The Gender Gap – Women’s Wrestling (College, 2007)

(I wrote this back in 2007 as part of a college group project discussing the gender gap for female athletes as a general whole; my group members chose golf, soccer and basketball, and I opted to choose professional wrestling, since I had the most exposure to that as a sporting property. It’s been eight years since I wrote this piece, and with the #GiveDivasAChance movement going on and whatnot, I opted to put some time into looking this over and posting it here, since I enjoyed the work I put into it, and I think it’s still relevant today.

Note, however, that the relevant graphs have been removed due to their generally boring nature, and that in the instances where someone asked not to be named, or has since become a major player in US wrestling and might not want their names mentioned, I’ve opted to refer to them as anonymous. That said, I talked to a whole lot of people here, so it’s got a lot of information backing it up.)

When one discusses the gender gap in professional sports, one “sport” in which the gap is distinctly noticeable is professional wrestling. It’s been made readily apparent in the past several years that wrestling matches are pre-determined and scripted, but the actual matches themselves are athletic displays regardless, and injuries in the world of professional wrestling are just as common as they are in more legitimate sports. (Considering how many wrestlers have turned out when their careers have wound down, in some cases the injuries can be even worse. These days the WWE seems to take this at least somewhat seriously, to a point anyway.) Sadly, gender bias is also equally as common, especially in mainstream wrestling organizations like the now bankrupt World Championship Wrestling, National Wrestling Alliance member Total Nonstop Action, (Well not anymore. By which I mean the “NWA member” part, not the “chauvinistic” part; considering Tazz spent half his time calling Jessicka Havok a man, that’s totally alive and well.) and of course, World Wrestling Entertainment. Men dominate the television time provided to these shows, and when women are showcased, they often are displayed in novelty matches (for example, the “Bra and Panties match”, where the loser is determined by the removal of articles of clothing, is a common match type for women’s wrestlers), (Well, not since WWE went PG, which, to be frank, is probably an improvement.) or as managers of male wrestlers. (Not really anymore; outside of Lana, the most we see this happen is when a woman manages a man for a specific storyline reason, like Natalya Neidhart accompanying her husband to the ring as an example.) Women who espouse virtues like chastity or decency are often reviled, such as Nora Greenwald, better known as Molly Holly in the WWE. (Yeah, figure that shit out; Molly’s whole deal was “don’t be gross” and she was a heel for it, and we were supposed to mock her for not being sex positive or some shit, when her whole point was basically “bra and panties matches are weird,” essentially. Also for having a supposedly big butt. Then, almost a decade later, the company decides bra and panties matches are weird and basically becomes Molly Holly. Fucking hell.) Even attempting to express that women deserve a fair chance tends to incite negative reactions; in NWA-TNA, Christie Hemme is jeered for stating that she feels women should be given a fair shot at competition, while Monty Sopp, known in TNA as Kip James and WWE as Billy Gunn, is cheered for crudely generalizing that Hemme should be more subservient. (Oh my God that fucking feud. Wrestlecrap covered it at one point, which should tell you everything you need to know about it, even if you’re not a fan; the site’s named Wrestlecrap for Christ sake.)

The questions then become, is the business as financially chauvinistic as its television presentation suggests, and if so, why? “Yes, without a doubt,” says author Scott Keith. “Some of the difference is made up in merchandise, but most of the female salaries in WWE only average between $40,000 and $100,000.” (21) (This quote was from an email I sent him back in 2007.) To put that into perspective, Keith explains the financial aspects of the business as follows: “Main Eventers [those who wrestle latest on a show] usually have downside guarantees [guaranteed salaries paid regardless of any other circumstances] ranging from $500,000 to $1 million a year, depending on length of time with the company and money [made]. Midcarders [those who wrestle earlier on a show] start at $100,000 and go up to about $600,000. Jobbers [people hired to lose to more established stars] generally have a set rate of $500 a night, although they’re not used much anymore.” (22) (This was a direct quote from Wrestling’s One Ring Circus.) This is illustrated in Table 7 below, which also appears as Appendix 1.6. (No table, though as an informative aside, I had a random conversation with Tammy Sytch recently where she noted that this number was basically awful, since she was making around that when she was working for WWE, so take that as you will.)

The why is a little more complicated, however. “(W)omen,” says Keith, “aren’t ever put in a position to draw money and thus can’t justify higher a pay scale. (T)hey’re treated interchangeably, with the exception of stars like Trish (Stratus) and Lita, (which) means that bargaining power is almost zero.” (Also a direct quote from an email.) He also notes bitterly that “North American wrestling has no tolerance for women as anything but sex objects or freakshow oddities on the bottom of the card because wrestling is run by sexist pigs with misogynistic tendencies.” (23) (This one came from Tonight in This Very Ring.) Wrestling legend REDACTED elaborates from his booking experience, “Female wrestlers, like the midgets, were always looked upon as novelty attractions. You seldom, if ever, saw the girls in a main event, so they were at the lower end of the scale. The girls usually made what I would call preliminary (jobber) money. I don’t think that there was a great disparity to the male wrestlers at the same level, (but) if there was a little extra money spread to the underneath card, it likely went to the men, because they were the regulars in the territory (locations a wrestling promotion would run shows within).” (This one was from an email to the person in question; while the quote is almost certainly historically accurate, it comes across as… not great, so I’m editing his name out to avoid any issues.)

