Sponsorship And Prize Money: Gender Inequality In Endurance Sports

[Editor’s Note: This is the second of three excerpts we’re publishing from the soon-to-be-released book Daughters of Distance, written by Vanessa Runs about endurance running from the female perspective. While iRunFar is a running website and this excerpt is about gender-inequality issues in cycling, we feel there are relevant parallels between the two sports and the issues women who practice them face. The book will be available for purchase around the end of March. We published the first excerpt last week, ‘Mother Nature is a Woman,’ and we’ll publish the last one next week. Be sure to read all the way through because we’re giving away a copy of the book!]

In most circles, it is accepted that women deserve equal pay for equal work. In endurance cycling however, this topic is still debated. Not only are women paid less, but we can’t quite decide whether they should be paid equally.

All male cyclists who reach the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Pro Continental level are allocated a minimum-wage annual base salary. In 2011, [then] UCI President Pat McQuaid was asked whether female professional cyclists also deserved a minimum base salary. He replied, “I am not so sure. Women’s cycling has not yet developed enough.”

A 2013 survey by the Women’s Cycling Association showed that 50% of female pro cyclists are paid $3,000 or less per year. Because women in cycling cannot earn a living wage, many resort to working fulltime on top of their busy training schedules and personal lives. Women’s cycling suffers a high dropout rate due to financial pressure and a shortage of women’s teams. 2011 National Road Champion Robin Farina works more than 40 hours a week, while training fulltime as a pro cyclist.

Consider the following examples from Kathryn Bertine’s Half the Road: The Passion, Pitfalls & Power of Women’s Professional Cycling:

  • The 2013 UCI calendar had 370 races for the men and only 77 for women.
  • As of 1998, the “Tour de France” would not allow its name to be used for a women’s event.
  • There are 23 UCI events worldwide for junior boys. There are only seven for junior girls.

As Kathryn points out in an ESPN column, the sport of pigeon racing is more lucrative than professional women’s cycling. A pigeon owner with a fast bird can take home 10,000 euros (about $11,000 US). A winning women’s cycling team usually makes $1,000 or less, to be split up between team members. Each athlete may walk away with a couple hundred dollars. In comparison, the top male winner at Paris-Roubaix, a famous cycling race, takes home about $40,000 US. Women are not allowed to race the Paris-Roubaix, and there is no female equivalent.

Here are a few of the arguments behind why women should not be paid equally. Keep in mind: these are not comments from the early 1900s. These are arguments that are made today about female cycling.

  1. Women don’t work as hard.

Because the races are shorter and the stages are fewer, professional female cyclists don’t put in the same amount of training hours that men do. Since there is no equal work, there should be no equal pay.

The counter-argument to this is that riders insist they do indeed train as hard, but that they lack equal opportunities to prove themselves alongside men.

  1. Women aren’t as popular.

There is a lack of market appeal in women’s cycling, and ultimately the market determines how much an athlete should get paid. Spectators don’t want to pay to watch females race.

The counter-argument: The perceived lack of market appeal exists because the media doesn’t cover female racing equally. Cyclist Emma Pooley says, “I’ve heard a lot of people say that the best race they’ve ever seen was the women’s race at the Olympics. A lot of our races are like that, but you don’t get to see it.” Besides, cycling is a sport, not a popularity contest.

  1. Women don’t get enough sponsors.

Sponsors help pay salaries and women don’t get enough. Companies aren’t interested in female athletes because they don’t have as much exposure. It’s not sexist; it’s just a business decision.

But, if women have trouble getting sponsors, it’s because they face handicaps in media and race opportunities. It is not true that female sports are a bad business decision. Colavita and Gold Bee, an olive oil and fine foods company, is one of the biggest sponsors in women’s pro cycling. They originally sponsored both a male and female team, but found the women’s team delivered the greatest value for their brand.

  1. Women aren’t big enough, fast enough, strong enough.

Biologically, men are built better suited for sport. You can’t overlook the fact that men are simply stronger. They ride harder and faster than women.

The counter-argument observes that smaller athletes use different tactics and techniques than larger ones, but that doesn’t make them any less athletic, gifted or entertaining. Bigger is not always better, especially in endurance.

  1. Women don’t get enough media coverage.

Female cycling isn’t news. The public just isn’t interested. Since 50% of the public isn’t interested in women’s sports, they shouldn’t get half the coverage.

Countering this, it can be argued that it’s impossible to measure interest when there is little coverage, and few opportunities to see women play. In 2013, 10,000 people signed an online petition over two days asking women to be allowed to race the Tour [de France]. Three weeks later, nearly 100,000 people had signed. So much for no interest.

  1. Women have less competition.

Because fewer women are racing, the competition is soft. A woman who gets first female because she’s the only female does not deserve the same prize money as the first male who had to best hundreds of his competitors.

But, female athletes should not be penalized because other women choose not to race. Especially at the elite level, both genders have put in comparable time and training. Female participation is growing. Remember that women have only been allowed to participate for a short amount of time.

What can we do to improve these glaring inequalities? Here are some ideas courtesy of The Women’s Sports Foundation:

  • Attend women’s sporting events;
  • Support companies that advocate for women’s athletics;
  • Encourage television stations and newspapers to cover women’s sports;
  • Sign up to coach a girls’ sports team, whether at the recreational or high school level;
  • Encourage young women to participate in sports; and,
  • Become an advocate: if you are or know a female athlete who is being discriminated against, advocate for her rights.

These are not women’s issues. These are societal issues of deep concern to both men and women. We don’t just need women fighting this battle—inequality lowers the quality of sport for us all, not to mention diluting the spirit of camaraderie and competition. We need to change this together.

In her book, As Good as Gold, Kathryn Bertine says that many devoted ESPN readers have promised to print out her columns and give them to their daughters to read. Kathryn thanks them, but suggests they also share her words with their sons. She writes:

I believe the beauty of athletics knows no gender boundaries, as stories of loss, triumph, underdogs, and superstars all ring true to male and female athletes alike. Giving boys articles on female athletes will have an incredible if subtle impact on gender equality. Straight from the womb, many girls, like boys, have innate athletic drive and ambition. Imagine what strides could be made—what female athletes of all ages and abilities could achieve—if women’s sports were given equal coverage and attention to men’s.

Many team sports like tennis and volleyball have their own extreme examples of gender disparity [as well]. To learn more about the plight of females in non-endurance sports, I recommend watching the short film by ESPN Women called Title IX. In the end, we are all fighting the same battle and a win for one sport is a win for active women everywhere.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

We realize that gender inequality in sports is a sensitive topic, and we ask that the conversations that occur in the comments section be respectful. Disagreeing and alternative opinions are always welcome as long as they are presented in a constructive manner. Thank you in advance.

  • Vanessa has focused on gender disparities in cycling, but they exist in endurance running as well. What gender-based inequalities do you observe in the trail and ultrarunning community?
  • Are there any opportunities that women in endurance running have that men don’t? As in, can you think of any examples in which women have better access or treatment than their male counterparts?
  • What are some specific things our community can do to continue promoting gender-based equality for women in our sport?

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