It’s anniversary time for Title IX. The landmark legislation, best known for increasing sports opportunities for women, recently turned 45. Every female athlete — from the girls on local playgrounds to gold medalists on Olympic podiums — owes something to Title IX.
But as tempting as it is to reflect on how far women’s sports have come, that’s not a very Title IX thing to do. As a symbolic force, Title IX always has been about female athletes pushing boundaries, wanting more, and demanding better.
So it seems more fitting to look ahead and ask, “What’s next? Where do we go from here? What inequities in sports deserve greater attention?”
Let’s start with pay.
The gender pay gap in sports is more a chasm than a gap. The United States women’s national soccer team pointed that out last year when it filed a complaint against US Soccer and demanded equal pay for equal work after winning the 2015 World Cup. The filing detailed how the women’s team was paid four times less than the men’s national team, despite making $20 million more in revenue in 2015. As for the chasm between WNBA and NBA players and between NWHL and NHL players, it’s many, many, many millions of dollars.
As aggravating as that is, let’s be clear about one thing: Female pro athletes won’t receive the same salaries as their male counterparts any time soon, if ever. That’s pragmatism speaking. You don’t have to like it, but the money men’s sports bring in from broadcast deals, sponsorships, merchandise, and ticket sales make true pay equality unrealistic. But to keep progressing, female athletes need to make up ground because there’s a ripple effect at play.
The more female athletes make, the more time and energy they can devote to training. The more they devote to training, the better they play. The better they play, the better the product on the field, the court, the ice. The better the product, the more interest from fans, sponsors, and broadcasters. The more interest, the more money coming in and available to spread around to pro players, to development programs, to colleges, and so forth.
So, what to do? Follow the lead of the US women’s national soccer team and the US women’s national hockey team.
In March, almost a year after the soccer team filed its complaint against its governing body, the hockey team threatened to boycott the Women’s World Championship because it wanted fair wages. Smart timing, along with support from all levels of girls’ and women’s hockey, and unified social media messaging (#BeBoldForChange) forced USA Hockey to confront entrenched organizational inequities.
The bold, public protest by the hockey players brought to mind the bold, naked protest by the Yale women’s rowing team in 1976. The rowers marched into the office of the university’s director of women’s sports, stripped down, and stood naked with “Title IX” written in blue marker on their chests and backs. They wanted equal locker room facilities. The next season, a women’s locker room was added to the Yale boathouse. And ever since, the protest has been a leading example of Title IX’s influence and impact.
The hockey players, by creating a high-stakes, high-visibility standoff with USA Hockey, demanded the respect they deserved and reached an agreement that significantly upped their national team pay, improved insurance benefits and travel accommodations, and provided greater support for youth development programs for girls. And the United States ended up winning the World Championship the team threatened to boycott.
A week after the hockey players succeeded at the negotiation table, the soccer players reached an agreement that increased their base pay by 30 percent and included bonuses that could double the income of some players.
There’s no reason why female athletes can’t keep threatening boycotts and taking legal action when it comes to getting more money and fighting for more equal support. Sure, it’s risky and won’t always work, but publicly calling the sports powers-that-be to account may be the most effective strategy to get better financial benefits.
With the hockey, soccer, and Yale teams, strong leadership by female athletes proved critical. That leadership needs to exist in greater numbers everywhere — coaching, management, league headquarters, athletic directors’ offices, apparel companies, and media. If women don’t have a voice in the room, preferably one with final decision-making power, it can be hard to draw attention to sexist policies or make women’s sports a priority.
Consider the 2024 Los Angeles Olympics bid. With former Olympians such as swimmer Janet Evans and hockey player Angela Ruggiero in leadership positions, the LA organizing committee has prioritized gender equality. That covers everything from looking at funding disparities between men’s and women’s sports to monitoring staff hiring to ensuring women compete in major venues on prime Olympic real estate, not smaller, satellite arenas.
But while there’s been progress, it’s important to keep pushing for more —
For that to happen, there need to be development pipelines for women with networking, mentoring, and job opportunities. Some already exist. Even the NFL is making an effort to bring more women into day-to-day team operations. Last fall, the league hired former women’s pro tackle football quarterback Sam Rapoport as its director of football development. Her job: Connect qualified women with NFL coaches and executives and, ideally, create a career path that leads to coaching, scouting or front office positions. Curious to see how that goes long term.
But getting jobs in men’s pro leagues is only one measure of progress for women in sports. You can’t forget the women’s side of the game — the WNBA, NWHL, the National Women’s Soccer League, the LPGA, the WTA — and the importance of visibility.
Because you can’t get nearly as much information about women’s pro teams and female athletes, it’s as if there is an invisible barrier to entry for fans. You often have to work harder to find stories, statistics, and game broadcasts to be a women’s sports aficionado.
In a piece last year for The Players’ Tribune, WNBA star Sue Bird recounted an unsuccessful search on her phone for a specific WNBA statistic. While she could find any NBA stat she dreamed up, she couldn’t find charges drawn for WNBA players. Her point: Data is important because it sparks debate and conversation and, as she wrote, “helps tell the story of a player, a team, an entire career.” And when you put it in that context, you’re talking about all the elements that draw in fans and keep them engaged.
What to do going forward? Get creative. Figure out a way to promote women’s sports as something different than men’s sports and a better experience because of that difference. That’s a suggestion marketing expert David Schmittlein, dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management, once passed along. He mentioned how that strategy worked for light beer with its “Tastes Great, Less Filling” campaign.
Another option: Be more entrepreneurial. The sports business world is teaming with young, innovative minds with new products designed to engage fans or better quantify athlete performance. Maybe there’s a partnership to be had there. Companies could test their products at Boston Breakers games or Boston Pride games and the team gets to promote what might be the game experience of the future. You’d buy tickets to that, right?
Some of the most successful women’s pro soccer teams already have partnerships with their local men’s pro soccer teams. They share executives, resources, and best practices, and also stage doubleheaders. That model is a smart one and worth expanding for better visibility and for stretching limited resources. After all, without the NBA’s support, who knows where the WNBA would be today?
There’s nothing wrong with more assists, more pipelines, more protests, or more legal action. In their own way, they all build on what Title IX started.