Column | Women’s sports are still not adequately supported

By Claire O'Brien, Sports Digital Content Editor

Several weeks ago, I watched the Chicago Sky win their first championship in franchise history. It just so happened that a football game was happening nearby, but I noticed most people on my feed were talking about the Sky. Maybe the people I follow share my interests in elevating women’s sports, but I think my feed reflects the growing visibility of women’s sports in society. Though women’s sports are more visible in society, they are still not treated as equally as men’s sports. 

Over the last several years, women’s sports have become more prominent, as much of this year’s WNBA finals were on ESPN. That’s great and all, but the NBA finals are often on ABC, a station that is both more well known and easier to access than ESPN. WNBA players got salary increases after the latest CBA, but they still make significantly less than their NBA counterparts. NBA players routinely take private flights to shuttle between games, but it was newsworthy when WNBA players had a private flight from Phoenix to Chicago during the Finals this year.

But, there’s one more kicker here. Game 5, if it were to be needed, would have been on ESPN2, which is more obscure than ESPN — and, in case you were wondering, it was the Blackhawks game that was on ESPN that night.

It’s not just basketball. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team is still fighting to be paid the same as the men’s team, even though the women’s soccer team has done much better internationally over the last several years. U.S. Soccer claims that the USWNT made more than the USMNT because the USWNT played more games, and the lawsuit is being appealed. U.S. Soccer just looks silly at this point with its mental gymnastics. It really shouldn’t take this much teeth-pulling to pay people equally for equal work.

Although I’ve seen more media coverage of women’s sports throughout my time at The Daily Illini, women’s sports coverage is often harder to find than men’s sports coverage. I went to ESPN.com shortly after the Sky game to see what they were reporting on, and the only mention of the championship I could see without scrolling was a sidebar in “Top Headlines.” A major sports league just crowned a new champion — the Sky’s first title in franchise history — and the most prominent portion of ESPN’s landing page was not that.

About 417,000 people tuned into the WNBA championship. That’s about 10,000 people less than the population of Minneapolis. A significant amount of people watched the Finals, and a major sports franchise winning its first championship ever should probably have gotten more prominence on a major sports news website. Sports coverage is perhaps the easiest way to elevate women’s sports, and the mainstream sports news websites certainly have room to improve on that front.

Gender equality is far from a reality in professional sports, but it also isn’t just professional sports. It’s college, too.

The NCAA is just now starting to use “March Madness” branding for the women’s basketball tournament, effective next March. It’s asinine that the NCAA is just now starting to take baby steps toward gender equality, but this is a group that got caught underinvesting in women’s sports and a pretty damning report about how systemic that underinvestment is, especially in women’s basketball, was released in August. 

The report found the NCAA assumes women’s basketball is a money loser. With that attitude, and combined with a ridiculous lack of investment, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t invest equally in women’s sports, there’s a good chance that it will not foster equal results.

Of course I’m not surprised, considering the NCAA’s president is someone who, in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, whined about how the NCAA might get sued for not letting athletes get paid and didn’t seem to acknowledge the fact his lackluster leadership was why he was on Capitol Hill in the first place.

Needless to say, the organization certainly does not set a good example of how universities should treat athletes. The University of Illinois, my soon-to-be alma mater, certainly has a lot of progress to make on this front. This is probably a small thing, and it’s a point I’ve made before, but the University’s own basketball Twitter names reflect gender discrepancies. The men’s basketball name is “Illinois Basketball,” while the women’s basketball name is “Illinois W Basketball.” Fairly easy fix. One letter is all it takes to fix that issue.

Beyond Twitter, the University does not invest in women’s sports. Its own EADA report, which shows the statistics of men and women’s participation in sports in an annual report every NCAA school has to file with the U.S. Department of Education, shows how stark the contrast is. The average men’s sports head coach here has an annual salary of over $1 million (and I’ll concede Bret Bielema and Brad Underwood’s salaries probably inflate that some), but the average salary of a women’s sports head coach at this school is $223,555. 

The gender gap extends to assistant coaches. The average assistant coach salary is $227,719 for a men’s sport’s coach, while the women’s assistant coaches make, on average, $90,449.

Read the numbers above one more time. Sit with them for a second. You’ll see the average salary for a men’s assistant coach is higher than the average salary for a women’s head coach. That certainly is not a good look. I also checked Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue’s EADA reports — none of the average men’s assistant coaches’ salaries are higher than women’s average head coach salaries.

Many who read this column will point out that football and men’s basketball bring in revenues and have high attendance. That’s true, but that’s also because these programs have been around longer and get more investments and media rights. The NCAA poo-pooed women’s sports and then assumed women’s sports would lose money? Um, they’re the ones allowing that to be a thing.

Women’s sports leagues are comparatively very young. The WNBA is only a couple years older than me, and the NWSL has been around since I’ve been in middle school. Age isn’t an excuse, and in an era in which communicating across time and space has never been easier or more instantaneous, it’s pretty ludicrous gender inequality permeates the sports world.

People care about women’s sports, and they want to be able to support their favorite teams by buying their jerseys and watching them play in person or on TV. Just make it happen.

@obrien_clairee

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