Will sportsmen and women ever be on a level playing field?

Petra Kvitova won the same prize as Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon but who stole the headlines? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sport has an equality issue. Female athletes are often forced to train in their spare time because their sport does not provide them with enough financial support to live with their sport as their sole career. But does the inequality that is clear for all to see necessarily mean that sport is sexist?

There are countless angles one could take with this question – whether focusing on discussions of prize money, exposure, treatment in the media or government subsidies. Power relations, structural inequality and other academic concepts can, and should, be applied to issues like sexism in sport. But it is impossible in one short article to discuss every facet of this complex and difficult debate. So I will not try to do so. Easy though it is to jump on bandwagons and proclaim sport and all that are involved in it to be ‘sexist’, there are coherent counter-arguments that should be heard, even if disagreed with.

The question of financial support in sport is in some ways a chicken and egg problem. Consider the chicken to be marketability, and the egg to be exposure. Which comes first? The current system suggests that companies believe marketability must come before exposure, that one particular sport, be it football, golf, male or female must draw a considerable audience in comparison with its competitors before investment – an unsurprising conclusion given the necessity to make money.

Proponents of equality would say: “Of course women’s sport needs exposure before it can be marketable – how else will it gain the required audience?”. But they may have a hard time convincing broadcasters such as BT and Sky Sports. In fact, the argument that profitability comes before exposure is the essence of the main argument that sport is not sexist: that sport is driven by profits, which in turn are driven by consumers who gravitate towards whatever it is that interests them most – a natural, rather than intentionally discriminatory, process.

Largely, male sport is more marketable than female sport. If some entity has to be sexist, then it is not sport itself, or even those who invest in sport, it is that the market, which is driven by its consumers. The buck stops with us, the audience. Because if we, as consumers, were as interested in female sports as we are in male sports, there would most likely be equality of exposure, and with it finance. Wimbledon is one of the most sexually equal major events in world sport. Leaving aside the obvious difference in the number of sets women play in comparison with men, Wimbledon is fairly gender-blind.

As always the most evident way to quantify this is to see if the prize money for the men’s winners and women’s winners is the same, which I am glad to say it is. Further, the coverage of each competition is more or less equal in terms of airtime. In other words, exposure is, if not the same, very similar. Yet the men’s final this year, between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, drew an audience of nearly seven million more people than that of the ladies’ singles final between Eugenie Bouchard and Petra Kvitova. Men’s tennis has a higher value in terms of viewers, than women’s, despite their equal exposure.

An equally illustrative, though perhaps more sobering, example is that of beach volleyball, where undoubtedly women gain more exposure than men. The marketability of women’s beach volleyball may well have a different explanation than the marketability of male-dominated sport, but it shows that it is not necessarily something inherently male-preferring that drives exposure and investment in sport.

Put simply, male sport usually – though crucially not always – draws higher audiences. Over time, this results in more money going into male sport, with more discernible inequality evidenced. This is not an argument that sport is equal. But it is an argument that sport itself is not ‘sexist’ in the pejorative sense in which many use the word. As is repeatedly pointed out – men have a physiological advantage when it comes to sport. This fact, paired with the truth that more boys and men are interested in sport than girls and women, leads to an undeniably higher standard in men’s sport than is seen in women’s. It is unequal, yes; but there are clearly some coherent, even legitimate rationales for that inequality.

The most blatant forms of sexism in sport are often the least damaging. In 2013, John Inverdale, experienced BBC and ITV broadcaster, barely clung on to his job after he suggested that Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli played the way she did because she “was never going to be a looker”. Of Sky Sports fame, Richard Keys’ and Andy Grey’s banter cost them their jobs. Misogynistic practices and traditions continue around the world of sport, from golf clubs not allowing female members, to cricket clubs scoffing at the idea of women in the pavilion. These examples may highlight misogynistic beliefs in individuals or groups that hold power in sport – be that power as part of a governing body, or the power afforded to broadcasters who perpetuate out-dated gender stereotypes by voicing them to millions of viewers and listeners. They also may be extremely hurtful for those women who are discussed in this way. Sexism of this nature is disgusting, and it is important that it is noted. But the fact that it is noted, and frequently causes uproar, reduces its impact when compared with subtler forms of sexism in sport that are left untouched – brushed under the carpet when nobody is looking.

The effects of sexism in sport – in the structural, rather than individual sense – may be softened by increased female participation. More women in sport means an inevitable increase in audiences and popularity, which itself leads to increased financial opportunities for investors and the women they are ultimately investing in. There is the potential for these previously relatively untouched markets to become exceptionally profitable, increasing opportunities for women to gain a level playing field with their male counterparts.

But sport will never cease to be sexist. Whilst individual incidents of overt misogyny may eventually die, women’s sport will forever struggle to be as popular for audiences as men’s, even should participation levels one day be entirely equal. There are, unfortunately, too many physiological differences between men and women that are fundamental to the goals of too many major sports. Men will always run faster, jump higher and lift heavier, and whilst the goals of sport are in line with those concepts, sport, depressingly, cannot be equal.


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