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The Recent Politicization of Sports Media Offers Insight into Wider Issues with Media and Sports in the United States: The Case of the Wage Gap Between Men’s and Women’s Sports

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What If I told you that one of the key issues that plagues the United States’ media system is: “that reporters, journalists, and publishers are expected to prioritize state interests above all and not to cross the lines drawn by the power holders, and if they do, they should be prepared to pay the price”? Would this seem absurd, especially if we substituted “state interests” for “progressive interests”? Personally, I don’t think it would be—and that is why it is telling that the above quote, taken from page 138 of Bilge Yesil’s study of the media in Turkey, Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal Statecan be applied so easily to the United States. In the age of neoliberal globalization, where economic concerns seem to be paramount, one could argue that all states have become authoritarian to some degree but that is a topic for another day; today I will focus specifically on sports media in the United States since it is a country where money has become so powerful that it runs most institutions, including the media.

This may be a reason that even sports reporting has become a battleground in the ongoing culture wars in American society. Whereas sports used to be a field in the United States that once served to unify a vast nation (most Americans can identify with a baseball team whether it is the San Franscisco Giants or the Boston Red Sox, for instance), it has recently become an increasingly divisive topic. ESPN has, as expected due to its corporatization, become a leading player in sending divisive messages guised as progressive thought; a recent article focusing on LPGA golf serves as a good example to study.

Anna Catherine Clemmons’ ESPN piece from 10 July focusing on LPGA golfers speaking up “about inequality” is more politics than it is sport. Take two of the questions players were asked: “How would you grade Donald Trump’s impact on women’s golf?” And “Would you ever consider not playing in the U.S. Women’s Open Because its being held at Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey?”. As a sports fan, I am left wondering what on earth Donald Trump has to do with women’s golf, other than the fact that he is a rich white man, and golf is generally considered a rich white man’s game. If that is the common denominator, however, this article just smacks of racism and gender bias, in the same way that Barack Obama was made to unveil a bracket for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament every March (seemingly) because he was a black man and basketball is generally seen as a sport appealing to black males in the United States. Of course, both of these characterizations of sport are inherently racist and it would behoove ESPN to avoid pandering to such base stereotypes.

 

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Two Very Odd Questions, and One Very Important Question. Images Courtesy Of: http://www.espn.com/golf/story/_/id/19865737/lpga-confidential-survey-speaking-golf-inequalities

 

Despite this glaring problem, Clemmons’ piece does raise one interesting issue (the one most female golfers she polled found to be most pressing), and that is the pay gap between female and male golfers in the United States. This would have been an interesting issue to follow, since it is one that has been in the news lately; the U.S. women’s national soccer team recently came out to criticize the U.S. Soccer federation for the wage gap between the U.S. Men’s National Team and US Women’s National Team (On April 5 2017 the US women did, in fact, get a raise). Since the pay gap and gender equality are hot topics in the United States, Clemmons would have done well to focus on the important topics, rather than bring politics into sports unnecessarily.

This would have been a good chance to bridge the divides in American society, rather than divide further, since the wage gap between women and men is a glaring example of the results of extreme capitalism; it affects all of us regardless of our sex. It seems that—in extreme capitalism—what you do does not really matter. What does matter is how much others value what you do. Take a plumber or an electrician or even a car mechanic. Although these are very useful jobs which can make a lot of money—without such professionals, the modern world would come to a halt—they are not valued as “prestigious”. This is why a run-of-the mill white collar worker working at an office for 35,000 dollars a year is viewed as having a “professional” job; it is the myth of the college degree that separates the white collar from the blue collar. Unfortunately, society has come to value typing on a computer more than it values getting a motor to run or fixing a leaking kitchen sink; essentially an “unskilled” worker with no real-world skills is viewed (in society’s eyes) as being “skilled”.

I believe that, at its root, this is one reason for the pay gap between women’s and men’s sports. Until more people consistently watch women’s golf—or women’s soccer, for that matter—they will be paid equally with men. That is, until views value women’s sports. But as long as male sports attract consistently more viewership, I do not see how women’s sports can garner the same kinds of money that men’s sports do. Likewise, it does not matter how great my writing is (of course its great ;), but until I am writing for a major sports or political website I will still be a marginal sociologist getting paid . . . .zero dollars. It has nothing to do with the quality of my work, rather it has to do with readership—and in sports terms, viewership.

