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100 highest-paid athletes include no women — and there are reasons

Serena Williams serves against Julia Georges during their third round match of the French Open at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris on June 2. / AP/Christophe Ena

It’s been more than a week since Forbes released its annual list of highest-paid athletes, and I’m still struggling to reconcile the fact that a one-time NBA All-Star like Brook Lopez cracked the list at 95 while not a single female athlete made the top 100.

This is the first time women have been shut out since the list was expanded in 2010, and there’s been a lot of talk about the reasons for this with the most obvious one being that Serena Williams took time off to have a baby and Maria Sharapova is still dealing from the fallout of a suspension for using a banned substance. Yet, for fans of women’s sports, the primary explanation for the female no show is a lot more disconcerting than the personal circumstances of a handful of tennis stars.

The problem is enough of us just don’t watch women’s team sports, which has translated into comparatively stagnant salary growth for women’s team athletes.

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Eighty-two percent of the athlete’s on this year’s all-male list play team sports, compared with 68 percent in 2011. Men’s salaries in team sports have exploded over the past several years, thanks to the huge media contracts handed out for live sports content. At the same time women in team sports — even incredibly successful women like the World Cup winning U.S. soccer team — have had to threaten lawsuits and boycotts in order to make a decent wage.

According to a 2015 Gallup Poll, 51 percent of women and 66 percent of men in the U.S. consider themselves to be sports fans. Despite the growing number of women who say they watch sports on television, that viewership has been slow to translate into watching women’s sports, especially team sports.

“It’s subconscious,” said Marie Hardin, the dean of Penn State’s Bellasario College of Communications who has conducted research on women’s sports. “People will say I support women’s sports and they mean it. But sitting down and watching a women’s basketball game, that’s a whole different thing and unfortunately there are consequences there.”

The biggest consequence is that the revenue doesn’t exist for women in team sports to support top 100-type salaries. For example, the WNBA’s new TV deal with ESPN is worth $25 million per year, while the NBA is earning $2.5 billion from its national deal. This season, the highest-paid players in the WNBA make $115,000 base salary, while Stephen Curry of the Warriors, the NBA’s highest-paid player, made $35.7 million.

Whitney Wagoner, the director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, said there are a couple of reasons fans are more likely to watch men’s sports than women’s sports.

“A huge part of it is that it’s not how we grew up,” Wagoner said. “Adult female heads of households who make decisions for their families didn’t grow up watching women’s sports. It’s not their natural tendency.

“Another part of it is this vicious cycle we are in where it’s hard to watch women’s sports. We don’t know when and where they are going to be on. They are on obscure channels. There’s less predictability. It’s not in prime time. So there’s this really nasty negative cycle where no one watches because it’s not on, and because it’s not on, nobody watches.”

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In 2014, a USC study of television news media found that ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted just 2 percent of its airtime to women’s sports. That lack of exposure leads to what Wagoner calls the water cooler effect.

“If you turn on social media and the top five stories don’t include a story line about female athletes, it signals to you this is not what people are doing,” Wagoner said. “The social currency, whatever the modern water cooler is, you are attracted to the things everyone is talking about. You are attracted to the things your friends are doing and to the things society says is cool.”

Hardin believes a lot of this had to do with the fact we are still stuck as a society with some pretty firm rules about gender roles. This is part of the reason why women’s individual sports — ice skating, golf, tennis, gymnastics — can draw large audiences where team sports will struggle.

“I think there are gender norms that we are comfortable with as a culture,” Hardin said. “For women and men to sit down in front of women’s sports when women are performing and using their bodies to demonstrate strength and power, it doesn’t always line up with commonly accepted gender norms and practices.”

Of course, even when a women’s team does draw more attention than a men’s team, it doesn’t always automatically translate into higher compensation. The U.S. women’s soccer team had to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about wage discrimination because they were paid significantly less than the men’s team despite the fact they generated $20 million more in revenue and were ranked No. 1 in the world, 30 places above the men.

Pay equity remains a hot topic in society at large, and perhaps nowhere is it more complicated than in the field of sports. Though I’m not completely convinced that compensation has to always be directly tied to revenue, there is only one sure way to make sure that salaries rise in women’s sports.

Go to a WNBA game, vow to watch at least one National Women’s Soccer League game on Lifetime, enter a women’s Final Four basketball pool along with a men’s pool next year and take your kids to a women’s college hockey game.

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Because until we proactively support women’s sports and teach our kids to do the same, we’re going to have a lot more lists like the one by Forbes.