Media outlets will soon be overflowing with news from the Olympics. Personally, I am excited about watching Lindsey Vonn compete in the women’s ski racing. She is the most successful woman in World Cup history with 81 victories and is arguably one of the best skiers ever. More than her skiing prowess, I am drawn to Vonn by her desire to push the envelope and test the glass ceiling.
Vonn proposed to the International Ski Federation (FIS) that she compete against the men in a World Cup race in Lake Louise later this year. It is the second time she has asked. The FIS turned her down in 2012, citing rules that prohibit mixed-gender races. Vonn has publicly stated that she expects she would compete only averagely, so it begs the question, why bother?
Vonn’s goal isn’t about getting onto the podium. It’s about proving women’s worth in sport from both an equality standpoint and in terms of hard dollars. It is analogous to Billie Jean King and the Battle of the Sexes in 1973. That event helped pave the way but 45 years have passed and total pay still lags, although women are finally getting more opportunities to compete.
Some media are another story. A Cambridge University Press study found that men are mentioned three times more often than women, and the language used to describe women is more commonly focused on physical appearance and marital status. A recent article in Forbes suggested that NBC Sports gives more attention to animals (via sports such as horse racing and fishing) than it gives to women.
However, gains have been made with prize money and a study by BBC Sport has revealed that 83% of sports now reward men and women equally. But when it comes to endorsements, parity remains elusive.
In 2017 Serena Williams topped the list of highest paid female athletes but didn’t come close to cracking the top ten in the list of 100 highest paid athletes. She came in at 51st and is the only woman in the list.
Williams has been tennis royalty for years, with career earnings of US$84 million. In 2017 she earned US$8 million in prize money despite being pregnant most of the year. But the real boost to Williams’ earnings came with her endorsements, which last year amounted to US$19 million. It sounds like a solid amount, until you compare it to her male peers.
Last year, Roger Federer won US$6 million in prize money and Rafael Nadal won US$5.5 million. Combined with their endorsements, they pulled in total earnings of US$64 million and US$31.5 million respectively. Despite having won more prize money than either of the men, Serena Williams made less in total - US$27 million.
One might deduce that Williams is less marketable than the men, but that would be very wrong. Nielsen Sports ranked her as the most marketable pro athlete of 2017. Neither Federer nor Nadal made the top ten. With over 7.4 million Instagram followers, her social media further benefits her brand and correspondingly, her sponsors. To top it off, many experts believe motherhood will increase her marketability.
Some companies are taking note. Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory, inked a five-year deal with Serena Williams in 2004 worth a reported US$40 million and has since continued to write sponsorship deals with her that include bonuses and sales royalties. The relationship has been so successful that Nike is naming a building at its world headquarters for Williams.
From a corporate standpoint the company plans to build out its women’s business to US$11 billion by 2020. Past efforts to grow the segment have been successful and its women’s business has outpaced the men’s. Additionally, Nike has been running various women’s empowerment campaigns for over 40 years and encouraged women in sport.
Nike has also supported women in the workforce with a reported 48% of its global workforce being women, though that number drops to 41% when looking at managerial roles. Nike’s focus on diversity has ultimately been positive for long-term shareholders as countless studies have linked it to improved corporate performance and ultimately stock price. Adjusted for dividends and splits, a shareholder who held Nike stock the last 10 years would have made over 375% on the position.
According to an EY report, global incomes of women will grow from US$13 trillion to US$18 trillion in the next five years with women controlling almost 75% of discretionary spending worldwide by 2028. That can mean significant sales gains for savvy companies. One proven method is the recognition of female athletes through endorsements, as Nike has shown.
Cynics will argue that Nike and other corporate sponsors are not altruistic but just trying to improve their bottom line by capitalizing on female athletes. Undoubtedly there are shareholder-focused motives but, if it helps draw more attention to women’s sports, is that really an issue? The impact of sports outside of athletics is huge. If women gain equality in the sporting world, everyone benefits.
That’s why I sincerely hope the FIS allows Lindsey Vonn to compete against the men. A ski version of the Battle of the Sexes would be good for women, good for sport, and ultimately good for business. And, good for business means it’s good for investors. It’s time for some real competition.