This, sadly, is a common assessment of the state of women’s wrestling, among both experts and performers. Says author Bill Kunkel, “They’re considered a novelty and probably make more from DVDs, calendars and shoots than they do in the ring.” (Also a direct quote. Rest in Peace, Bill.) Says author R.D. Reynolds, “(P)romoters feel they don’t bring as much to the table as men. Since the heyday of Sable, women haven’t really been shown as draws or ratings grabbers.” (Also a direct quote.) Perhaps the most telling assessment comes from REDACTED, better known as former WWE Women’s Champion REDACTED, who says “I don’t feel comfortable going into it numbers-wise, but yes, women make significantly less than men.” As for why, she says, “(O)ther than it being a completely sexist industry, I have no insight as to why we are paid less.” (Fuck no I’m not about to name that one; naming her in a college class full of people who know fuck all and aren’t paying attention is one thing, but here, no way. That said, yes, this was also a direct quote.)

The situation is somewhat better outside of the US, however, especially in Japan, where wrestling is considered to be much more popular than it is in America. Says a promoter for the Professional Girl Wrestling Association, who asked to remain anonymous, “From what I understand, the women are highly respected there, and they earn a good living. Female wrestlers in Japan are akin to pop stars (indeed, many of them receive recording and film contracts, even if they can’t sing or act), and literally hundreds of girls audition each year for the relative handful of slots available for newcomers. The irony, of course, is that Japan is such a patriarchal society, and there are still so many other areas there where women find themselves hitting the glass ceiling, but in wrestling, at least, they seem to be the equal of any man.” (Also a direct quote; no idea if the PGWA is even still around but this was eight years ago so I’m reasonably certain if it IS, the person has since moved on.) Former ECW star and promoter Steve Corino echoes this assessment, “A few years ago there were women groups outdrawing a lot of the men’s group and they were making as much or more then guys in (Japanese wrestling promotions) New Japan and All Japan.” (Also a direct quote; I don’t expect Cornio gives a shit if he’s quoted here.) Sadly, this seems to be on the decline; says Bill Kunkel, “female wrestling is about as dead in Japan last I looked as in the USA.” (Direct Quote.) PGWA owner Randy Powell agrees with this assessment, though he notes, “Like in America, there are far too many promotions, and they are having problems attracting… fans to wrestling events.” (Direct Quote.)

Oddly enough, however, this trend does not seem to carry over to independent wrestling promotions. Several performers who wrestle in smaller, regional federations, such as Ring of Honor, Jersey All-Pro Wrestling, the aforementioned PGWA, and others note that in many cases, independent promotions pay rather well, all things considered. Says indy wrestler REDACTED, “It’s all pretty recent, but women wrestlers’ prices are going up. Take into account that there are far less of us – we’re a hotter commodity as a result. Also, women’s wrestling is on the upswing thanks to (women’s wrestling federation) SHIMMER and other all-ladies’ promotions, so promoters are more willing to shell out the bucks for us. It’s much easier for a promoter to find a guy to take a beating for 5 minutes in a preliminary match or work an undercard match for $15. With the ladies, there’s a FAR smaller pool to pick from, so they actually have to go out of their way to book us… and when they do, it’s going to cost them accordingly.” (Direct Quote; she doesn’t wrestle anymore so I don’t know if she’d want to be called out in this, and since we’re still kinda-sorta friends I don’t want to be THAT guy.) Dave Prazak, promoter of women’s wrestling federation SHIMMER, agrees, “There will always be hundreds of male wrestlers willing to work cheaply or even for free just for the sake of getting ring time and experience… but if a promoter wants a women’s match, they have no choice but to pay.” (Direct Quote.) Says CHIKARA promoter and wrestler Mike Quackenbush, “It’s not unusual for a female rookie to make two to four times what male rookie does in the United States.” (Direct Quote. If anyone would know it’d be Mike considering how often he tries to book respectful women’s matches for CHIKARA.)

This is a common assessment; of twenty-seven independent wrestlers and promoters, both male and female, sixteen stated that women are paid equal to or better than men on the independent circuit, with two others noting that while this can be the case, it’s on a case-by-case basis. (24) (Basically I created a table listing the respondents and their answers. About half of them are retired at this point, which in eight years is kind of depressing.) There are some dissenting opinions, of course; wrestler REDACTED notes that “Women are considered less value (and) thought to be less skilled and less of a draw. It’s thought that ‘oh, just any two girls can do a match, it doesn’t matter if they’re skilled or not. It’s a novelty match after all’,” and that when booked as a team with a male associate, he would often be paid more. (As this was a less positive quote I don’t know if the performer would want it listed, since she still wrestles.) This is illustrated in Table 8 on the following page, which also appears as Appendix 1.7. (This was a pie chart illustrating the answers I received, basically.)

