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On Different Playing Fields: The Case for Gender Equity in Sports

6 minute read | Stacie de Armas, SVP, Diverse Insights & Initiatives | March 2021

Women make up more than half of the U.S. population, but they are still fighting for equality in the world of sports, where gender-based discrimination is all too common. Recently, we saw a very public and painful example, during Women’s History Month no less, of the stark inequity in the treatment of female versus male athletes in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. It’s difficult to understand how neglecting to supply female student-athletes with the proper equipment and facilities—especially during the largest tournament of their sport—can still happen today. Unfortunately, it seems that sexism in sports is ingrained from the time our children are in youth sports. This inequity is also institutionalized—from how we define what qualifies as a sport to the imagery used to represent female athletes, disparities in the facilities, and support for female athletes. 

As superstar athlete and World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe testified to Congress, “One cannot simply outperform inequality or be excellent enough to escape discrimination of any kind.” As a mother of a son and a daughter, this inequality hit very close to home just last week. Up until two weeks ago, in my state of California, all youth sports, which were prohibited for nearly a year, were permitted to return. All sports, that is, except for one female-dominated sport: cheer. While my son was able to get back on the field and enjoy his sport, I, alongside many other concerned parents, had to continue to advocate at the state level for equity for cheer athletes. We were successful, but why did we even have to fight for recognition and equal treatment for these athletes? Women and girls in sports should not be an afterthought.

It is disheartening to see that the fight for equality for women’s sports continues beyond grade school, as collegiate athletes in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament recently experienced firsthand. Like many of you, I recently saw the viral video from University of Oregon sophomore forward Sedona Prince showing the weight room facilities provided for the female players at the basketball tournament compared with the facilities provided for the men. The women’s weight room consisted of a single set of dumbbells and some yoga mats, while the men’s weight room was stocked with state-of-the-art training equipment, rows of weights, and workout machines. Her TikTok video was further socialized on Instagram and Twitter and now has more than 20 million views. 

The outrage was swift, as many people were quick to criticize the blatant inequities for these female athletes, but the brands stepped in even faster. Not only did the outcry to correct the situation come from celebrities, sports journalists, and fans, but companies weighed in, too. Fitness and retail brands like Orange Theory, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Tonal responded to support these women athletes (who don powerful social media influence) with equipment the very next day and offered to make appropriate training facilities available. Shortly thereafter, the NCAA acknowledged this terrible error in judgment and installed a fully functional women’s weight room coupled with an apology. 

These brands understand the power of the moment and of female athletes. Research from Nielsen Sports illustrates the power female athletes hold as social media endorsers. Fans like to buy products and services that their favorite athletes endorse on social media. When brands partner with athletes to embrace their power and advocate for equity, they can enact change as well as accountability in sports institutions. That’s a winning play for brands—fully embracing the power of female athletes, while proactively building equity in women’s sports and not just in response to a crisis.

There are several fundamental truths here that brands need to embrace: social media is powerful; female athletes are powerful influencers; and consumers are asking more from brands when it comes to social responsibility. For example, a global Nielsen Fan Insights study reveals that 47.5% of respondents have a greater interest in brands that have been socially responsible and “do good.” The good news is that some brands are taking notice and recalibrating business and marketing models to meet consumers’ changing needs in a new era of sports sponsorship. The brands stepping in to act on the values they espouse as an organization are a perfect example. Brands, including leagues, teams, owners, and even school districts, must address changing consumer and social demands and their female athletes’ needs by operating with equity in women’s sports. 

More opportunity leads to more audience

The weight room in San Antonio isn’t the only place where we need to see change. While we’re seeing progress in how women are represented on television in scripted content, we have not seen the same visibility in women’s sports. This isn’t for lack of women’s sporting events or even viewer interest, but rather the relative lack of access to women’s team sporting events being broadcast and promoted on TV compared with men’s events. We know this needs to change, but it is a catch 22. Far fewer women’s sports are being broadcast, and when they are, games are often carried on difficult to find, smaller outlets, and are under-promoted, naturally resulting in smaller audiences. This overall lack of investment and promotion on television negatively affects audience draw, and therefore ROI for advertisers and sponsors. This lower brand investment is being used to justify disparities in resources for women’s sports. And the cycle continues. 

The good news is that there seems to be a change in tide. Coverage for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament this year is one of the broadest in its history thanks to ESPN’s expanding coverage—a move that has so far doubled the audience reach of the first round of the women’s tournament compared with the one in 2019. 

Along with the gripping game play, the increase in reach is most likely attributed to the number of games actually being aired. Round 1 of the tournament in 2019 was exclusively broadcast on ESPN2, which aired just nine game windows. This year’s NCAA women’s games have been on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, and every single one of the 32 games has been aired in round 1. When audiences have access to women’s sports, they tune in. Female athletes deserve the facilities, equipment and support they need to thrive. While the men’s tournament has seen multi-network coverage since 2011, the women’s tournament is finally seeing increased coverage, with 2021 marking the first time the women’s tournament has been on network TV—and not just on cable—in decades. Because that viewing opportunity exists, more people are watching. It is time women’s sports get the investment, coverage and support they deserve. Advertisers should take note: A growing fan base means a bigger audience.

It has been nearly 50 years since Title IX legislation granted women equal opportunities to play sports. But the legislation also mandates the equal treatment of female and male student-athletes from equipment to competitive facilities to publicity and promotions and more. As more and more brands champion equity for women’s sports and female athletes become more influential as brand endorsers, it is my hope that we will see fewer disparities in playing time, facilities, brand partnerships, and coverage of women’s sports on screen. And that for future female athletes, equity for women’s sports will be a slam dunk.

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