One other reason for the pay gap stems from the inflated amount of money that (mainly male) sports figures get; remember when basketball star Kevin Durant was celebrated for not taking the maximum salary offered by the Golden State Warriors by accepting six (6!) million dollars less?). When six million dollars can be brushed off in a second, it shows just how much money is moving around in the world of professional sports. Take the disparity between how much the men in the NBA make compared to how much the women in the WNBA make: John Walters, of Newsweek, points out that

The league minimum in the NBA this season [2015-2016] is $525,000. The WNBA league minimum last summer was $38,000. Yes, the WNBA regular season is 34 games, compared with the NBA’s 82-game slog, but the highest-paid player in the WNBA makes roughly one-fifth that of the lowest-paid player in the NBA. Two years ago, 52 NBA players each earned more than all of the players in the WNBA combined.

 Of course, the NBA is a global entity that earned more than $5 billion last season. The WNBA, by comparison, barely breaks even. ESPN and Turner Sports pay the NBA a combined $2.6 billion annually to televise the NBA, whereas ESPN pays the WNBA $12 million annually for rights fees. That’s less than half of 1 percent of the NBA’s deal.

 

Again, the NBA wages are certainly inflated—but the WNBA just does not bring in enough revenue to raise their players’ wages. Walters’ article also points out how the US Women’s National soccer team—despite creating 16 million dollars more in revenue than the US Men’s National Team in 2015—cannot compete with the men’s wages due to the globalized nature of the football world:

 

The problem is that the USMNT [United States Men’s National Team] is tethered to the World Cup, the largest global sporting event outside the Olympics, which brought in $4.8 billion in revenue in 2014. The 2015 Women’s World Cup’s numbers are not available, but it likely brought in a small fraction of that sum. Germany earned $35 million for winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil; the U.S. earned $2 million for winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.

 

Again, we see that it is viewership and global sports revenues which determine the wages, not necessarily the quality of the product on offer. We can all agree that the U.S. Women’s National Team is much more successful globally than their male counterparts; women’s soccer just does not pay as much as men’s soccer does globally in the age of modern football. Thus it is not an issue of sexism, rather it is an issue of industrial football.

Clemmons’ ESPN article would have been well-served to focus on some of these points, so as to get to the root of what is going on. Without taking serious time to study the issues, journalists risk falling into the trap of succumbing to the old tropes of “misogyny” and “patriarchy”. Rather than divide men and women, we would do well to point out that men and women are experiencing very similar financial hardships in the sports world. For those who think that men have it easy and women are the ones being exploited, check out former minor league baseball player and author Dirk Hayhurst’s 2014 piece detailing the harsh conditions of minor league baseball in the United States. Mr. Hayhurst shows just how tough it is for those at the bottom end of the sports industry, playing in leagues that do not have the high viewership and player perks that the major leagues have. The issues are not about identity politics and about dividing men and women. Rather, the issues are about a sports industry that cares more about its bottom line—and profits—than it does about the athletes.

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US World Cup Hangover: The Economics of Soccer in the United States

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The United States bowed out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup after a spirited performance against Belgium—a nation of just 11 million (or, as one humorous article put it, “a Dakota and a half”. For the record, Ohio’s population of 11,570,808 makes it the closest state in terms of population to Belgium. A “Dakota and a half” renders only around 1.5 million).

While the loss was not unexpected it was still upsetting for me as it is any time one of my countries loses in football—especially since, inexplicably, the US had a chance to win the game at the death before Chris Wondolowski—also inexplicably—managed to make a mess of his moment in front of goal. But football is, sometimes, like life. You get your one moment, and you either make the best of it . . . or you don’t. There is no real in between.

A few articles have been written in the wake of the United States’ second round exit, including a very interesting one that asks the question “Has the US Men’s National Team Plateaued?”. Personally, I would be less dramatic—after all, this is football and anything can happen. I should know. My other team, Turkey, made an improbable run to third place at the 2002 World Cup—and another to the semifinals of the 2008 European Championships with an admittedly under-talented side. Hard work coupled with heart and belief can go a long way in football (like it can in life)—just look at the Greece team that won the 2004 European Championship!

