By Cheyne Sauceda
The growth and monetization of women’s professional sports is a popular topic in sports business circles, which is why, not surprisingly, it was a featured panel at the ABA Sports and Entertainment Forum last month.
The panel was moderated by Sarah Klein of Manly, Stewart & Finaldi. Joining her on the stage was Kelsey Copeland, Senior Corporate Counsel of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, Shameeka E. Quallo, General Counsel of the Washington Spirit, and Holly Shick Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
The US National team suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation was the main case discussed, but how Big Wave Surf provided equal prize money to men and women’s surfing competitions was also mentioned. Shameeka Quallo expressed that there is a huge disparity when it comes to working conditions for female athletes. This includes travel conditions, medical leave, and tournament purses which have been historically unequal to their male counterparts. Quallo also pointed out how the conversation around this is changing due to the current climate and efforts of the NWSL players fighting for equal pay for equal work.
The next point made was how female athletes miss out on opportunities to get paid due to taking leaves of absence during pregnancy. Shameeka Quallo explained how earning potential varies between men and women as not every team gives women paid paternity leave. She goes in to say that until organizations are willing to sit with Player’s Associations, there is work to do in terms of advocating for female athletes. Kelsey Copeland adds that sponsors and partners have the ability to help close this gap in pay in the meantime by still maintaining their sponsorships with athletes when they are pregnant. “I think it’s also an opportunity to really encourage the sponsors that are trying to enter women’s sport, to help support the athletes as well,” explains Copeland. Olympic and Paralympic athletes maintain their stipend while they are pregnant expressed Holly Shick. She also explained that due to the US Women’s National Team lawsuit in 2023, Congress amended the Ted Stevens Olympic Amateur Sports Act, which is the federal law that governs the Olympic and Paralympic governing bodies as well as the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, requires all of the organizations to provide equal compensation to all athletes. That being said, Shick clarified that most of the governing bodies that oversee Olympic and Paralympic teams already provide equal wages, travel accommodations, and reimbursements of expenses to their athletes.
Women’s sport in the media was the next widely discussed topic. Shameeka Quallo started the discussion by sharing that women’s sports have the leverage for broadcasting rights, but the rights are being valued at much lower with less than 4% of women’s sport being shown and less than 1% of sponsorship dollars being spent on women. Because of this, female athletes have taken to social media to gain a following and promote themselves. “The athletes are doing their part…they’re putting the competition out there,” Kelsey Copeland explained regarding female athletes being more engaged with their fans in order to share their stories. “Studies show that female athletes overdeliver as it relates to agreements with sponsors,” Quallo goes on to share with the panel following Copeland’s statement. She also dives into the demographics of women’s sport fans being young, more educated, and more willing to spend money due to the emotional, social connection that female athletes create. Holly Shick provides the example of how women have outperformed men in gymnastics and soccer over the past few Olympic cycles. She explains that there has been a new increase in demand that is expected to continue to grow as young girls are influenced by these athletic performances. Quallo brings up the point that an emotional connection must be found for some men and people to be interested in women’s sport, but the data proves that there are a lot of people who are invested and committed to women’s sport without having to be convinced.
Sarah Klein asks Kelsey Copeland about sponsorship to shift the conversation to the next topic. Copeland voiced that they are seeing the same momentum in sponsorship dollars with companies choosing to invest their money, time, and energy to build up women’s sport. Because female athletes are so good at telling a story and the visible rise in competition, the fans are demanding to see more of their favorite players which is leading to more companies investing in the athletes. “A big piece of that is really- how do we as the league and the groups that really support women’s professional sports- how do we take that momentum and pass it through to the players so they can make a meaningful living playing golf, participating in the Olympics, playing soccer,” posed Copeland concerning female athletes having to rely on sponsorship dollars to not only make a living but make a good living. Shameeka Quallo shared the point that organizations need to move from just checking a box of diversity, equity, and inclusion to realizing how impactful they can be when they invest in women. Quallo leads into the next topic of discussion with the point of, “The growth potential of women’s sport is outpacing men by far.”
Klein poses the question of how long is it going to take for women’s sport to fully reach the level of equality that industry professionals and athletes alike are striving for. “It’s yes and… It only takes one person in the organization to say ‘hey, let’s bet on women’,” shares Quallo. She later expresses how the industry has come a long way, but still has a long way to go. Kelsey Copeland articulates how important it is to not let the momentum of the women’s sport die and to capitalize before it passes by. It is also important to keep an eye on which sports are cut from NCAA programs as those female programs are often the athlete pools for Olympic and Paralympic teams warns Holly Shick.
The final topic of discussion was on the safeguards in place to protect athletes. These new rules were put in place by the US Center of SafeSport which has jurisdiction over any cases of sexual abuse or sexual harassment. Schick explains how the US Center for SafeSport has created a database where the public can see anyone who has been temporarily or permanently suspended for sexual assault or harassment-related occurrences as well as empowered the national governing bodies with the right to impose temporary measures in order to protect athletes from harm. Sarah Klein follows up with the important question of who is responsible for knowing everything that is going on within an athletic organization in terms of abuse. She sheds light on how many things went unaccounted for within USA Gymnastics and hopes that there has been progress in the past couple of years regarding this. Shameeka Quallo further elaborates on this topic by referencing the Sarah Yates investigation in which varying types of abuse were found within USA Soccer starting at very young club levels. She highlighted on the creation of systems that should have been in place all along to protect athletes. Two audience questions were asked to wrap up the panel discussion that had all panelist in agreement- organizations need to continue to support women’s sport.
Cheyne Sauceda is from the University of Nevada- Las Vegas. She is currently a second year in the Intercollegiate and Professional Sport Management Master’s Degree program.