The income gap remains between men and women in professional sports, yet a new study reveals the greater influence women athletes have on fans' buying power.
As billions of dollars continue to flow through the global sports ecosystem, the rapid appreciation of women’s sports franchises and league valuations continues, indicating growing interest from prospective owners, media partners, sponsors and fans.
However, even with record attendance and viewership, combined with emerging or evolving leagues, innovative partner strategies and opportunities for advancement, women athlete earnings continue to lag behind those of their male counterparts.
Dedicated to supporting women’s sports across a number of important areas, RBC has commissioned ongoing research in partnership with Wasserman and The Collective, Wasserman’s women-focused division. The first report, The New Economy of Sports, seeks to:
On average, professional men athletes earn 21 times more than professional women athletes. The disparity in pay is based on gender results from longstanding inequities in sports, stemming from issues such as funding, systemic infrastructure and coverage by the media.
Eighty-two percent of women athletes’ annual income comes from sponsorship and endorsements, meaning they rely on off-the-field revenue opportunities to make a living.
“Faced with massive inequities in pay and opportunity, women athletes work harder and longer to achieve a fraction of the financial success of men, almost all of it off the field of play,” says Thayer Lavielle, executive vice president of The Collective. “However, in cultivating a loyal fanbase over time, these women athletes are proving to be more valuable to brands, sponsors, and investors—two times more valuable in fact—than men because of their differentiated relationships with their community and fans.”
Today’s growing fan base of women’s sports is a balanced mix of men and women who are younger (73 percent are 18–44 years old), more educated (56 percent have at least a four-year degree) and more affluent (55 percent earn more than $75k per year2) than fans of men’s sports.
When fans watched generic advertisements and were asked to identify key attributes, brands featuring women athletes performed better than those featuring male athletes.
Traditional broadcast media showcases men’s sports, casting a wide net for followers, which pushes women athletes to leverage social media to cultivate fandom. However, the study reveals that having many followers doesn’t automatically lead to meaningful interactions or conversions.
Social media engagement focuses on quality more than quantity. Quality interactions, such as likes, comments, shares and clicks, indicate that women athletes are posting content that connects with their followers.
Fans of women’s sports are 89 percent more likely to have been inspired by a woman athlete to take some form of social action. Through their positive impact on highly engaged fan bases, women athletes have the power to positively influence brand perception and drive social change. This provides brands, sponsors and investors with an opportunity to embrace the unique value model offered by women athletes and participate in the future economy of sport. “There is much more work to be done to continue to drive awareness, rights valuations and athlete earnings to ensure women are recognized in an equitable way,” says Luana Harris, managing director of RBC Sports Professionals at RBC Wealth Management.
Learn more about the positive momentum of women’s sports, including additional survey results and considerations for women athlete partnerships, in “The New Economy of Sports: The Unparalleled Value of Professional Women Athletes .”
1 Soccer refers to NWSL (women) and MLS (men) average salaries. Tennis refers to WTA (women) and ATP (men) average salaries. Golf refers to LPGA Tour (women) and PGA TOUR (men). Basketball refers to WNBA (women) and NBA (men) average salaries. Source: RBC and The Collective, Spotrac.
2 Indicates local currency based on respondents' country of residence.
3 The Space Between, Women's Sports Fans—Understanding the Value of the Women's Sports Audience, October 2021.
4 Mid-tier is defined as athletes with between 500,000 and 2,000,000 social media followers. CrowdTangle data: April 19th, 2022 – April 18th, 2023 | Engagement rate = Total Interactions / Followers at Post.
About The New Economy of Sports StudyAthlete salary and endorsement income were derived from proprietary financial data provided by Wasserman and RBC and publicly reported salary figures across the 2022 calendar year. The data compared men and women athletes competing professionally across North American team sports and individual global sports. To identify key differentiators in fandom across men's and women's sports, 1,800 North Americans were surveyed, representing the demographic and geographic makeup of the United States and Canada.
About The CollectiveAs a division of Wasserman, The Collective exists to create change in support of equity and fairness for women in sports and entertainment. As a constantly evolving and complicated target, The Collective distills data regarding women's mindsets, desires, lifestyle and more into actionable insights and marketing strategies for brands, properties and talent. In collaboration with a global consortium of today's greatest academic minds and industry leaders, The Collective delivers a holistic and deep understanding of women as consumers, fans, professionals and individuals.
About the RBC Sports Professionals DivisionEstablished in 1989, the RBC Sports Professionals Division brings together top advisors and wealth management specialists who provide integrated financial services and tailored strategies to help athletes, front office executives, agents, owners, leagues and others in the business of sport set a solid foundation for financial success.
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