Home / Publications / Tackling gender inequality in sport – show me the...

Tackling gender inequality in sport – show me the money

With the 2018 Forbes List of the World’s Highest Paid Athletes published on 5 June 2018, Will Anderson comments on some of its most shocking findings.

Every year Forbes publishes its list of the highest paid athletes in the world. The overall pay of these athletes is comprised of their salary/winnings together with their endorsements over the year. This year’s list, published at the beginning of June, throws up some interesting statistics and one unignorable shocker.

The first surprise comes at the top of the list and involves one of the most controversial personalities in sport, as well as one of the most controversial matches to take place in world sport last year. It is none other than unbeaten boxing legend, Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather who tops the list with an astonishing $285 million earned. What is amazing is that he achieved these earnings with just one professional fight in 2017, having come out of retirement for the bout with MMA and UFC star, Conor McGregor.

Mayweather’s position at the top of the list dwarfs the competition as at $285 Million he earned more than second place Lionel Messi ($111 million) and third place Cristiano Ronaldo ($108 million) combined. Of course, Mayweather couldn’t have done it without his opponent on the night, McGregor. The UFC star sits at fourth in the list with total earnings of $99 million. Mayweather is unquestionably one of boxing’s greatest fighters and its greatest ever self-publicist. He was a huge driving force behind these astronomic numbers. However, with this cross codes fight the world of boxing is now well aware that the rise of MMA and UFC and the popularity of individuals such as McGregor is a threat to its dominance in the global sports market. It will be interesting to watch how the Forbes list develops in years to come as UFC takes a greater hold on world audiences.

The second fact that stands out from Forbes’ list is that over 70% of entrants are from the US heavyweight sports of American football, baseball and basketball, with Cleveland Cavaliers small forward, LeBron James, leading the way at eighth in the list with earnings of $85.5 million. This is a staggering proportion of the list to be taken up by just three sports which have traditionally had limited reach outside the USA. However, with recent NFL games in London and more to come, as well as talks for baseball at London’s Olympic stadium and basketball at the O2 Arena, it is clear that the commercial powerhouses of US sport are making their move on the rest of the world.

However, these statistics are mild compared to the fact that, amongst the $3.8 billion shared by the top 100 athletes, there is not one single woman in the list.

Serena Williams, the sole woman in last year’s list, is absent from the 2018 roster. The very fact that in a year where Williams took time off to have a baby, she drops off the list and no other woman is in the top 100 is clearly a serious issue. Williams has global appeal and is undoubtedly tennis’ greatest female star. Leading the way in American tennis and with an astonishing 23 singles grand slams to her name one would expect she should be at the top table of highest earners in sport. That she is there is thanks in no small part to Billie Jean King and those who formed the WTA in 1973. Tennis leads the way with equal prize money at Grand Slams and a women’s tour which is globally supported by sponsors and broadcasters. 

It certainly was not an easy road for tennis to get where it is now but it shouldn’t be an uphill struggle for women’s sports. Sponsors and broadcasters must realise that women in sport need better remuneration both in terms of prize money on offer or salaries as well as endorsements. The prize fund at 2018’s golf US Open in the men’s tournament will be over $12 million. The women’s tournament prize fund is less than half at $5 million. The disparities are closing but is it quick enough?

Things are hopefully changing. Manchester United have announced that they will relaunch the women’s team that they scrapped in 2005. The English Women’s FA Cup final attracted a record crowd of 45,423 at Wembley this year. Compare that to the attendance in 2013 of 4,988 and the rise of women’s football is evident. The English Women’s cricket team is full time professional and making fantastic strides in the game but without the endorsement deals and salaries seen by their male counterparts.

If women’s sport is to continue to grow and to encourage others to become top sports stars, it is vital that sponsors, broadcasters and tournament organisers recognise the value in these stars and that gender inequality is something they can help tackle. It shouldn’t take the Forbes list, containing this gaping omission, for things to change but let’s hope this is a catalyst to speed up the process and that in the future the top 100 will have an equal representation of women and men.


Portrait ofWill Anderson
Will Anderson