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Michael Bapis | Female athletes have huge potential as personal brands

It has been a landmark year for several major US sports leagues. Although the year is not over, I think when we look back, one of the biggest stories that will stand out to us is the rise of the collective voice and authority of female athletes. Throughout 2019, athletes who happen to be women inspired us both on and off the court, field and arena.

Last month, the Connecticut Sun and the Washington Mystics squared off in the 2019 WNBA Finals, capping what has been another season of growth for the league under the new leadership of Cathy Englebrecht, former chief executive of Deloitte. The WNBA’s elevation comes during a time when the issues around women’s sports, especially concerning equal pay, have never been debated more.

One of the biggest sports stories of the year was the US women’s national soccer team’s (USNWT) decisive victory over the Netherlands during the final game of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. As their dominance was eagerly covered by the press, so, too, were the players’ relatively low salaries compared to their male counterparts.

Secret Deodorant stepped in, awarding each player $23,000 to help close the gender pay gap. But a recent lawsuit filed by the USNWT against the US Soccer Federation alleges that the highest-earning USNWT players would have earned $2.5m more over a six-year period had they been compensated under the same policy as the men’s team.

We have also seen the topic raised very loudly around golf. As with Secret Deodorant and the USNWT, a prominent business, Aon, took up the cause themselves, giving the same share to both LPGA and PGA TOUR pros in their Risk Reward Challenge. The subject of equal pay has also come up in hockey, where elite women’s players are sitting out the NWHL season because of issues of compensation.

The gender pay gap in sports is often attributed to the amount of revenue coming in, and that is a fair point. As Englebrecht has pointed out, the WNBA has only one national sponsor: AT&T. The rest of the brands that support the league are regional sponsors, spending far less than those companies that support the NBA.

This is an issue that, from a financial standpoint, needs to be addressed – not only because of fairness, but also fiscal responsibility. Although they make for amazing stories and brands, median salaries in the WNBA are around $72,000 and starting salaries are $50,000. By contrast, players in the Euro League start at $100,000, which of course pales in comparison to NBA players’ salaries. In fact, with the sole exception of tennis, female athletes across the board make a fraction of what their male counterpoints earn. Tennis pros are the only female athletes to have ranked on Forbes’ annual lists of the highest-paid athletes over the past decade, and eight out of the ten top-paid female athletes in 2018 were tennis players.

In many cases, the gender pay gap in sports is indicative of a larger issue that affects women across all industries. Women today are more in control than ever of their careers and financial futures. In fact, according to a recent E&Y survey, “women control $14tn of personal wealth in the U.S. (51 per cent of the total wealth); they have 96 per cent primary or shared responsibility for household finances; and over the next 40 years they will inherit a mind-boggling $28.7tn intergenerational wealth.”

And yet, women earn just $0.79 on the dollar compared to men, hold just 29 per cent of senior management positions, and invest 40 per cent less money than men do.

How does our point of view, as a wealth management firm that works with elite athletes but also plenty of ‘regular folk’, factor into this debate? Creating opportunity for the long run. We think there is a window in the financial world for these amazing athletes, who, again, happen to be women, to look beyond the court, or the ice, or the pitch, to embrace this moment in time, and to expand themselves as brands. They reach an important growing demographic, and their potential to take the dollars they can accumulate and work with the right planners to grow and amplify that reach is very powerful – and it can be even more powerful in the wealth management sector that we work in.

Just because many of these athletes play team sports – on the USNWT, the WNBA, the NWHL and other leagues – doesn’t mean that they aren’t brands in their own right. Working together and individually, they should borrow a page from the tennis pros and other top-paid athletes who are masters at cultivating their personal brands and pursuing sponsorships and endorsement deals that are both authentic and lucrative.

By using their power as role models and influencers to set examples and speak to positive financial planning, these star athletes can influence a wide generation. Not only that, but these athletes of today can help shape the vision of one of our goals, the financially healthy athlete of the future, by helping plot that future now.

By taking the dollars saved today and working to invest in the long term, any athlete has a great chance for success and amplification of assets, and the WNBA, still the most successful women’s sporting circuit in the country, has the potential to lead as it completes its 24th season and moves into its 25th. We are rooting for them as they advance both the game and their fellow female athletes, and we look forward to seeing where they go in the future.

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