Pick up a tennis racket and stay away from team sports.
If you are a girl looking to make big money as a professional athlete, this certainly is the message you got from the recently released Forbes list of the most highly paid female athletes.
Twelve of the top 15 earners are tennis players, led by Serena Williams who made $29.2 million last year. Only one, Alex Morgan, plays a team sport. Morgan, the co-captain of the U.S. women’s soccer team that just won the World Cup, is No. 12 on the list with total earnings last year of $5.8 million.
Contrast this to the overall list that Forbes released earlier in the year. The majority of the top-paid athletes play men’s team sports with basketball, baseball, soccer and football players accounting for 81 of the top 100 spots.
While female tennis players fought for and achieved pay equity in their major tournaments, female athletes in team sports make a tiny fraction of what their male counterparts do. Consider that the maximum WNBA salary slot this season is $117,500, while the minimum salary in the NBA this coming season will be $897,158.
While the lack of gender salary equity in team sports is dramatic and depressing, there are significant signs that women athletes — not just women tennis players — are poised to make financial strides when it comes to endorsements and other branding opportunities.
The sports and marketing agency Wasserman, which represents more than half of the U.S. women’s soccer team including Megan Rapinoe and Morgan, announced last month that it was creating a new division, The Collective, whose mission is to connect major companies, consumers and fans of every gender with some of the country’s best known female athletes.
“Women who are influencers such as athletes are poised to make a greater impact because I feel like they are being valued more than ever,” said Dan Levy, the head of the Olympics and female athletes divisions at Wasserman. “Companies and consumers realize that women have a lot more power than they thought in previous years, based on spending and based on their level of influence across social media platforms. And so as a result, you are seeing more and more athletes and influencers in general being used in campaigns . . .There’s more opportunity to generate revenue for women athletes than ever before.”
Rick Burton, a David B. Falk professor of Sports Management at Syracuse University, believes the day is coming where women team athletes can make big endorsement money, but he doesn’t know how quickly.
Burton noted how Breanna Stewart, who last year season won a WNBA championship and was named both the regular season and finals MVP, should have been positioned to make major endorsement money given her accomplishments.
“Where are the ads with Breanna Stewart? Is someone out there saying she’s not visible enough or appealing enough?” he said. “That should change. That will change, I want it to change but I don’t know if we are there yet.
“We are waiting for the Michael Jordan of female team sports. It’s always been an individual, but I think she’s coming. So far she hasn’t. Mia Hamm was maybe the closest we’ve gotten.”
Hamm, who once was featured in a Gatorade commercial with Michael Jordan, was the first woman team athlete to break the $1 million endorsement barrier in 1998. Levy, who also represents Hamm, said the opportunities are even greater for today’s female athletes because of the advent of social media.
He noted how Morgan had 4 million followers on Twitter and 9.1 million on Instagram. This will help keep her in the public eye between this summer’s World Cup and next summer’s Olympics.
“Mia was the face of the entire generation of women’s athletes,” he said. “….The reality is we had to wait around until the next time she was on cable television, to be reminded that she was one of our favorite athletes. She couldn’t connect to fans the way athletes are now.
“Social media has given them a way that can withstand the ebbs and flows of an Olympic cycle and world cup cycle. Alex has more eyeballs on her day than some network television shows.”
Of course, it would be a lot easier if women were just paid more for being athletes.
1. Serena Williams, Tennis $29.2 million
Prize money $4.2M, Endorsements $25 M
2. Naomi Osaka, Tennis $24.3 million
Prize money: $8.3M, Endorsements: $16 M
3. Angelique Kerber, Tennis $11.8 million
Prize money: $5.3 M, Endorsements: $6.5 M
4. Simona Halep, Tennis $10.2 million
Prize money: $6.2 M, Endorsements: $4 M
5. Sloane Stephens, Tennis $9.6 million
Prize money: $4.1 M, Endorsements: $5.5 M
6. Caroline Wozniacki, Tennis $7.5 million
Prize money: $3.5 M, Endorsements: $4 M
7. Maria Sharapova, Tennis $7 million
Prize money: $1 M, Endorsements: $6 M
8. Karolina Pliskova, Tennis $6.3 million
Prize money: $4.6 M, Endorsements: $1.7 M
9. Elina Svitolina, Tennis $6.1 million
Prize money: $4.6 M, Endorsements: $1.5 M
T10. Venus Williams, Tennis $5.9 million
Prize money: $900,000; Endorsements: $5 M
T10. Garbine Muguruza, Tennis $5.9 million
Prize money: $2.4 M, Endorsements: $3.5 M
12. Alex Morgan, Soccer $5.8 million
Prize money: $250,000; Endorsements: $5.5 M
T13. P.V. Sindhu, Badminton $5.5 million
Prize money: $500,000; Endorsements: $5 million
T13. Madison Keys, Tennis $5.5 million
Prize money: $2.5 M, Endorsements: $3 M
15. Ariya Jutanugarn, Golf $5.3 million
Prize money: $3.3 M, Endorsements: $2 M