For much of the past 25 years I have been researching and teaching sports economics, investigating labor strikes, competitive balance, labor productivity, decision-making, coaching impact and labor market discrimination. The topics are quite different, but they often had one thing in common: The participants in the sports discussed were almost always men.
But sports are not simply the domain of men, and I have argued that we can’t really teach and research sports and economics if we do not talk about women in sports.
There is unfortunately a long tradition of economists ignoring women, dating back to Adam Smith, who only used the word “woman” twice in his 1776 classic, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Today’s economics textbooks still primarily focus on men, and only about one-third of PhDs in economics are awarded to women.
The world of sports isn’t much different. Historically, women were prohibited from participating in sports. When women were allowed to play, the support they received was a fraction of what went to men. It was not until Title IX passed in 1972 that U.S. schools made any effort to offer equal opportunities in sports for girls and women. But the funding has often been unequal. And that story continues when we look at the professional ranks. Men’s professional sports have received billions in taxpayer funds that have never been available to women’s sports. If that wasn’t enough, the male-dominated sports media has persistently directed more than 90% of coverage towards men’s sports.
Yes, like economics, sports doesn’t seem to treat women particularly well. But it is possible for sports economics to do better. And if we are interested in painting an accurate picture of sports, it is time we start making more of an effort to include women in the stories we tell.
We can start by emphasizing how much women are already in the world of sports. More than 40% of sports fans are women. In addition, more than 40% of the athletes in high school and college sports are girls and women.
Prior to Title IX, women definitely did not receive 40% of the opportunities in sports. So, we have made some progress in making sports more inclusive. But more remains to be done. Women are more than 50% of college students, but 50 years after Title IX was put into law, studies show most universities are not in compliance. We are still not providing equal opportunity and funding to women in college sports.
Understanding these longstanding disadvantages also helps us understand why we see a gender-wage gap in sports. WNBA players are paid about 1% of what the men of the NBA receive. One might think we can explain this difference by just looking at the revenues of the two leagues. But NBA players receive 50% of basketball-related income, while the women of the WNBA are paid a much lower share of league revenue. This means that even when we adjust for differences in league revenue, a gender-wage gap remains in professional basketball.
Labor market discrimination is but one story one can tell by looking at women in sports. Telling these stories doesn’t just help make this field more inclusive. It also makes the picture we paint an accurate representation of the world of sports today.
David Berri is a professor of economics at Southern Utah University and author of the textbook, Sports Economics.