Carmen Ruano, ESBS | The role of women in the sports industry

Carmen Ruano, academic director of the ESBS Master in International Sports Management, discusses the role of women in the sports industry and what more can be done to increase the presence of women in the space.

According to the World Bank, 49.6 per cent of the world’s population are women.  

If we used a mathematical or statistical vision, we could think that the proportion of women who practise sports, or who are dedicated to the world of sport business, could move in similar numbers. 

But that is too far away from reality.  

Participation of Women in Sport  

1967. It was the year in which the first woman participated in a marathon. And not because women were able to do it, but because an individual woman managed to sneak around the ban that the race management of the Boston Marathon imposed.

Fortunately, the vision of women’s participation in sport, especially in the Western market, and increasingly around the world, is changing. Sports practice is a growing trend, with average growth rates in sports practice of between six and 10 per cent in the last five years. Now, it’s totally normal to see women participating in sports competitions or practising physical activities in their leisure time.  

Despite that, there are big differences still. According to Eurostat, the rate of sports activity (at least 150 minutes a week) is 35.7 per cent among men and 26.2 per cent among women. However, there are large differences between countries: only five EU countries have a higher percentage of active women than men in their population. We can find one “exception”: the world of esports, where this gap seems to be reduced. According to Statista, in 2021, 46 per cent of the players in the USA were women. In Asia, similar numbers are shown.  

How could we explain that? Maybe because it’s a newer market, that is not affected by a historical stigma? Maybe.  

Women and Sports Science  

Another trending question is related to sports science: Do women perform the same as men? Should women and men train in the same way? Maybe not, or at least not in all cases. Despite the increase in the number of sportswomen at all levels, scientific research is mostly carried out with a male sample and has not yet considered the influence of female biological features (such as the menstrual cycle) and their possible influence on performance. Fortunately, more articles are emerging around this topic and there is a growing interest in this trend.  

Women and Sports: Trending Topic Nowadays?  

“Women in sports” is a leading topic in today’s society. Here are some facts: 

In 2021, according to Forbes, the 10 best paid women athletes earned a total of $166.6 million, an increase of 20 per cent on the previous year. 

According to a Nielsen Report in 2022, 61 per cent of US sport fans name “gender equality” among the causes that make them passionate about sports. That can be linked to the fight of the US women’s national soccer team players to close the salary gap, a story that was covered by media all around the world.  

The media coverage of events also holds a key role. A new TV deal in the UK in 2021 made it easier to watch the women’s football Super League and led to a 542 per cent increase in TV viewers. In the US, an increase in the coverage of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament doubled the audience in 2021 compared to 2019. 

Women in Sport Business 

These numbers were just a small sample of the growth and potential that women’s sport has within the sport business. Despite this, how many women do you know in “positions of responsibility” in the sports industry? 

Maybe the first answer that comes to our mind has been something like: only a few.  

Cynthia Marshall, Kim Ng, Nicole Lynn, Laura Martínez or Elaia Gangoiti. If we read those names, maybe, they don’t sound very familiar. However, they are, respectively: CEO of Dallas Mavericks, General Manager of Miami Marlins, the first female to represent an NFL Agency and the presidents of Athletic de Bilbao CF in Spain.  

Women hold positions of responsibility in between 10 and 20 per cent of the total positions in the sports industry field, depending on the country. Although in the last 10 years, the figure has tripled.  

Why can’t we find more women in those top positions in sport business?  

There is no single answer to this question and it is surely the result of a combination of different factors: social stigma, lack of motivation, lack of support, lack of references, and many other “lacks”. 

Now comes the most important question, how can we change that?  

Again, the answer is not closed, but one of the most powerful means can be education. Through education, we have the power to change the world, and thus the role of women in the sports society.  

Only 13 per cent of the students in sports business postgraduate programmes are female. However, their employability rate is the same or even higher than males.  

This could be explained with the change of mindset of some organisations, who are now prioritising competences, technological skills and attitude of people above gender. Moreover, they’re giving priority in hiring more women, in order to close the gender gap in their employees. 

We can find business schools such as ESBS and AMOS, where we work to encourage women to fight to reach their goals in the sports business. Roland Garros, Major League Soccer, Redbull, Valencia CF, JC Ferrero Equelite Sport Academy or FIBA, among others, are some of the organisations where our female graduates are currently working, occupying positions of responsibility. 

In addition, we lead by example, with a staff of 64 per cent women in the Spanish Campuses. Every year the proportion of women on our list of lecturers increases. They contribute with their knowledge to the teaching of undergraduate and master’s students, thus fighting for gender equity in the sector.  

The Future of Women in the Sports Industry 

It’s a fact that women still have a lot to say within the sports world. The rise in involvement is huge, but so is the gap that we can find in comparison to men. There are lots of things to do yet, and education is the key.  

Concerned professionals in sports organisations, clubs and media, are essential to lead the change and close the gender gap, but we shouldn’t forget where we come from. It’s really important to raise children with a mindset where careers are not associated with gender, but with the passion that moves people.  

Now, it’s time for some personal reflection. What role do you think women play in sport business? Do you think it should change? And the most important one: what are you going to do, from your own position, to realise that change? Once you have some answers to those questions, it’s time to act. 

This article is part of the 2022 SportBusiness Postgraduate Rankings. To browse the entire report and view the overall tables, click here.

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