Investing in Women: Garbage in, Garbage Out
The last few days have been dominated by a lot of commentary on the differences in treatment between the men's and women's March Madness Tournaments. This article from NBC lays out some of the areas worthy of criticism, ranging from the branding to the Covid protocols. The attention was initially sparked on social media when players shared their experiences. Perhaps most notably when Oregon's Sedona Prince went viral on Tik Tok for a video of the "weight room" provided to the female players. A number of celebrities and leaders in women's NCAA basketball chimed in with their own thoughts. Eventually some things were changed in response to the firestorm. And that is great. However, as many people have pointed out, it shouldn't have been an issue in the first place.
What got me most riled up, however, is the inevitable commentary on each and every tweet about this topic, where some dude (yes it's always a dude) says some version of "it's throwing away money to do this. The men make more so they should get better stuff." And every time I read this my blood boils. Firstly because even if that were a 100% true statement, it doesn't explain things like not protecting the health of athletes with comparable Covid protocols or even really the utter disparity in the facilities. Just a basic respect for human safety should call for those elements to be at least somewhat equitable. But the statement IS NOT TRUE. It is essentially reversing causality.
To say, the men make more money thus they deserve better treatment and better stuff is to imply that ALL ELSE BEING EQUAL, they would still make more money. If women had the same investment in training and healthcare, the same quality of training facilities and equipment, competitive pay for coaches, and perhaps most importantly marketing investment, then the men would still make more money. There was a really great interview with WNBA star Sue Bird on the R2C2 podcast a couple years ago where she talked a bit about the difference in marketing between men's and women's professional basketball. Essentially what she said is that if you don't work as hard to sell tickets, to brand the teams, to hock merch, of course the women's teams are not going to bring in as much money. And I would add that in addition to all that, if you don't treat the women's teams with as much respect as the men's teams, then you are signaling to folks that the women are not worth as much and therefore you are working against any marketing efforts you might actually be making.
There is a concept that everyone from designers to coders to mathematicians use called GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out. Essentially, it means if your inputs are bad, there is not much you can do to make the output not bad. I think this concept applies to just about everything.
An obvious example in my everyday life is video and audio editing. If I get crap footage or a terrible quality recording, there is only so much I can do in the editing phase to make that better. But I also think there are perhaps less obvious applications as well. I once did a research project in grad school on the subject of film distribution disparities between male and female directed films. Despite the fact that when a female directed film did get equitable distribution, the return on investment was actually higher than male directed films, the vast majority of female directed films get significantly less distribution. Distribution meaning how many theaters the film goes to and for how long. This directly affects how much earning capacity that film has because it affects the number of tickets that can be sold for any film. Studios used the same backwards justification for perpetuating the disparity. They would say "well, women's films aren't making as much money as men's films, so we can't invest as much in them" while simultaneously holding women back from making as much because they aren't giving them equivalent distribution.
So extrapolate this to women's sports. You can't just say "women don't bring in as much money so they aren't worth the investment" because they have never gotten an equivalent investment to men and thus have never had the opportunity to prove what they could accomplish with it. If women were treated exactly the same--The exact same facilities, equipment, and healthcare so they weren't at higher risk of injury. The same pay so they wouldn't have to work other jobs that distract from and limit time in training. The same coach pay so great coaches would be motivated to work with them. The same respect level so fans didn't think less of them. And the same investment in promotion and marketing so people even knew there were games happening and could get excited about players and rivalries and all the things that make sports so great.--If all of that was the same for years and women were still bringing in significantly less in ticket sales and engagement with no marked improvement over time, then that flippant assessment of women's worth would possibly mean something. However without that proof, you can't argue women are inherently less valuable. And with increasing evidence in other parts of the entertainment industry (because remember, sports are entertainment) that women-led projects are incredibly popular and make a lot of money, it is harder and harder to justify the marked disparity in treatment and investment in women's sports.
It's time to stop putting garbage in and then blaming women when garbage comes back out.