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Ewan MacKenna: Gender pay gap in sport is justified - women's games can't come close to matching the men's earning power



In November of 2016, a story on the CBS show '60 minutes' began a broader debate across the sporting spectrum.

That night, World Cup winners Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Morgan Brian and Christen Press solemnly talked about a case they were taking against their governing body in relation to unequal pay versus their counterparts on the US men's national team.

They even suggested they should get more as "we win, we're successful, we should get what we deserve".

"This is about gender discrimination," added Press, "and I don't think that positive change occurs in the world unless it has to".

She was right in the assertion made in the second part of that statement. She was merely presumed to be right around the first part.

With so much justified tarring of and outrage towards a male-dominated-and-dictated society, there's a trend that's bravely trying to bring about discussion and change in regards to discrimination in employment. Still nascent, but vitally shining a light, just this week the respected journalist Carrie Grace quit from her role as BBC's China Editor in protest at the organisation's attitude to the same reward for the same work, while in Iceland a new equal-pay law had to be introduced.

From those US women onwards, sport became a part of that fight, and in recent weeks it's carried on with Australia's rugby players and Norway's soccer players reaching pay parity.

You can expect the calls to grow further and wider and louder. Here for instance, we've had 46,286 at the last women's All Ireland final; we've had our own women's soccer team taking a stand; we've had the island host the women's Rugby World Cup which was quickly branded a success. But stop there, for so much of women's sport is patronised with politically correct misinformation rather than scrutinised. The truth is sport can never reach parity nor should it be forced to.

Look at it another way. While a big crowd at a women's football final is something to be proud of, how many care the rest of the year when bus loads with free tickets don't make their way to the deciding game? A decent interest at the UCD bowl for women's rugby is important too but ever ask why the opening game for the hosts wasn't in Lansdowne Road?

As for the women's soccer team, how many praised them, but wouldn't go to see them, or could even name any of them? The wider interest is not there. That's not sexist but what is sexist is to lie to female sportspeople about what their triumphs and disasters mean to the masses, based purely on their gender.

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A key statistic used on that '60 Minutes' broadcast back in 2016 and in the debate that followed was that the biggest ever US TV audience for a soccer game had tuned into the women's 2015 crowning glory. But comparing US men's and women's friendlies before their last respective World Cups, 70 per cent more tuned in to the men; comparing send-off games, that number was 87 per cent greater; in group games at those two tournaments, 212 per cent more watched the men.

Even when you include that record 25 million who turned on the 2015 final, the US men outdrew the US women by 74 percent as an average across all World Cup games. On top of that, while broadcaster Fox brought in $17 million in ad revenue from women's games in 2015, ESPN brought in $529 million from the last men's tournament. That's all this really comes down to.

Still, others tried and try to follow suit. Highlighting their own success, last year the US women's ice hockey side initially said they'd refuse to defend their title because of pay disparity, but compare the two world championships. Hosting the tournament they finally agreed to play in, that women's team brought in an average of under 2,500 fans across their handful of games while away in Germany the men got more than 14,000 per game. We could go on.  As for example in women's tennis, BT had next to no competition for the rights while for the men, Amazon just forked out a fortune. The former is consistently struggling to move tickets too.

Don't confuse all this for what it's not however. Sure enough the promotion and appointment of women into administration roles, into coaching roles, and into media roles is way behind where it should be and needs to be. Meanwhile, when it comes to grassroots sport and kids sport, where participation and enjoyment rather than business is the driver, of course the pie should be split down the middle. But when it gets to an elite level, then it's something different, for that is when it becomes about capitalism. Thus if women in high-end sport want to look for a pay rise, that's their right, but using gender equality as some sort of leverage is both cynical and it's wrong.

Competing in a different arena against different opponents for different prizes doesn't constitute equal work. If we were to go down that path, should a League of Ireland player not earn the same as a La Liga player? Imagine the laughter if they tried to even put forward a case. Instead, when the day comes that they bring in the same money, then let them earn the same money.

Yet in the face of this the disparity in remuneration is thrown out annually as if to disturb a reflex reaction. A couple of years back when Wayne Rooney was earning £300,000 a week and was his country's best paid player, he was compared to Steph Houghton who was on £1,200. At the men's US Open in golf the winner's cheque is $2.16m, two-and-a-half times as much as the women's winner takes home. In cricket, their men's World Cup winners get more by a multiple of seven. And in the latest ranking of the 100 highest-paid athletes, there is only one woman on the list at 51. It goes on.

The highest-paid player in the WNBA makes roughly one-fifth of the lowest-paid player in NBA. But so what? Are all these figures supposed to make us feign outrage? There's a good reason. On that last stat, remember the NBA brings in over $5bn - with Turner Sports and ESPN paying a combined $2.6bn annually - while ESPN's annual commitment to the WNBA is $12m. It means these wages aren't based around gender but on earning power and that earning power is based on what people want to see.

You can't force the public to care. Name the fastest woman in the world? Name the women's number one tennis player? Name the Dublin female captain? We bet most can't and that's fine, but as an extension pay is set by demand and not by fairness, and fans make paydays possible with the popularity of the sport almost always linked intrinsically to the amount athletes are paid. Ultimately better athleticism tends to result in sport being played at a faster, higher, stronger level and that's what most want.

Plain and simple, women are relatively slower, lower, weaker. Last year the same US women's side that wanted equal pay lost a game to the FC Dallas under-15 boys academy 5-2, while a year prior to that, as they prepared for an Olympics where they'd be a penalty shoot-out away from a medal game, Australia's national women's team suffered a 7-0 loss to the Newcastle Jets under-15 boys side. There's no shame or surprise in any of that for, as a starting point, it's just science and biology. Throw in incentives and expertise created and demanded by the big business and mass markets of men's sport, and it means the gap will grow and grow.

It may not seem right, and it's sure not fair, but that doesn't stop it being true.

Last year Sharon Hutchinson, former Irish international hockey goalkeeper and the founder of excellent sportswomen.ie, noted: "I think women's sport has been taken more seriously rather than just 'ah sure, aren't they great'. I do think it's definitely changed and we can now be critical of women's sport too, just as we do with men's sport so, if they're not playing well, we can say they're not playing well and that is a big change." Such fair criticism ought to continue into undeserved and unfair attempts to balance wages as well.

What's crucial is not to conflate pay in sport with the pay revolution elsewhere, for it hijacks and takes away from what women in other industries are standing up for. Here though it's simply looking for the same when you bring in less. That is the definition of inequality, a concept we are desperately trying to escape.

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