Why Aren't Women's Sports as Big as Men's? Your Thoughts

U.S. fans hold up images of goalkeeper Hope Solo, midfielder Megan Rapinoe, defender Beckey Sauerbrunn, and forward Christen Press before a Group D soccer match against Australia in the 2015 women's World Cup at Winnipeg Stadium on June 8. (USA TODAY Sports Images)

With the women’s World Cup in full swing this week, The Atlantic has two pieces examining the differences that female soccer players face compared to their male counterparts. Arguing that soccer is a “feminist issue,” Maggie Mertens is frustrated that female players don’t get much attention from the mainstream media and feminist activists alike. Gwendolyn Oxenham, a former pro, hones in on the “unequal fortunes” of Brazilian superstars Neymar, a man who makes $15 million a year, and Marta, a woman struggling to even find a team without it folding soon after.

Mertens’s piece was the most contentious among Atlantic commenters. A key passage:

The thinking goes that if women’s sports were worthy of more coverage, they would receive it. But as [Perdue professor Cheryl Cooky] points out, a lot of our perceptions of how interesting women’s sports are come from the media itself. “Men’s sports are going to seem more exciting,” she says. “They have higher production values, higher-quality coverage, and higher-quality commentary ... When you watch women’s sports, and there are fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant replays, yeah, it’s going to seem to be a slower game, [and] it’s going to seem to be less exciting.”

TheMeInTeam doesn’t buy it:

This week’s cover of Sports Illustrated

I would have found this article more interesting if the author could have just conceded the obvious fact that elite female athletes are simply not equal to their male counterparts in terms of physical ability—kind of an important thing for an athlete, unlike in other professions. Look at any world record, or watch an NBA and WNBA game back-to-back. The difference is real and impossible to ignore. It’s just physiology.

To put it another way, who would have the advantage in any athletic competition you can think of: an elite female athlete or her identical twin who trained just as hard but also took testosterone injections from the age of 12?

TwoHatchet snarks, “Caitlyn Jenner has shown the world that women can compete at the very highest levels of sport and leave men in the dust.” Field Zhukov’s view:

Women’s sports that are identical to men’s sports—soccer and basketball, for example—will never be popular, because men are faster, stronger and more athletic. On the other hand, sports that highlight the different strengths of female athletes—tennis, gymnastics, ice skating—are popular. None of those are team sports, so there may be something there.

Tg297527 adds, “No one cares about men’s gymnastics and men’s figure skating.” TheMeInTeam responds to Field Zhukov:

I think you may be on to something about the difference with team sports. When the Olympics come around (winter and summer), I enjoy the women’s and men’s events pretty much equally. The women may be running/swimming/skiing slightly slower than their male counterparts, but I can’t really tell, and it’s just as exciting.  For some reason, however, when it comes to team sports where I’m used to watching men, that slight difference in physical ability becomes glaringly obvious and I just can’t stay interested in the women.

PeterJakes doesn’t see it that way:

One of the best soccer matches I ever saw, men or women, was Canada versus USA in the 2012 Olympics.

Canada’s Christine Sinclair put her team on her back and almost carried them into the Gold Medal match, only to be thwarted by questionable officiating. That game represented the beauty of athletic competition.

GeorgeOrwellGeorge points to a sport where relative female weakness is actually an asset for spectating:

I actually prefer watching women’s tennis. Men hit the ball so hard, particularly on the serve, that there’s less volleying and it’s less exciting to watch.

Likewise, Diozkouroi looks to another sport to argue that physical dominance isn’t everything:

If people only paid attention to the top performers, there would be no categories apart from “heavyweight” in sports like boxing. Floyd Mayweather can get easily beaten by a heavyweight, but he is the one who gets more money and attention in that sport.

And by my count, only 19 of the 50 “greatest boxers of all time” fought primarily as heavyweights, and likewise for only half of the “most popular of all time.” As vkg123 puts it, “People don't make stupid comparisons like Mike Tyson vs Manny Pacquiao, and it doesn't stop people from enjoying one or the other.” A retort from ksmugg:

That’s a fair point, but it’s generally one that’s distinct to individual competition instead of team sports. I’m curious if you or anyone else can provide an example in a team sport.

Maybe women’s volleyball? According to this study:

Women earn fewer quick points than men due to differences in arm strength, so digging becomes essential to victory for women. With the ball in play longer, staying alive determines the winner of a match.

And those rallies can get really amazing:

Another way that men can slow down a game:

You know how in men’s soccer, a strong wind is enough to knock a player over [and] they play-act like babies? The women don’t have time for that. According to a study, women fake injury half as much as men do. And when they are on the ground rolling around, they’re back up 30 seconds faster than men.

Commenter j r turns the debate toward equal pay and Mertens’s frustration that “female athletes have historically received very little attention from activists and advocates for gender equality”:

Somewhere in this world, there is the world’s greatest ultimate frisbee player and the world’s greatest lawn bowler. Chances are, you don't know their names and they probably don’t make much money. Why? Because not a lot of people are willing to pay to watch ultimate frisbee and lawn bowling.

For that matter, compare the salaries of Major League Soccer players to those playing in Europe’s La Liga or the English Premier League. The former get paid a lot less for the same reasons.

If the day comes when as many people want to pay to watch women’s soccer as want to watch men’s soccer, then female players will earn similar money. That’s it. End of story.

