December 2, 2020

Women’s Sports and Gender Equality- A Long Standing Battle

Gender inequality is not specific to any particular industry. One such industry where it is worthwhile to talk about gender inequality is Sports. Sports industry is a much-celebrated industry. But whether women’s sports are celebrated as much as men’s sport’s is a question. Over the years, women’s sports have seen a lot of change. There has been an increase in the participation of women in sports and women athletes are winning tournaments and bringing glory to their country. Yet, they are not treated at par with their male counterparts. This is why this discussion has so much relevance even today. This article restricts itself to covering issues relating to gender pay-gap, media coverage and sponsorship (As we will see in the discussion below, these three are inter-linked) and offers social and legal perspective.

Gender pay gap is still an issue in women’s sports and the Forbes list of highest paid athletes released in June 2019 stands as an evidence to that. Only one female athlete, Serena Williams could make to the list.[1] In the past, the tennis giants Billy Jean King (King), Venus Williams among others called out on the gender pay gap issues and their attempts were successful.[2] Not only from tennis, women from other sports have also fought for equal payment.[3]

In 2019, as many as 28 members of The United States Women’s National Soccer Team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation accusing them of “institutionalized gender discrimination.” The allegations included unfair treatment with regards to where they played, how often they played, how they are trained, their medical treatment, the coaching they received, and how they traveled to matches. The athletes said these issues affected not only their payments, but also working environment. This case was now headed for a jury trial after the mediation that was started eventually broke down.[4]

When it comes to gender pay gap often the deserving capacity of women is questioned. Venus Williams was called a second -class champion when she made a claim for equal payment [5] and big stars like Djokovic[6] and Rafael Nadal[7] made comments saying that men should earn more than women as they attract more viewers. This is not an invalid argument. The market force of an athlete plays an important role and one should ask question as to what factors are leading to less market force and what can be done?

Ali Jessani, analyzed the market force defense often invoked in cases such as the US soccer. He observed that market forces are often the result of the discriminatory decisions taken by the employers themselves. It is said that employers favoring behavior towards employees increases the market value of that employee.[8] He quotes Professor Deborah Brake as saying that the market for sports is a product of countless social and institutional factors, including longstanding and continuing investments in facilities, personnel, programs, recruiting, marketing, and coaching and that it is recreated and reinforced by employers through investment, personnel, recruiting, and marketing decisions.[9]

The above analyses make it clear that market force is a result of various factors and it does not solely depend upon the performance of the player alone. The argument here is that the unfair treatment of women is what is leading to less market force. I would like to further analyze that by considering another two impactful factors that are affecting women’s sports which are media coverage and sponsorship.

Media, both, print and broadcast should provide equal coverage to men’s and women’s sports. Any biased reporting, reveals how we are treating women athletes and their sports. An article[10], which conducted study on the reporting by the two Indian major newspapers about the 2014 Incheon Asian Games reveals the trends of the media in reporting men’s and women’s sports. The findings of the study showed that women are often being given second-class treatment, portrayed in a sexist manner and in non-sport related poses. The study also noted that although women athletes won significant number of medals as that of men, there is less coverage about their achievements in the form of articles, photographs, lines written, headlines dedicated. Even in the dedicated lines, mention about both the genders is made, avoiding exclusivity. Such a behavior questions the ethics of media.

But there is a progress as well. When talking about the progress in media coverage, one cannot ignore the laudable step taken by the ICC for women’s cricket world cup 2017. The ICC has increased the broadcast coverage significantly and there was almost a 300% increase in viewing hours and almost 50,000 articles in print and online were published across more than 100 countries.[11]

While the above numbers are good enough to get carried away, it is not the case with every sport. This is because, not every sport has equal following. In 2018, Indian football captain, Sunil Chettri, had to make a video requesting fans to watch them play.[12]Therefore, at times, the consumer preference of a particular sport also matters and also consumer discrimination is another factor that shapes the employer’s behavior.[13]

According to a research conducted by the Nielson[14], 45% of the general population across the eight markets (U.S., U.K., France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia and New Zealand) would consider attending live women’s sports events, while 46% say they would watch more if more women’s sports was accessible on free TV. The report shows that consumers are showing interest to watch women’s sports and now there has to be a parallel investment and marketing by the sports federations/bodies and adequate coverage by the media. Then, comes the role of the sponsors who should now start actively sponsoring women’s sports. According to an article of Forbes, brands are actually missing out on opportunities by not sponsoring women sports. The article suggests that small brands should create an opportunity for themselves and sponsor women’s sports and increase their consumer potential.[15] In 2017, companies spent ₹179 crores on football, ₹114 crore on kabaddi and ₹99 crores on running events.[16] This shows that companies are willing to sponsor sports. Therefore, now is the time for companies to look beyond and leverage on opportunities by sponsoring women sports, as it is on rise.

