The U.S. Women’s National soccer team has taken the main stage when it comes to the fight for equal play and pay in sports. However, it’s not the only league looking to make waves. From softball to surfing, women’s sports are more popular than ever and the athletes want their due.
In January, the WNBA announced it’s eight-year, groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement. The historic move included a significant salary bump, going from an annual base of $117,500 to $215,000 for top players, maternity leave, bonuses and more career opportunities after basketball.
“It’s really a holistic view to say the WNBA is the place for these unique female athletes to work and to work year round,” commissioner Cathy Engelbert said at Tory Burch Foundation Embrace Ambition summit on Thursday. Engelbert joined big wave surfer Bianca Valenti, professional softball player A.J. Andrews and anchor Cari Champion in a conversation about the challenging landscape. Adding, “It’s such an important time for women’s empowerment and the women’s movement to drive all of these athletes. And I do believe our collective bargaining agreement will be the model for other leagues.”
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However, despite progress, female players have far less opportunity than male athletes in terms of salary, air-time and endorsements.
The question is why?
“When women are being compared to men, we don’t get the same media coverage, we don’t get the same respect,” Andrews said. “And if you do get the TV coverage, it’s not the same level as it is for men. People have this perception that [softball] is not as exciting as [baseball] or that the interest isn’t there.”
Recent viewership numbers prove otherwise. For example, according to Neilsen, ESPN saw a 40% increase in regular-season college softball viewership in 2019. Plus, last year marked the most-viewed Women’s College World Series since 2015, garnering 1 million viewers.
Also in 2019, Fox Sports reported that in soccer, the FIFA Women’s World Cup France final peaked at nearly 20 million viewers, making it the most-watched U.S. English-language TV match since 2015. It topped the 2018 men’s final by 22%.
For Valenti, it was years ago when she first realized she didn’t have an even playing field compared to her male counterparts in surfing. She has since led the fight for gender equity, and last year, it was finally announced that World Surf League female competitive surfers would now receive equal pay to their male counterparts across all WSL controlled events. But that’s just scratching the surface on equality.
“We need opportunity in the same high profile events and we need the same media and exposure [as men],” said Valenti. And we need all this work from the leaders in the industry and in the whole entire world to get that. How do we all come together? Like softball, basketball, surfing, snowboarding, soccer, everybody, and level the playing field together and all really unite?”