Today’s guest columnist is Seattle attorney Julie Sommer.
The wildly popular University of Nebraska women’s volleyball team, which regularly sells out its home arena of 8,000, is set to break the attendance record for a women’s college sporting event. More than 80,000 fans have purchased tickets to attend Nebraska’s Volleyball Day, where the Huskers will play at the university’s football stadium on Aug. 30.
This headline-grabbing event—a women’s team selling out a legendary college football venue—is an emphatic reflection of a larger trend: More eyeballs are watching women’s sports, and more money is available to support these athletes and programs. Yet, despite the increased attention, funding of women’s college athletic programs and the collectives that support them continues to fall below their male peers.
Since states began to approve name, image and likeness (NIL) payments in 2021, ending years of NCAA filibuster, a largely unregulated industry has grown to partner corporate and private funders with college athletes. These collectives, typically affiliated with a specific school, focus almost exclusively on promoting—and paying—male athletes. Data from Opendorse, a national NIL marketing platform, found that over 77% of all NIL funding went to male athletes. Even after subtracting football, that figure was still nearly 60%.
Just as alarming is the fact that fewer than 35% of all collectives provide any resources to women athletes. This staggering exclusion, which underlies both logic and law, highlights the need for reform—either legislative or legal—to bring NIL marketing and promotion in compliance with Title IX.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the federal law requiring institutional parity in men’s and women’s sports. It should be a universal concept, but implementation has proved challenging, with women’s sports often relegated to substandard funding and facilities, fewer participation and scholarship opportunities, and disproportionate treatment and benefits.
While Title IX clearly states the intent is to provide equal access and opportunity, there is nothing on matters of third-party compensation to athletes, and there is no immediate and foreseeable action in Congress or courts to provide clarity and a path forward in this new frontier of gender equity. This has to change. Title IX is a federal law with national oversight; any interpretation to include NIL and other compensation must be national in scope and consistent with the principles of fairness and equity in the law’s intent.
In a recent letter to Federal policymakers and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), The Drake Group, a think tank advocating equity and student-centered reform in college athletics, articulated this goal: “We do not write to suggest that OCR stem this flow of cash to college athletes, but rather to alert OCR that this cash is, with the blessing and/or cooperation of the 1000-plus universities in the NCAA, flowing predominantly to men. Such inequitable financial aid, treatment and benefits provided to men are a violation of Title IX.”
Absent national uniformity, one easy reform that can be made right now at the state or institutional level is to simply require that all collectives provide funding and outreach to women athletes and teams. Not only would these changes respect Title IX, but they would be good business—for the schools and the athletes.
In addition to unacceptable gender exclusion by collectives, the delta between data and public perception drives these disparities in many comparable men’s and women’s sports. This past March, the NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship averaged 9.9 million viewers, elevating the stars to national name recognition. The final, in which LSU topped Iowa 102-85, capped a tournament that saw record ratings for the women’s game.
ESPN paid $34 million to the NCAA to broadcast these games, along with more than 20 other women’s college sport championships. By contrast, CBS and Turner pay the NCAA over $770 million each year for the men’s tournament that featured a final watched by a little under 15 million viewers. To say that the women’s game is undervalued is both an understatement and an underestimation of its revenue potential.
In a free market system with few regulatory guardrails, it’s easy to see how these inequities—rooted in systematic devaluation of women athletes and athletics and reflected in the male-dominated culture of collegiate donor collectives—could continue to widen, undermining the gains made by women athletes across platforms and programs. But there are reasons to be hopeful as well. New women-centered NIL cooperatives are forming to help level the playing field. More women are seeking—and finding—NIL sponsorships and opportunities for compensation. Media rights for women’s games are increasing—along with greater ad revenue, exposure and stability. And in serving an ace for all women’s sports, the Women’s Sports Network, a streaming network devoted exclusively to 24/7 women’s sports coverage, launched in 2022.
The need for thoughtful action that addresses past and current disparities between men and women’s sports at the institutional level is urgent and real. But as Congress considers a variety of possible solutions, and the NCAA seeks clarity on how much authority they actually have to regulate and enforce NIL rules, we can and must continue to drive change in how collectives, universities and media partners treat female athletes. Title IX built a floor to help break glass ceilings. If done right, NIL collectives can help women in sports reach even higher.
Julie Sommer, a Seattle attorney who serves as executive director of The Drake Group Education Fund, is a former All-American swimmer at the University of Texas and past U.S. National Team member. She’s on Twitter @JulieRSommer.