Barbara Barker Newsday sports writer Barbara Barker

Barbara Barker is an award-winning sports features writer and columnist who has covered sports in New York for 20 years. If it’s interesting and different, she writes about it. She has profiled everyone from LeBron James to Eli Manning to the promoter of underground MMA fights in the Bronx. The NBA is her first love as her first gig at Newsday was as a Knicks beat writer. She covered the team’s last appearance in the NBA Finals when she was six months pregnant. Show More

Who would have thought the first female professional athlete to sign a $1-million team contract would be a softball player?

I’ll tell you who. Her name is Connie May and she is the general manager and part owner of the Houston Area Scrap Yard Dawgs. Last week, the team made headlines by signing Monica Abbott, the most dominant softball pitcher in the world, to a six-year contract expected to pay her $1 million.

May, who made her money in the construction business, believes if you want the world to change, you have to go out and change it. In a phone interview Friday, May said that she signed Abbott because she wants to have a great team. And also because she and the rest of her team’s owners want to make a social statement about female athletes and the pay they think they deserve.

“Our focus is to grow women’s athletes and women in general,” May said. “Women should be able to have a future in professional sports, whether it be softball, soccer, basketball or whatever they choose. Most women can’t put the time and energy toward being a professional athlete because they can’t get paid to do that. Our goal is to try to change that. We wanted to try to take a leadership role in the discussion.”

Though women in individual sports like tennis and golf have earned substantial paychecks, Abbott is believed to be the first woman in a team sport to sign a $1-million contract with a U.S. team.

The WNBA’s maximum salary for 2016 is $111,500, with approximately 30 percent of the players in the league at that level. The minimum salary for the National Women’s Soccer League is $6,842. The average salary for a player in National Pro Fastpitch is a little less than $6,000.

The low pay for women’s professional athletes often has been justified by their not bringing in the same revenue as men. Yet, six members of the U.S. women’s soccer team recently opened the door to a broader discussion when they filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging the U.S. Soccer Federation with wage discrimination. In the suit, the women contend that despite earning $20 million more in revenue than the men’s team and outperforming them on the field, they were paid only 40 percent of what the men’s team earned.

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National Pro Fastpitch commissioner Cheri Kempf said part of the problem with women’s professional sports is that their potential is undervalued because media buyers — the people in advertising firms who are hired by corporations to buy commercial time in sports — tend to be men in their 20s and 30s. Kempf said she has talked to plenty of individuals in corporate America who are interested in getting involved in her league. On a recent trip to New York to talk with media buyers — National Pro Fastpitch has a contract for 25 games with CBS Sports Network — she was shocked by what she encountered.

“My experience is that the media buyers at a lot of these ad agencies are about what’s in it for them,” Kempf said. “A lot of them are young males. So when you tell them that you have a mixed martial arts thing that you just dreamed up that’s the eighth level of mixed martial arts but its in Vegas at the Hard Rock hotel and you can get them there, they’re buying. Try to find the guy that age that wants free tickets to go to a softball game in Akron, Ohio.”

This phenomena could go a long way in explaining why U.S. Soccer didn’t get the advertising money it could have for the Women’s World Cup final, which was the most watched soccer game of alltime in the United States with more than 26 million viewers. The cost of a 30-second ad during Fox’s broadcast of the U.S. women’s win over Japan was $210,760. By contrast, a 30 second spot on ABC in 2014 in the men’s final, which didn’t feature Americans and drew eight million fewer viewers, was $465,140.

May sees that there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect to the whole business. Her belief is that by giving Abbott a $1-million contract, she will not only make her team better but help draw new attention to the sport and the team, improving her bottom line. Those who never have seen a game may come out to the park or turn on a game just to see what a $1-million pitcher throws like.

Said May: “We think it’s a great investment. We want to see women’s athletics be empowered. I believe we can market this properly and be in the black.”