So do I think the United States will, in the next three World Cups (a twelve year cycle), have a stunning performance? Yes, I suppose I do. But I won’t ask them to compete with the likes of Brazil, Argentina, and Germany year in and year out. And that’s ok because I also—secretly—like soccer in the US to be more of an inside joke amongst those of us who truly enjoy the game for what it is, and not some marquis event for frat boys who want an excuse to slam beers at odd hours of the working day in the name of banal nationalism done ‘Muricuh style. And that inside joke would be made even sweeter if the US somehow managed to scare the world by advancing past the Quarterfinals of a World Cup. I’ve watched enough US matches on foreign soil to recognize the glee when the US concedes a goal—in the last week alone I’ve seen it in both Russia and Turkey—and I can imagine the fear of a US World Cup win.

It does not appear that soccer in the US will ever move beyond being an inside joke that becomes part of the country’s mainstream culture for just a few summer weeks once every four years (selling many Nike shirts in the meantime) before, again, retreating into hibernation. I don’t think like this because I’m negative or a non-believer in US soccer, it is mainly because I am a realist—both in International Relations theory and in terms of football. When one looks at the facts it should not come as a surprise that the United States will never be a true world power in football. At the heart of it—as in so many cases—lies economics (James Carville would be proud).

The top professional soccer league in the United States is Major League Soccer (MLS), a league that has been steadily improving since its inception in 1996 despite competing with the other major American sports for visibility, fans, and . . . athletes.

Its not hard to understand why. On April 10, 2014 MLS released their salary information and the results were shocking. The top seven salaries in MLS—those of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Defoe, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill—account for 31% of all player salaries. In fact, as Empireofsoccer.com shows, the top 5% of earners represent 45% of total player salaries. That is a huge disparity for a country that prides itself on equality (perhaps there is a psychological dimension to this as well—the economics of MLS are fundamentally un-American!).

The salaries of the aforementioned seven players have, as empireofsoccer.com stated, inflated the league’s average salary to a figure of $207,831 (up from the 2013 figure of $165,066 when the median salary was just $100,000). Still, just a cursory look at a sample of the Colorado Rapid’s salary information for the 2014 season shows some glaring examples of the issues in play. At least three Rapids players—professional athletes who face far greater risk of serious injury daily than I ever did at work—make less money than I made sitting at a desk in my old day job!

Now compare the (admittedly inflated) average salary figure of $207,831 in MLS to the average salaries in the other major US sports from two years ago, courtesy of Forbes unless cited otherwise:

 

Major League Baseball (MLB): $3.2 million in 2012, now it is just under $4 million.

National Basketball Association (NBA): $5.15 million, now it is 3,453,241 (with a median of $1,500,000—fifteen times the MLS median in 2013).

National Football League (NFL): $1.9 million

National Hockey League (NHL): $2.4 million

 

The disparity is staggering. And now lets look back at that list of the seven highest paid MLS players, for a moment. Only three of the seven—Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan—are American. And after Jurgen Klinsmann’s now legendary snubbing of Landon Donovan, only two of them made it to the United States’ World Cup squad! Clearly, what big money that does exist in MLS is certainly not going to help the development of the US Men’s National team. And that means that for your average American soccer player, the chances of making big money at home—and representing your country on the biggest stage—are very small indeed.

This in itself poses a problem for the development of the game in the US. Many talented soccer players at the youth level in the United States often play multiple sports. Soccer is either a fall or spring sport depending on where you live, so that leaves the options of American Football and Baseball in other seasons, not to mention Basketball and Hockey in the winter months. Unlike in other countries, where football is the only money-making game in town, American athletes have other options as well that may prove to be more lucrative in the long term. While it is obviously difficult to make it as a professional in any of the major US sports, the fact that there is more money—and more collegiate scholarships (Soccer has the same number of NCAA Division 1 scholarships as Swimming/Diving and Wrestling)—available in the other sports means that it is very difficult to keep the country’s best athletes playing football. This is a fact that, unfortunately, does not bode well for the hopes of developing a truly world class US Men’s National Team; it doesn’t meant that it is impossible by any means, just that it is more difficult than it is in other nations.

 

Tim Howard Does His Country Proud, But Can Only Slump Off In The End As Belgium Move On:

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2014/07/01/onsoccer/r7h11DZZUn5HsRJGqfZ0hJ/story.html