Sadly, it’s very difficult to garner definitive information on the gender gap in wrestling; many of those questioned wished to remain anonymous, for fear that an unflattering answer may haunt them later. (Which is why I’m editing out the majority of the names now even so. Not that anyone’s going to find this post and say “Oh shit, so-and-so said bad things about booking women, BLACKBALL HER,” but one never knows…) Still, it seems fairly apparent that the world of wrestling, by and large, is one that has made progress in breaking the gender gap, but has yet to completely do so. While the major promotions seem apathetic to the pay discrepancies, independent promotions at least are making important movement toward changing this trend for the better, and foreign promotions offer a positive alternative to learn from, even if their business is dwindling as quickly as it is in the US. (NJPW turned the business around rapidly as it turned out not too long after this, due to a combination of a change in ownership and pushing a shitload of awesome new talent to the top, like Tanahashi, Nakamura and Okada. You wouldn’t think that’d be a big deal, but the reality is, when the top company flourishes it creates a boom in the want to see wrestling in general, which increases money all around. In other words, there are a shitload of women’s feds in Japan that are doing at least “okay” fiscally, and we’re probably back to women’s wrestling being a thing overseas again. Meanwhile the WWE is trending in the 3’s ratings-wise and putting out matches featuring talented women facing… significantly less talented women, so nobody profits. Just saying.) The present situation seems hopeful, even if there is a long way to go.

As we review the information we have acquired, (Across the entire report, which I’m not reposting since I didn’t write three quarters of it.) the only possible conclusion one can draw is that the gender gap between male and female professional athletes is a large one, and the separation is sometimes millions of dollars in scope. (This was mostly in basketball, but not even close to always.) Men make substantially more than women in professional sports, as we have seen through the four sports profiled. The reason why is simple: partially it is because women’s sports are not as prolific as men’s, and partially it is because viewers are simply less interested. (That was a big point of observation amongst all four sports, oddly enough, though again, basketball seemed to be hit the hardest. Sadly, our soccer writer turned their part of the report into an attack on the media, so that wasn’t really as helpful as it could’ve been.)

More attention is given to men’s sports than women’s sports because men’s sports have made money and captured the attention of viewers, whereas women’s sports have yet to do so. (I’d even go a step further and note that when we do latch on to female performers, they’re the ones that are often the ones who are the most sexually presentable rather than the ones that are the best, except in scenarios where Olympic Gold, controversy or sheer undeniable skill are concerned. That’s just a theory but it’s one that can be argued effectively enough that I’m willing to put it out there.) One could argue that with more publicity and exposure women’s sports could draw as much money as men’s sports, but many promoters only see a risk that may well end in financial failure. (These days I’d say it depends on the sport, and our expectations of said sport in general. Football and basketball, probably not, because we expect huge people smashing each other and slam dunking, respectively, and without steroids or modifications to the play field that’s less likely. You could condition the fanbase toward liking the different style of play, but it’d take a lot of money to do it. Golf, baseball, hockey, wrestling and soccer though? Totally viable, because the style wouldn’t have to change much if at all. The weird thing is that UFC is starting to prove that this is true, but is running into the opposite problem, because their current champ, Ronda Rousey, is too dominant, to the point where she won her most recent fight in fourteen seconds, and lord knows who they’re going to put her up against next. With Billie Jean King, they just let her go out and smoke Bobby Riggs in a “Battle of the Sexes,” but you almost certainly can’t do that in MMA for multiple reasons. It’ll be interesting to see if we can see some more competitive attempts to make women’s sports into legitimate competitive endeavors in light of Rousey’s success, though.) Sadly, this is a perception that’s easy to understand; given the choice, fans of the sports will, in many cases, choose the male sports over the female sports even when offered the option between the two. (Danielle Matheson also makes a fairly interesting counter-point about the fact that, at least within the world of wrestling, even when women’s wrestling is made into its own event, it’s still not really inclusive, which almost certainly doesn’t help. It’s one thing to say “Here’s sports featuring women,” but when you market the product in a way where it’s still uncomfortable to female fans that’s not helping. To put it another way: yes, something like half the roster of Dead or Alive 5 is female fighters, but when they’re being dressed in over-sexualized costumes and tournament players actively revolt over the idea of instituting soft rules about restricting the use of these costumes, you’re still creating an environment that is hostile to women. Just saying.) The public has yet to embrace the possibility of women’s sports being something they would invest money in, and until they do, the gender gap will continue to exist.

That’s not to say that the situation is hopeless, however. While there is no easy resolution one can suggest, that women’s sports exist at all is something that is positive, even if they are regarded as inferior. Women’s sporting organizations like the WNBA and SHIMMER, and sporting events like the FIFA Women’s World Cup didn’t exist two decades ago, and they are attracting fans to their product. It is, by all indications, unlikely that this particular gap will close anytime soon, but it is very likely it will continue to recede as time goes on. (One can only hope, in any case.)

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