters should report on women’s sports with the same “enthusiasm” as men’s sports. More coverage plus more enthusiasm will increase the fan base, and that will drive up women’s salaries and prizes. Well, it’s the gender sociologists and the feminist journalists—not the sports fans— who have internalized a falsehood. There are athletic competitions where women attract more fans than men—figure skating and gymnastics, for example. And women’s tennis, while not as popular as men’s, certainly has a large and devoted audience.
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