(K.R.) ...Before we answer, let's play devil's advocate. Earlier this year several members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team filed a complaint against
the U.S. Soccer Federation demanding equal pay for equal work and calling for an investigation of what they believe to be discriminatory wage practices.
The issue was widely discussed by the media during the just ended Rio Olympic games, with most pundits agreeing that female athletes should receive
equal pay for equal work.
But here's the thing. Are they performing equal work? Is the product they are providing equal to that of men? Well, objectively measuring differences is difficult for team sports because the level of play is relative. A woman who leads her team in scoring might not score any goals if she were in a different league or playing with men, so stats such as goals and assists are irrelevant for comparisons. But there ARE sports that allow us to directly compare men and women, such as track and field events, in which both sexes are timed over the same distances. And speed and strength are basic components of other sports, so these measures could be used as proxies for measuring the athletic difference between men and women.
So how do women measure up? Not well, frankly. Today's best female athletes are posting records that are in many cases 100 years behind male athletes. On average, in track and field, women are performing at the level men were in the 1920s. In swimming, women are currently posting times that men swam in the early 1970s. In weightlifting, women's records are about 20% to 25% lower than men's.
In fact, women are so far behind men, that their world records are only about equivalent to what a good local high school athlete could achieve. Most of the boys' under-18 records in my state of Connecticut, for example, are better than the women's world records. One could just as easily ask whether high school boys should be paid the same as female world record holders.
Ok so maybe the product female athletes produce isn't of equal caliber. But does that necessarily mean they should be paid LESS than men?
Absolutely not. They should be earn whatever people are willing to pay them, whether that amount is less, equal, or greater than what men are paid.
Just as Marx's labor theory of value ended up on the trash heap of discredited economic ideas, so too should equal pay for equal work. And that's a good thing for women, because, based solely on performance, women would only be valued at the same level as male high school athletes.
But that'd be like basing the Mona Lisa's value on the amount of paint Da Vinci used to create it. Indeed Marx, and the feminists calling for wage equality, erroneously value a product by the amount of work required to produce it, rather than by the use or pleasure a buyer gets from it.
Luckily, today we recognize that value is not calculated that way. Instead value is subjective. The same item can be valued differently by two different people, and it may have nothing to do with the amount of work that went into producing it. Again, art is a good example. An abstract work of modern art that took only a few hours to complete may fetch millions of dollars from an art enthusiast, yet be deemed ugly and worthless by someone else.
In the world of sports, value is also subjective and not necessarily based on the amount of talent that goes into it. Often less skilled athletes have a larger following than those with much greater skills. Some college teams regularly outdraw professional teams, in football and basketball, for example.
And indeed 70% of major athletic competitions offer equal prize money to male and female competitors, including figure skating, skiing, ironman, marathon races, swimming, tennis, and even the above mentioned track and field, in which men perform at a much higher level.
Yet one-time events are easier to fund and generally drawn sellout crowds. Leagues are a different matter altogether, and that's where the biggest difference in wages shows up. In basketball, the 30 NBA teams draw an average of 17,407 per game for 82 games, for a total league attendance of 21,410,610 per season. Women, on the other hand, have 12 WNBA teams, averaging 7,183 attendance per game over 34 games for a total league attendance of 1,465,132 per season. Major League Soccer also draws considerably more than the women's equivalent, the National Women's Soccer League. In fact, the top 141 North American teams in terms of average attendance are all male, with Portland's National Women's Soccer League team the top drawing women's club ranked 142nd.
In other words, interest in women's sports simply does not justify paying the same salaries as men make in most major sports. And trying to legislate higher salaries via government wage controls would only end up harming the women it's trying to help. Mandating a pay rate would have the same effect as the minimum wage. The cost to field a team would increase higher than market forces dictate, pushing ticket prices up to the point that many people would not want to pay the higher amount, and attendance would fall, cutting into profits and leading some potential owners to invest their capital elsewhere.
The WNBA suffers a different problem. That league imposes a $107,000 maximum wage on its players. As with all wage ceilings, fewer sellers, in this case players, end up producing the product. Indeed many female basketball players choose to play overseas where salaries can be ten times greater.
Allowing markets to set prices is the single most important feature of a successful economy. If the price is too high, potential buyers won't buy the product. If the price is too low, potential sellers won't produce the product. Only when the two sides agree on a price does a transaction occur. Government attempts to intervene on the seller's side only leads to a surplus of unbought products, while attempts to side with the buyer result in shortages.
And the same thing is true in the sports world. Force owners to pay above market wages, through "equal pay for equal work" legislation, and they'll hire fewer players. Force players to accept below market wages, and fewer women will pursue a career in that sport. Don't be fooled by the false promise of wage manipulation. Only when buyers and sellers are allowed to reach voluntarily agreements on wages does a market produce the best possible outcomes for labor.