With such media attention on female athletes, it raises the question: will these stars become bigger than their male counterparts?

By Grace Austin

U.S. Women’s Soccer goalie Hope Solo was recently seen waltzing and shimmying on the last season of Dancing with the Stars. Tennis ace Maria Sharapovna can be seen marketing everything from Canon cameras to Cole Haan ballet flats. This summer’s Olympics will undoubtedly create more stars. So with such media attention on female athletes, it raises the question: will these stars become bigger than their male counterparts? Will men and women finally become equal on and off the playing field?

History of Women in Sports

Of course, women’s involvement in sports is not new. During the twentieth century, societal rules relaxed opening new doors for women in previously restricted areas, including sports. Women have competed in the modern Olympic Games since 1900.

The former Soviet bloc, Germany, China, and the U.S. have long histories of school and state athletic programs that encourage girls to participate in sports. The passing of Title IX legislation in the early 1970s to ensure an even female/male sport ratio further popularized female athletics in the United States.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, tennis and figure skating created stars like Peggy Fleming and Chris Evert. Gymnastics produced idols in Mary Lou Retton and the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. In the 1990s, WNBA player Lisa Leslie and soccer star Mia Hamm kicked off the first trend in female team sports stars, and in doing so, changed traditional notions of female athletes. Current stars like the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova in tennis, Danica Keller in racing, and skier Lindsey Vonn are global celebrities, but famous for being individual players.

Indeed, team sports historically have been difficult to finance and receive less attention than individual sports. Many sports do not have professional teams or opportunities for women. The WNBA has long operated on a loss, and stands are often empty. A women’s professional soccer league was established in the United States in 2001 but was later disbanded due to lack of sponsorship. The public’s recent interest in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup and NCAA Women’s College Basketball finals has shown subtle changes. Promisingly, Women’s Professional Soccer was revived in 2009. Another notable exception is the LPGA, which has operated continuously since 1950.

Disparities between Men and Women

Women sports stars have long had to defend or emphasize their femininity or been plagued by a gender-biased hypersexuality. Women athletes’ appearances are often stressed more than male athletes’ are. It is no mistake that the most commercially successful female athletes are attractive; Sharapovna stands model-esque at 6’2”, while Danica Keller and countless others have been featured in various men’s magazines. Rarely are men featured in the same way. Others, like tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, have been labeled with the “cuteness” of the girl-next-door, a not-so-subtle attempt at diminishing female athletic ability and achievement by referring to women as “girls.”

Dr. Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, has researched how women athletes are portrayed in the media for decades.

“Female athletes are significantly more likely to be portrayed in highly-sexualized photos. How pretty they are and how sexy they are is emphasized more than men,” said Kane.

Double standards are even evident in the types of sports women play. Deemed “painful,” traditionally masculine sports like rugby and boxing for women have slowly become mainstreamed (through movies like Million Dollar Baby and personalities like Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad), but are still far from being accepted as sports for girls and women, probably due to their lack of femininity. This often is related back to homophobic undertones, a largely taboo issue in women’s sports. Women are often labeled lesbians or “unwomanly” if they show athletic ability. Characteristic of Chris Evert in the ‘70s was a politeness and femininity that compared considerably to male contemporaries John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors who were loud, rude, and macho. Although times have changed since then, this double standard is still evident in the sports world.

Another notable difference between men and women is pay. The gender wage gap is evident even among professional athletes. Women sports stars still make a fraction of what male athletes make. Female team athletes are notoriously paid much less than their male counterparts; WNBA players earn 60 times less than NBA players. According to Forbes, the ten highest-paid women earned $113 million over the past year. By comparison, the ten highest-paid men earned a collective $449 million. Maria Sharapovna, who took the top spot, earned $25 million from endorsement deals, prize money, salary, licensing incomes, and appearance fees. Tiger Woods grossed $75 million.

Most of the disparity between men and women in sports can be traced back to the depiction of women in sport in the media. As the UN’s Report on Women, Gender Equality, and Sport states, “the negative portrayal of women athletes and women’s sports remains a persistent problem.”

The report goes on to conclude: “In addition, women’s sporting events remain marginalized from the mainstream multi-billion dollar sport-media industry and while many local, national and international competitions include both men’s and women’s events, the men’s events invariably dominate media coverage and local and global attention.”

Kane reiterates the UN’s findings. “Women are portrayed as 2-4% of all media coverage, even though they represent about 40% of all participants. The media underreport and paint a false notion that nobody is interested in female sports and women don’t play sports in the numbers they do. These trends are pretty universal; it doesn’t matter about print or broadcast journalism, the types of sports she plays, individual or team, or at what level, those trends are remarkably resilient,” said Kane.

There has been some encouraging change, due to new publications that solely focus on women’s sports like Women Sport Report and RealSports magazine. Mainstream media, though, has been hesitant to fully embrace women’s sports as they have with male sports. For example, of 2011’s Sports Illustrated covers, only two women were featured—soccer star Solo, and model Irina Shayk, posing in a bikini for the Swimsuit Edition.

Kane has seen some hopeful findings among some media coverage.

“ESPN’s coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four is virtually identical to Final Four women’s coverage. They [now] show great rivalries and traditions. ‘Pretty in pink’ is what it used to be. The same is true of coverage of WNBA playoffs and commercials they use to promote it; it’s [now] all about athleticism. There are also new publications where that’s the focus, and people who support women’s sports are using social media to take coverage into their own hands,” said Kane.

True Changes?

While Solo danced gracefully on Dancing with the Stars, she was still criticized for not being feminine enough. Although Sharapovna and other female stars have multi-million dollar endorsement deals, they are still far behind their male peers in wealth. Coverage of female athletes may be improving in the media, but financial sponsorship is difficult to find in professional teams. Until many of these barriers are overcome, public popularity for women’s sports will fluctuate with the times, and women will still lag behind men in yet another field.

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