Recent Mega-Contracts Heighten Pre-Existing Gender Pay Gap in Sports

It is no secret that modern day athletes are among some of the wealthiest people on the planet. This fact has only been accentuated by the recent contract extensions of San Diego Padres’ shortstop Fernando Tatís and Dallas Cowboys’ franchise quarterback Dak Prescott. The two deals are record-setting in their own ways and illuminate the rapidly increasing price tags for premium athletes in professional team sports, while simultaneously furthering the pay disparity between male and female athletes at the highest levels.

         Tatís’ deal sent shockwaves throughout the MLB. Three hundred and forty million dollars — fully guaranteed as all MLB contracts are — paid out over the course of 14 years to a 22-year-old shortstop who has only appeared in 143 major-league games, less than a single full season. The contract is unprecedented in terms of length, the longest in MLB history, and takes Tatís all the way to his age-35 season. It is also the third largest contract ever signed in the MLB, behind deals signed by perennial superstars Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. Given Tatís’ lack of experience in a league where volume is paramount in determining a player’s value, this decision by the Padres may raise eyebrows but is very consistent with how general manager A.J. Preller has built his team. Since being hired in 2014, Preller has been extremely aggressive in trying to win San Diego its first World Series. Twice he has traded over twenty players in just a three-day span, the only GM ever to do so. He also sent ripples through the league in 2019 after signing Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado to a 10-year $300 million contract.

Tatís and Machado are the only $300 million teammates in American sports, but it is incredible to consider how early into his career Tatís was able to earn his payday — his new ticket is the largest contract ever for a player who has yet to hit arbitration. Though still relatively unproven, Tatís is undoubtedly a transcendent talent and one of the largest personalities in a sport that desperately needs entertaining stars. He finished fourth in voting for National League MVP last season and if he continues at his torrid pace — though it may be crazy to consider — he will likely be even more expensive in the future.  

Dak Prescott, on the other hand, has proven himself to be a winning quarterback in the NFL. A former fourth round pick and two-time Pro Bowler, Prescott boasts a 42-27 overall record with the Dallas Cowboys over his five-year career with two playoff appearances, starting every single game before an ankle injury ruled him out for the remainder of this past season after just the fifth game. Prescott gambled on himself last season by playing under the franchise tag, preventing him from becoming a free agent, but performed well enough in his first five games — along with the Cowboys basically imploding without him behind center — to solidify himself as the team’s permanent franchise quarterback. With this enormous amount of leverage, Prescott was able to secure a four-year extension with the Dallas Cowboys — good for $160 million. Prescott’s $66 million signing bonus has him making $74 million in the first year of his new deal, both of which are records for the NFL.

Unlike the MLB, NFL teams are forced to operate under a salary cap that restricts the amount of money a team can spend on its players in a given season, which makes Prescott’s deal all the more significant. Prescott is guaranteed to make $126 million over the duration of his contract regardless of his production, and his average annual salary of $40 million is the second highest in the league behind only Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. These numbers will only continue to go up for young marquee quarterbacks, with Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens next in line for a payday that will likely match or exceed the value given to Prescott.

While top male athletes have seen their pay increase almost exponentially, the same cannot be said for female athletes. The gender pay gap spans nearly every industry and is extremely pronounced in professional team sports. Female athletes make just a fraction of what their male counterparts do. In 2019, all WNBA athletes made a combined total of $12.5 million. In that same year, Golden State Warriors’ star Stephen Curry made $40 million alone, over three times the total of all 123 WNBA players. The Lakers’ Anthony Davis will make over $32 million this NBA season, while Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks will earn just a little over $190,000. Both players are former first overall picks, six-time all-stars and have won their team a championship, yet Davis makes nearly 170 times what Ogwumike does for playing the same sport.

While difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for these vast pay disparities, a major factor is the differences in revenues that male and female sports leagues generate. In 2019, NBA teams brought in a total $8.8 billion, while WNBA teams earned just $70 million; the NBA’s television deal is worth nearly 100 times more than the $25 million deal the WNBA has with ESPN.

There have been mass calls for equal pay, most notably from the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. The women’s soccer team actually generates more revenue than the men’s team with their success in recent World Cups and have filed lawsuits in the past alleging that their less successful male counterparts earn more money per game than they do. 

This problem exists on the international level as well. The most recent women’s World Cup garnered 31 percent of the total audience that the most recent men’s tournament drew in. Prize money allocated for the women’s tournament, on the other hand, was only 7.5 percent of the total prize pool for the men’s World Cup — $30 million to $400 million.

The call for equal pay doesn’t necessarily mean equal in the literal sense. Rather, athletes are calling for a greater investment and commitment to their leagues in order for figures on their contracts to naturally increase. Currently, male professional sports leagues capture 93 percent of the $31 billion that corporations spend on sports. An increase in the share spent on women’s leagues would go a long way towards decreasing the massive gap in pay. 

Small amounts of progress have already been made in certain cases among the players themselves. Most notably, the WNBA opted out of their collective bargaining agreement in the beginning of 2020 for the first time and landed a new labor deal, guaranteeing improved pay with a higher minimum salary and enhanced health benefits. Other leagues will hopefully follow suit and with a greater commitment to women’s sports and growing audiences, female athletes will hopefully see an increase in their salary to be more proportional to what their male counterparts earn.