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Women and the International Sports Landscape

by Lindi Horton Jul 29, 2011

“IT’S LIKE HAVING SEX. You get so close to a climax only to have it denied in the last second,” Lindsay said, describing how she felt when watching women’s soccer. To me, watching soccer teases the senses, pulls on emotions. Cries of despair or elation are equally likely to erupt. The reward of victory keeps me in a perpetual state of excitement, like foreplay, to use Lindsay’s theme. Then again, I enjoy foreplay.

Such a state continued into the 56th minute of this year’s FIFA Women’s Semifinal match of the USA against France, with the game tied with one goal apiece, but it was my time to man our trade show booth like a good corporate soldier. Approaching the convention center floor, I was surprised to see a large crowd surrounding the televisions. Even the most ardent Vegas gamblers seemed to set themselves up at the slot machines closest to the screens. Minutes before 10 AM, the crowd buzzed around the television screens like bees. Apparently I wasn’t the only one ensnared.

I joined my co-worker among the other spectators. We strained to see the screen. The game was still tied. Whispers of the score passed around like a game of telephone.

Over a hundred men quietly watched. I nearly missed the lack of ribald humor that I thought of as typical of a male gathering of this magnitude in Vegas. My breathing shallowed.

A collective groan resounded as the French squeezed in a goal. Silence resumed until a burst of ecstasy erupted in the 79th minute. The US scored off a corner. Two men exchanged high fives. I was surprised not to hear anyone mention, “Not bad…for a girl,” or “She’s hot.”

The women seemed to garner respect. Only the commentators drew distinctions between the men and women. But the viewers at the Mandalay Bay Hotel didn’t seem to care.

It made me curious about how the landscape has changed for women in soccer and sports in general, so I started to research.

Finding publicly available demographic data for soccer participation was pretty difficult because FIFA stopped publicly defining participation by gender in 2005. In terms of general sports participation, the Women’s Sports Foundation recently reported a 17% increase in female participation from 2002 to 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Searching for more information unveiled interesting data. With search words like “demographics,” “women sports participation,” and “female athlete salary,” I discovered some female athletes were closing the gender gap on salary, even though television air time for the women were close to non-existent. Alpine ski champion Lindsey Vonn earned more in the FIS Alpine World Cup Skiing Events than Ivica Kostelic, the Croatian male winner, by a whole $40,000. This instance supported my theory that the sports-playing field seems to be leveling out in some areas.

With the exception of the women’s World Cup final, catching a WNBA or Women’s professional soccer game requires living in the continental United States, more than a basic cable subscription and night owl tendencies. Most games are showcased only after prime time viewing hours. The data showed that men’s basketball, baseball and football predominate sports networks even out of season. To change that trend, more viewership ratings like the FIFA World Cup Final would have to become the norm.

Additionally, sister tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams first appeared last year in the Forbes Top 50 Highest Paid Athlete list. Their injuries prevented them from a second appearance leaving Mara Sharapova the lone female in the earnings report.

Trying to navigate the data from disparate sources was like corralling recreational soccer players. I compiled this infographic to share where women are in international sports today. I learned that salary and participation disparities persist but women are gaining some positive ground. While Olympic participation numbers are starting to approach parity. Pay scales and availability of women’s professional sports are still in their fledgling stages.

Looking forward the 2012 Summer Olympics and other international competitions, I hope to share another game with co-workers where the women are just as celebrated as men for their athletic prowess.

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