This story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Backstage at the ESPYs on July 15, I found myself in a heated discussion with a male sports agent about the most dominant athlete of our day. Just having returned from covering Wimbledon, my opinion was that Serena Williams — on the verge of the rare feat of a calendar Grand Slam (the last woman to achieve one was Steffi Graf in 1988) — is the athlete who has separated herself the most from her peers.
My opponent was making his case for UFC star Ronda Rousey, who is undefeated in 11 bouts, often dispatching her opponents in less than the amount of time it takes to type this sentence.
Surprisingly, the argument got rather heated, until the realization dawned that we actually weren’t discussing two men (LeBron James or Michael Phelps, anyone?) but instead engaged in a heated discussion about two female athletes.
Therein lies a win.
And then, there’s this victory: At 26.7 million viewers, ratings for the Women’s World Cup this summer were bigger than the last game of the NBA Finals and nearly equal to Game 7 of last year’s World Series. History shows that events such as the World Cup, Grand Slam tennis, Olympic Games and NCAA basketball and softball championships rate and resonate with the general sports audience. The same goes for magical stories like that of pitching phenom Mo’ne Davis, playing on a boys team in last year’s Little League World Series.
Fans watch sports because they are passionate about them. They care either about a team or an individual. UConn basketball draws attention for its sheer dominance, which ranks with John Wooden‘s legendary UCLA teams. But simply putting women’s sports on TV doesn’t seem to matter, unless the person or team stirs passion and becomes relevant in the everyday sports conversation, whether it be print, talk radio or TV.
But herein lies the rub: Most female stars can’t earn a living even closely approximating those of their male counterparts. Consider that for its historic Women’s World Cup victory earlier this month (with star goalie Hope Solo guarding the nets), FIFA awarded U.S. Soccer a total of $2 million. A year ago, Germany was awarded a whopping $35 million for its Men’s World Cup victory.
Diana Taurasi, one of the biggest stars in the WNBA, is skipping the current season to stay healthy for her team in Russia, UMMC Ekaterinburg. UMMC pays her $1.5 million; her 2015 WNBA salary would’ve been right around the maximum of $109,500. Taurasi’s comments are telling: “I want to be able to take care of myself and my family when I am done playing.”
And yet that WNBA salary is as good as it gets for women in an American team sport. Ninth grader Davis can’t even dream of a career as a pitcher, since there are no professional women’s baseball teams. She’s well aware of this and is instead setting her sights on basketball, where she might have at least a shot at a future. The biggest payday for women still comes in the form of college scholarships, and for a lucky few, the endorsements that follow success. But the disparity even at the elite level is huge.
Among Forbes‘ 50 highest-paid athletes, two are women. Maria Sharapova is No. 26, and Serena Williams is a shocking 47th. Our periodic obsession with women’s sports, however positive, is not enough to overcome the pay chasm or even offer female athletes more viable career choices. For the foreseeable future, a ticker tape parade trumps a different kind of paper: the money that fuels security — and dreams.