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Where are the American women?

2012 May 10
by Victor Matheson

I’m a little behind the game here, but in a relatively recent segment on NPR, commentator Frank DeFord lamented the current lack of American women in tennis and golf. He notes that,

In tennis, Europeans dominate. In golf, Asians. The only U.S. female tennis player in the top 35 is Serena Williams, who comes in at a modest No. 9. And Serena is 30 years old, which, in tennis terms, is like Jamie Moyer pitching in the big leagues at 49.

There was something poignant the other day when there was a reunion of the pioneers of women’s tennis, who, led by Billie Jean King, symbolically turned pro for a dollar apiece in 1970. Seven of the nine were Americans. It was a stark reminder of how we’ve bequeathed women’s tennis to the rest of the world.

While the very top women’s golfers in the world are Asian, it is far from clear that the U.S. has bequethed golf to the rest of the world. 8 of the top 30 players in terms of money winnings in 2011 were Americans, comprising 26.7% of the total. The U.S. represents 25.1% of the total population of the OECD countries, the sort of rich, industrialized countries that are likely to develop top golfers.

The pesky issue of data aside, Deford ask why the U.S. is falling behind in the women’s sports race. Deford states, “You’d expect, then, that the most promising American young female athletes would naturally migrate to individual sports, especially to tennis and golf, where the big money is made. But obviously this is not the case.” He then falls back on that great excuse of curmudgeons everywhere – lazy American kids these days.  ”And, goes the thinking in tennis, poorer Eastern European girls will work harder and longer, hitting shot after shot, than will spoiled American iPhone kids.”

From an economic point of view, I think Deford is wrong in both of these claims. First, if the lack of success is due to America laziness, we should see the U.S. slipping off the charts in all sports, not just tennis and golf. Instead the U.S. continues to dominate women’s athletics across a wide number of  events. At the 2008 Olympics, the U.S. women won the second highest number of medals just behind China, whose medal totals were likely boosted by home court advantage.

More interesting is his claim that American women should be attracted to indidual sports with the highest earnings. It is true that golf and tennis provided potentially high rewards. Yani Tseng, the top player in the LPGA earned $2.9 million in prize money in 2011. By way of comparison, the WNBA salary scale tops out at about $100,000.  But if the decision to pursue a career as a professional athlete is a purely economic one, that decision should be based on expected salary, not maximum wage, and it should be made relative to the expected economic returns of participating in another sport.

Prior to Title IX and the explosion of women’s intercollegiate athletic programs, the potential for any economic returns for women athletes were limited to golf, tennis, and perhaps figure skating, meaning those sports should attract the best athletes. It’s should come as no surprise that Babe Didrikson Zaharias, probably the greatest female athlete of the 20th century, gave up track for a career in golf. In a world with large amounts of scholarship money available to college players, however, it is far from clear that golf or tennis provide the best opportunities for monetary rewards for female athletes.

A full athletic scholarship at my institution has a retail value of roughly $55,000 per year. While that’s a far cry from $2.9 million, it’s also much easier to attain. Fewer than 90 women’s golfers earned over $55,000 on the LPGA tour last year while over 60,000 women earned NCAA scholarships (although admittedly most of them were worth only a fraction of $55,000). Still, the total prize pool from all events on the LPGA last year was about $35,000,000 while the NCAA’s “prize pool” for women athletes outside of golf and tennis was about a billion dollars. Given these sorts of figures, it comes as no surprise that American women athletes have increasingly turned from golf and tennis to other sports where the reasonable chance of a small scholarship payout outweighs the nearly impossible chance of the “big bucks.”

One Response
  1. michael c permalink
    May 10, 2012

    Great analysis. How further would the tradeoffs change if we included the costs of reaching the NCAA level for a given sport? A large number of athletes can compete in school-sanctioned sports like basketball or track with almost no cost to the family. The time and cost to develop a pro level golfer is well out of the reach of so many of these families, regardless of the large potential payoffs down the road. Self-selection seems to be a big factor here, probably much more that the putative laziness of US kids. There is the subsidy element whereby public institutions are selecting the sport (few schools have golf), but also a barrier to entry that is much lower for a minimal equipment sport like basketball.

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