Women players also should be supported legally. When it comes to the reliefs, in the US, a player can have a sex discrimination claim under the equal protection clause of fourteenth amendment.[17] A similar claim in India may not hold good as in the case law Zee Telefilms Ltd. and Anr. v. Union of India and Ors,[18] Board of control for cricket in India was held not be a state which led to the understanding that fundamental rights cannot be enforced against the sports bodies. It is a contention that workload of the court is one of the reasons for a such a decision, otherwise, a petition under article 32 is available against non-state actors and other private individuals.[19] Therefore, this judgment should be revisited. As Jessani urged, the courts should consider institutional factors-such as TV deals, advertising, and youth development while dealing with cases like wage-discrimination cases to ensure fairness.[20]

Sports bodies have their own internal regulations, rules and an authority to resolve disputes[21] and they are highly autonomous. Dispute resolutions are generally done within the Federation or through The Court of Arbitration for sports (CAS). It was noted that The National Sport Federations (NSF) in India, are not incorporating an arbitration clause enabling final recourse to the CAS.[22] Therefore, The National Sports Development Bill, 2011 should soon be adopted which sought to set up a sports ombudsman and a right to appeal to CAS to run a smooth dispute settlement mechanism. Therefore, the dispute resolution mechanism must be robust and transparent.

When it comes to media rights and sponsorship there are no definite legal recourses available to women athletes. Media should act ethically and bring about a change. One should make note that facilitating market is one of the ways by which market force for women’s sports can be increased and for this media is a great platform. Corporates should market their chances by utilizing women sports as opportunities. They can consider doing this as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. Companies should look beyond cricket and increase diversity as this would make them reach more consumers. The governments can partner with private companies, start-ups and provide for sponsorship collectively. This will encourage both women athletes and the startups as well. This way the market force can be increased.

It is our responsibility to give women athletes adequate support and credit that they are entitled as they are not any second-class champions, they are ‘the champions’ and they totally deserve it.

[1]Kurt Badenhausen, ‘The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes’ (11 June 2019) accessed 21 September 2019.

[2] Maya Salam, ‘The Long Fight for Pay Equality in Sports’ The New York Times (11 March 2019)

accessed 6 September2019.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Andrew Das, ‘U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Sues U.S. Soccer for Gender Discrimination’ The New York Times (8 March 2019) accessed 30 March.

[5] Salam (n 2).

[6] ‘Novak Djokovic: men’s tennis should fight for more prize money than women’ The Guardian (21 March 2016) accessed 20 October 2019.

[7] Cody Benjamin, ‘Rafael Nadal says women tennis players shouldn’t be paid equally if TV ratings aren’t equal’ (12 June 2018) accessed 20 October 2019.

[8] Ali Jessani, ‘Shooting for Equality: An Analysis of the Market Force Defense as Applied to the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s Equal Pay Claim’ (2018) 25 Duke J Gender L& Pol’y 221.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dhiman Chattopadhyay, ‘Gender Bias in India’s Newspaper Coverage of Male and Female Athletes at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games’ (2017) 8 (1) GMJ Indian Edition.

[11] ‘ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 watched by over 180 million cricket buffs’ India Today (Dubai, 10 August 2019) accessed 21 October 2019.

[12]‘Captain Sunil Chhetri’s request to support the national football team makes Twitterati emotional’ The Indian Express (New Delhi, 5 June 2018) <| https://indianexpress.com/article/trending/trending-in-india/captain-sunil-chhetri-request-to-support-the-national-football-team-twitter-reactions-5202318/ >accessed 19 October 2019.

[13] Jessani (n 8).

[14] ‘Global Interest in Women’s Sports is On the Rise’ (3 October 2018) <| “>https://www.nielsen.com/eu/en/insights/article/2018/global-interest-in-womens-sports-is-on-the-rise/>; accessed 19 October 2019.

[15] Robert Kidd, ‘Why Women’s Sports Sponsorship Is an Opportunity Brands Are Missing’ (2 November 2018)

<|https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertkidd/2018/11/02/why-womens-sports-sponsorship-is-an-opportunity-brands-are-missing/#389f1bdb4e40> accessed 19 October 2019.

[16] Shrenik Avlani, ‘Companies Are Looking at Participative Sports to Engage Directly with Consumers’ (Livemint, 24 January 2019) accessed 30 March 2020.

[17] Robert H Skilton, ‘The Emergent Law of Women and Amateur Sports: Recent Developments’ (1982) 28 Wayne L Rev 1701.

[18] [2005] AIR 2677.

[19] V.N. Shukla, The constitution of India (12th edn, EBC) 2013.

[20] Jessani (n 8).

[21] Vijay Kumar Singh, ‘Issues in Emerging Area of Sports Law: Lex Sportiva’ Indian Law Review, (2009) 1 (1) Indian Law Review 114-147.

[22] Aahna Mehrotra and Purvasha Mansharamani, ‘The need for better dispute resolution systems in Indian sport and the Government’s new Guidelines’ (21st November 2016) 21st October 2019.

Author Details: Sowmya Tadimalla (Jindal Global University, Sonipat)

The views of the author are personal only. (if any)

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