Another simple but strong argument from Ivan Lendl:

They are entertaining and inspirational to young women all over the world. For that reason, they have great value, and I think they are worthy of charitable help when teams get insolvent.

But let’s not pretend that there is some sexist conspiracy driving the pay discrepancy between Neymar and Marta. If she were able to compete on the same level as Neymar, she would, and she’d be compensated accordingly.

BatmanDontShiv isn’t as charitable:

Oxenham’s article doesn’t really address why women’s soccer should be given charity by men’s organizations if it can’t survive on its own. If enough female fans can’t be bothered to get together and support women’s teams so they can remain solvent, why should men care?

A similar view from d1onys0s:

If women want to support their own gender by becoming sport fanatics like the droves of idiot men, there is nothing stopping them. They appear to have other interests and that’s totally fine … isn’t feminism about doing whatever you as an individual want to do?

But Diane (DeeG) thinks the cards have been too stacked against female athletes:

After centuries of getting all the advantages over women in every aspect of life, of course men’s sport is more “popular.” As those advantages are starting to be shared on a more equal footing, more people are deciding that they like women’s sports.

Men’s and women’s soccer may be the same game, but they don't have to be played identically to be appreciated.

Fox Sports is banking on that sentiment, with this stirring ad:

Insanedreamer takes a step back:

I’m 100 percent in favor of equal opportunity and equal pay. But in the entertainment business (which is what sports is), there is inherently huge inequality based on what’s popular or not.

In another part of the entertainment business, pop music, there is more gender parity; women hold four of the top 10 slots for wealth among recording artists, including the #1 slot, which goes to Madonna. In the acting world, however, men sweep the top 10. Back to sports, tennis seems to be the only place of parity—five of the top 10 earners are women. But that causes Thurman Ulrich to complain:

The four Grand Slam tournaments pay women the same cash prize as it does for men, despite the fact that men have to play two more sets than women.

Cxt points to general disparities across the sports world:

The best track and field athletes don't make as much as most basketball players. The strongest men in the world and the toughest MMA fighters only make a fraction of the endorsement money of golfers like Tiger Woods or tennis players like Maria Sharapova. Baseball players make much more than football players, despite their sport having less chance of serious injury and a much longer playing life.

Yes, it sucks to be that talented yet not as financially rewarded, but that is the nature of spectator sports.

A snapshot of those varying rewards:

TwoHatchet tries to simplify things when it comes to sports and gender:

Mertens’s argument seems to be that women are equal to men and it’s only discrimination causing the disparity of results. The solution here is simple: abolish women’s soccer and open up men’s soccer to women. Now we can compare, person to person, how well each player performs and teams can be composed of the best players, both men and women.

On that note, Luke asks:

Why doesn’t Marta play for a men’s team? That hasn’t been mentioned. Is it because she isn’t good enough or not allowed?

Not allowed:

Hope Solo makes a save. (Ben Nelms / Reuters)

Former Serie A side Perugia attempted to sign German international Birgit Prinz and Sweden striker Hanna Ljungberg in 2003, while Brazilian forward Marta has continually claimed she could cut it in a men’s league. Meanwhile, Mexican club Celaya actually announced it had signed El Tri’s Maribel Dominguez in 2004, but FIFA stepped in to veto the move, and [U.S. goalie Hope] Solo says it was wrong.

“It’s unfortunate that it wouldn’t be allowed by FIFA because I think as women, we need a place to play and there’s not always a lot of opportunities to become the best in the world, and if you look at the players who want to do it, they want to be the best in the world; the Martas, Maribel Dominguez, the Ljungbergs,” Solo said. “I think it should be allowed if it’s fair and if they deserve to be on the team. Not out of charity.”

Dr_Ads takes that notion of equality to a radical end:

If there were such a thing as an equality movement, as opposed to a feminist movement, there would be calls for the abolition of “men’s” and “women’s” sport. Gender is an arbitrary distinction, and it’s just as wrong to divide people by gender as it would be to have separate races for black sprinters and white sprinters to give the latter a chance of winning.

I’m opposed to the Paralympics for the same reason. Want people with disabilities to be treated identically to the able-bodied in society? Then stop making them a special case.

Tim Gabin has a more creative approach:

It’s the copycatting that is limiting female professional sports. I think it’s time the brains behind these feminist ambitions started inventing sports that women are particularly good at, ones that fit the female anatomy, physiology, and skill set. That is when the fun begins. Stop using male role models and male athletic archetypes to create meaning and legitimacy. Start making something new—that everyone will love.

Phil Heinricke simply wants skeptics of women’s soccer to give it a second look:

I asked some people if they intended to watch the World Cup. They all said hell no. But then someone turned on the TV and Germany was playing, and a young woman they were calling "Sausage" (real name Sasic) was kicking some tail. [Yesterday she led Germany to a 10-0 victory 10-0 victory over Ivory Coast, the second-biggest in World Cup history:

The people watching the German game were impressed with the women’s ball handling skills, their teamwork and their propensity to always be in position. Three men sat there and watched the whole game.

Sasic and Marta aren’t the only talented female athletes. There is Debora, Beatriz Zaneratto, Andressa Alves, Thaisinha, young Byanca and the baby-faced Andressinha—and that’s just Brasil.

I’m a big fan who has always said that the problem is that people just don't want to watch the women, but I think if they at least gave them a chance, a lot of people would like it.

You can track the following month of World Cup matches here. For daily coverage, check out espnW and Screamer.