How big is the gender pay gap in sports? It’s much bigger than you think. Here is proof

The woman who wins the 2019 U.S. Open tennis tournament this weekend will take home a record $3.85 million in prize money — exactly the same amount that will be awarded to the men’s winner.

After Billie Jean King threatened to boycott the 1973 U.S. Open due to pay inequality, the tournament became the first to award equal money to its male and female champions. The other three Grand Slam tournaments eventually followed suit, and all have paid equal prize money since 2007, a big reason why tennis is — by far — the most lucrative sport for women and the sport with the narrowest gender pay gap.

The winner of the season-ending Women’s Tennis Association Finals this winter will earn $4.75 million, the biggest prize in the history of men’s or women’s tennis. According to Forbes, the 10 highest-paid female athletes in the world in 2019 are all tennis players, led by Serena Williams with $29.2 million earned through prize money ($4.2 million) and a $25 million endorsement portfolio that includes Nike, Gatorade, Pampers, JP Morgan, Beats, and General Mills.


Outside of tennis, the gender pay gap is staggering.

The highest base salary in the WNBA is $117,500. The highest salary in the NBA is $40 million.

Jackie Young, the top pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, will make $53,537 base salary this season with the Las Vegas Aces. Zion Williamson, the top pick in the NBA Draft, signed a four-year deal with the New Orleans Pelicans worth $44 million.

The lowest NBA salary ($897,158) is $779,658 more than what the WNBA’s highest-paid player, DeWanna Bonner, makes.

The highest salary in the National Women’s Soccer League is $46,200. The highest salary in Major League Soccer is $7.2 million.

The highest-paid male soccer player in the world, Lionel Messi, makes $127 million, with $92 million coming from FC Barcelona. The highest-paid female soccer player in the world, Alex Morgan, is worth $5.8 million, but only $250,000 of that is combined salary from the Orlando Pride and U.S. national team. The rest comes from her endorsements, which include Nike, Coca-Cola and Secret.

The pay scale in golf is also lopsided. Brooks Koepka tops the PGA prize money list this year with $9.51 million, and Jin Young Ko is the top earner on the LPGA prize money list at $2.28 million.


Dan Levy, vice president of Olympics and women’s sports for the Wasserman sports management agency, represents many of the nation’s top female athletes, including Morgan, Mia Hamm, Megan Rapinoe and swimmer Katie Ledecky. He began his career representing players on the 1999 Women’s World Cup team and has seen great strides in women’s sports over the past 20 years. Still, he says, when it comes to equal and fair compensation, women have a long way to go.

“Women have to be ‘more than’; they can’t just make the kind of money men make playing their sport,” Levy said. “They have to be marketable. They have to have a cause, a look, a flamboyant personality, something unique. So, there are ways for them to be really valuable from a marketability standpoint, but they can’t just make money playing a sport.

“The tennis example is unique because at their majors, they compete in the same event as the men. You buy a ticket to get into Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, and that gets you an opportunity to watch men or women play. So, they’ve had an opportunity to grow beside their male counterparts in a way that women of no other sport have. Salaries are getting marginally better, but for women who play sports, particularly team sports, it’s still a minor league, so to speak.”

U.S. Soccer parade
Megan Rapinoe, center, is joined by teammates as confetti falls outside of City Hall, after the team’s ticker-tape parade celebrating the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s World Cup victory, in New York on July 10 2019. CALLA KESSLER NYT

The only nontennis players to crack the Top 15 on the Forbes women’s list were Morgan, who ranked 12th at $5.8 million with a salary of $250,000 and endorsements totaling $5.5 million; India badminton icon P.V. Sindhu, tied for No. 13 with tennis player Madison Keys at $5.5 million; and Thai golfer Ariya Jutanugarn at No. 15 with $5.3 million.

Williams was the only woman to make the 2019 Forbes’ list of World’s 100 Highest-Paid Athletes, tied at No. 63 with Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera. She was also the lone woman on the 2017 list. In 2018, there were no women on the list.

Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research of Girls and Women’s Sports at the University of Minnesota, said that despite a huge cultural shift in attitudes toward women’s sports since Title IX legislation in the early 1970s, pay equity is still a long way away.

“In terms of pay equity, the glass is certainly less than half full,” Kane said. “It’s not a difference in degree, it’s a difference in kind because it’s millions and millions and millions of dollars versus hundreds of thousands of dollars. That said, if you look at the long arc of women’s sports, the fact that they have professional leagues is something that has moved the needle. But men’s sports had an enormous head start culturally, socially and economically. Comparing women’s leagues to men’s is like comparing a start-up company to Apple or Microsoft. Give us a couple of decades and get back to me.”

One explanation for the gender pay gap in sports is pure supply-and-demand economics.

The NBA generates more than $9 billion in revenue, while the WNBA generates about $25 million. Television rights for the NBA dwarf WNBA rights. The NBA season is 82 games, and the WNBA season is 34 games. Most WNBA players also play overseas in order to make more money.

The 2018 men’s World Cup in Russia generated $6.1 billion in revenue. The 2019 Women’s World Cup in France generated $131 million.

MLS average attendance is 21,053 this season, while the NWSL is averaging 7,093.

“No, I don’t think in the WNBA, where you have shorter seasons and you don’t have a long history like you do in the NBA, there should be equal pay,” Kane said. “That said, I don’t think there should be astronomical differences between the obscene amount of money NBA players make and what the women make.”

The U.S. women’s soccer team got $4 million from FIFA for winning the Women’s World Cup earlier this summer; and the French men’s team got $38 million from FIFA for winning their World Cup last summer. Although the U.S. women captivated the nation and drew record TV audiences, their equal pay fight is likely headed to federal court after mediation talks with U.S. Soccer broke down in mid-August.


