How are startups helping inequality in sports?

Bernardo Montes de Oca

It's hard to explain the barrage of emotions sports fans feel when watching games: from pure joy to heartbreak. Professional and collegiate sports offer an escape from our daily lives and, at the same time, have become one of the most important forms of entertainment globally. Yet, as entertaining as they are, some things must change. Fortunately, the change is happening, and startups are a part of this revolution. 

When we think of most professional sports, one image comes to mind: male athletes and coaches. It's been this way for decades, and the equation has worked for fans, team owners, and leagues alike. The sports media rights market grew from $8 billion in 2006 to $23 billion in 2021. Let's take the NBA as an example. It's one of the most important sports leagues in the world, with $10 billion in revenue last year. 

Lately, another league has grown in popularity, garnering more and more fans and showcasing the talent of rising stars and unknown names, and has done so for years. It's just that the world made the mistake of not paying attention to it. Of course, I'm talking about the WNBA, the highest professional women's basketball league. Right now, women's sports are at their highest popularity ever and will soon break the $1 billion in revenue, but things could be better, specifically in terms of wages. 

Male athletes have reaped the benefits of this boom in sports. The average salary is $9.7 million per player, and a minimum of $1 million, in 2023. Ten years ago, this salary was $5.1 million, and the minimum was $790,000. That’s great news for them, but sports have failed massively at breaking social paradigms. On average, the US census indicates that women get about 84% of men's total salaries. Basketball, and all other professional sports, take that stat to another level, with men earning 9,300% more on average than women. In 2023, the average WNBA player’s salary was $103,000. Out of the 150 professional athletes in the WNBA, only 14 made more than $200,000. 

From the outside, the problem has an easy solution: getting more money, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Partnerships with sponsors come few and far between, so getting the voice out there is vital, and one of the most critical early efforts to date came from a startup. In 2021, Buzzer partnered with the WNBA, making this the first-ever partnership between a startup and a professional women's league. It showed the world that people wanted to watch it. 

After Buzzer proved the equation worked, major networks such as CBS and ABC expanded coverage to the sport, and in 2022, the WNBA an 19% increase in viewership from the previous year;  its highest ever viewership. The league's growth also sparked one startup's desire to provide the right daily coverage for the WNBA and other sports. That's how The GIST was born. Months after it came out, it landed more than a million dollars in funding and has continued to grow since, having a 1,000% growth in its first two years. 

Startups such as The GIST and Buzzer has done great things for the WNBA regarding viewership and this fuelled others to follow. Togethxr is the brainchild of legendary female athletes Sue Bird, Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim, and Simone Manuel. They focus on providing original content that elevates women's presence in sports. As a result, the company earned the rank of one of the most innovative companies in sports in January 2023. 

Such efforts have provided these underrepresented leagues with much-needed coverage, but professional and collegiate sports face another massive challenge, which could be harder to overcome. Developing young athletes is expensive, from training time, equipment, and endless rides to and from the court. Sometimes, it doesn't matter how talented kids are; their future is hampered by financial restrictions, and the wealth gap could widen. So, these young athletes have taken to other forms to earn money which, up until a few years ago, was impossible for student-athletes. In the past, if college athletes made money, they ran into trouble thanks to sanctions that didn't allow them to profit off their image. Fortunately, there's change happening, as some college athletes can now earn money, but it's still a challenge to many. 

The best way to get sponsors is to showcase one's athletic abilities, and that's where Athlytic came in. The startup came to life as a contestatory startup out to challenge all major colleges in the US. The two founders, Jared Eummer and Ashton Keys, believed the National Collegiate Athletes Association (NCAA) treated athletes as property by not letting them earn money, and this had to change. The platform helps athletes land deals with sponsors, bypassing restrictions that could come from the NCAA. Fortunately, things got way more manageable when, in 2022,  legislation finally changed, allowing athletes to use their likenesses for profit. So, now, Athlytic helps them better understand the financial side of the business.

Wealth disparities in sports happen worldwide, and massive efforts exist to overcome this. For example, in South America, reaching professional leagues is almost impossible, and athletes with less income are disadvantaged technologically. 

Regional clubs need more technology to make the best analysis to improve performance. So, two founders decided to change things by creating a startup, Oliver, which allows smaller clubs to collect data to improve decisions on training everyone from young athletes to established professionals. The idea behind the startup is to give smaller clubs tools that major leagues use. It got financial backing from one of the world's most influential clubs, FC Barcelona, and with this partnership, the startup hopes to expand its efforts to as many small clubs as possible. 

Startups such as Athlytic, Oliver, and Togethxr have been crucial in breaking the structural barriers in sports for decades. It makes perfect sense that these are the companies leading this change. The current recipe has worked, creating a market worth billions, but there's a chance for more growth, not just financially. Of course, sports will continue to be a multibillion-dollar market, but we should make it so that it means more opportunities for everyone. 

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Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable.
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