“We won’t accept anything less than equal pay,” U.S. captain Rapinoe said. “We show up for a game, if we win the game, if we lose the game, if we tie the game, we want to be paid equally, period.”

A letter written last month by U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro and posted on the federation’s website said: “It should be a basic principle everywhere in our country — equal work deserves equal pay.” He went on to state that the men’s and women’s national teams negotiated separate collective bargaining agreements and asserted that the organization paid the U.S. Women’s National Team more than the men’s team over the past decade.

Cordeiro said the federation paid the women’s team $34.1 million from 2010 to 2018 compared to $26.4 million for the men’s team. The financial analysis, which Cordeiro said was reviewed by an independent accounting firm, includes IRS tax filings and does not include money received by U.S. Soccer from FIFA for World Cup participation or bonuses as those totals are out of the federation’s control.

Comparing pay between the men’s and women’s teams is complicated because each group negotiated different pay structures and benefits.

U.S. Soccer pays the women a guaranteed base salary of $100,000 per year as well as $67,500 to $72,500 as compensation for playing in the National Women’s Soccer League. The women also have a benefits package that includes health care, retirement, paid maternity leave, childcare and severance. Players on the men’s team are paid based only on training camp invitations, game appearances and bonuses. U.S. Soccer does not pay salaries for men who play in MLS or other professional leagues around the world, nor does it provide the benefits package the women get.

“Progress has been made, but there’s still such a long way to go outside of those huge events and moments, the day-in and day-out leagues, whether it be the WNBA or the NWSL or what the women’s hockey players are trying to create,” Levy said. “Men’s sports, both here domestically and globally, the amount of resources and investment that goes into that, and the structures that have been in place for decades naturally give way to much larger salaries.”

U.S. Women’s World Cup
United States’ Megan Rapinoe holds the trophy celebrating at the end of the Women’s World Cup final soccer match between the U.S. and The Netherlands at the Stade de Lyon in Decines, outside Lyon, France, Sunday, July 7, 2019. The U.S. defeated the Netherlands 2-0. Francisco Seco AP

The disparity in media coverage between men’s and women’s sports is also a factor. Fans are fed so much more information and storylines about male athletes and leagues than they are about women’s sports; naturally, that makes them more compelled to tune in and buy tickets.

Changing attitudes in corporate America are helping close the pay gap.

Budweiser this summer became the first official beer sponsor of the NWSL, and its #WontStopWatching tagline on social media urged fans not to forget about female soccer players when the World Cup is over.

VISA’s new sponsorship deal with U.S. Soccer demands that half the money be devoted to the women’s program.

ESPN, on the heels of the Women’s World Cup, decided to air 14 NWSL matches this season — eight on ESPNEWS and six, including the semifinals and final, on ESPN2.

And Secret, a week after the World Cup, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times announcing it was helping close the pay gap by donating $529,000 to the U.S. national team — $23,000 for each of the 23 players.

“The argument is always, ‘It’s market driven, it’s market driven,’ and women’s sports don’t put butts in seats or move product,” Kane said. “That may have been true, but what the women’s soccer victory showed us in the Women’s World Cup is that when you invest in women and they’re good, they can drive product, but that doesn’t result in equal pay. Why would you expect equal pay given how many more resources are devoted to men’s sports, how much more media coverage is focused on men’s sports? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think it will get better; but not because men who control professional sports wake up one day and say, `Oh, I feel really terrible about the fact that there isn’t equal pay.’ ”



Levy agrees.

“Culturally, things have changed a lot,” Levy said. “There’s such a greater appreciation for women on top of their sport, but also girls competing at a high level whether it’s club sports, in high school, college.

“Women who were athletes watching Mia and her teammates in the late ’90s or early 2000s are now in position of power in companies, so that helps a tremendous amount now that they are decision-makers. Companies invest in properties that matter to people and are broadcasted widely. At the end of the day, brands are trying to reach consumers and they can do that through women competing in a different way than they were able to in the ’80s and ’90s.”

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He said female athletes are also taking advantage of social media, where they have been able to attract huge followings. Williams has 11.4 million Instagram followers. Morgan has 9.2 million, and Rapinoe is up to 2.2 million.

Serena and Venus Williams have long been advocates for equal pay for women tennis players, and King continues to push the issue.

“Congratulations to the #USWNT on their 4th World Cup win! These athletes have brought more attention, support, & pride to women’s sport than perhaps any other team in history. It is long past time to pay them what they rightly deserve,” King tweeted after the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

During the 2019 Australian Open, Serena Williams paid tribute to King and pledged to continue battling for pay equity in all sports.

Billie Jean King
Tennis legends Billie Jean King, left, and Chris Evert address the media during a press conference at the Miami Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, Florida, on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Pedro Portal El Nuevo Herald

“I feel like all of women’s sports — not only tennis — really owes everything to Billie Jean King,” she said. “Everything she’s done for us, demanding equal prize money ... makes me not really want to focus on what I can do on the court but what I do off the court.”

King and Chris Evert met with the media at the 2016 Miami Open to address the issue of equal pay. The Miami Open awards equal pay to men and women, but some other tournaments don’t.

“Everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs, and I want women to have the cake, the icing and the cherry on top, too,” King said. “To have equal prize money in the majors sends a message. It’s not about the money, it’s about the message. We want to make the pie bigger, the marketplace bigger for all... What about when Chris and Martina were playing and their ratings were better than the men? We didn’t go, ‘Oh, we deserve more than the men.’ No. Let’s just keep it equal and help each other.”