Here's a recession quiz for sports fans.
Is it a better deal to:
A) pay $595 per season ticket plus a $1,600 per seat required "donation," plus an "additional up-front gift" (read: $100,000 payable over five years) for a top seat to University of Louisville Men's Basketball? Or,
B) pay $65 for the same season seat to see the women play? That would be the team that last week trounced top-seeded Maryland 77-60 to make it to the Final Four. (Another $162 gets you the Louisville section for all three playoff games).
There aren't many bargains in sports, but one of them is NCAA Division I Women's College Basketball – and that's a problem.
It doesn't take a committee on economic oversight to see a glaring imbalance between what schools charge to attend men's versus women's college basketball.
An analysis of ticket prices at 292 Division I colleges this season shows that single tickets to men's games cost twice as much as to women's games even controlling for differences in attendance (at a few schools women do outdraw men). The study, part of The Women's Sports Leadership Project at the Wellesley Centers for Women, showed large gaps at every level, from premium season to general admission single game tickets. This is true even at colleges that are home to the nation's top 25 ranked women's teams. These women's basketball powerhouses charged an average of 9.5 times more (up to $1,063 more) for top season tickets and more than twice as much (up to $20.83 more) for the cheapest single game tickets to see their men's basketball team play.
Even colleges with mediocre men's teams charge more to watch them. The University of Wyoming men finished last season ranked 241st with average attendance of 5,262; the women ranked 41st with average attendance of 4,399. Yet the 10-page color brochure inviting fans to "secure premium seating for the new era of Cowboy Basketball" and outlining multi-thousand dollar choices for premium seating for men's games, offered one page and one price for season tickets to see the women: $95.
Pete Cautilli, associate athletic director for licensing, merchandising, and tickets at Louisville, explained why they priced women's game tickets at $5 each: "One of the things we wanted to do was to make it a reasonably priced ticket in order for people to afford it and get exposed to the product."
It's working. The team has drawn well, he said, and sold out on Dec. 14 against Kentucky (that's 19,000 seats). Still, women's college basketball is anything but a free market and Cautilli doesn't plan to charge more. "I think it's a fair price," he said noting that they are trying to serve a fan base of families.
There is nothing wrong with family programming. But before we assign a Disney Channel to women's basketball, consider the limits of this agenda. For years, women's sports have been marketed, scheduled, and priced as Saturday afternoon birthday party fare (bring 20 and it's $2 each) rather than a top-shelf Saturday night event-worthy adult social gathering (who has those courtside seats?).
And yet, if you actually watch the women's competition you will see a game you didn't see a decade ago, a game with thrilling up-tempo play, lots of scoring, three-pointers, and acrobatic passes. Isn't that why we watch basketball?
Charging less to watch women devalues their play and perpetuates stereotypical economic disparities between men and women. A 2004 study in the behavioral science journal Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, showed that when tickets to women's sports events cost more than to men's events, test subjects "perceived the women's teams as equivalent in value to the men's teams." In other words, men get a status bump just because they're men. Unequal ticket prices underscore this – and often on the public dime.
Many of the nation's top basketball teams are at public institutions. Thanks to an explosive press conference, we all know that University of Connecticut Men's Basketball Coach Jim Calhoun is that state's highest-paid public employee. What makes his yammering about how much money his team brings in – $7.3 million to the women's $5.3 million – so frustrating is that the women's team is just as compelling and successful.
Last year, average per game attendance for the UConn women was 10,479 to the men's 11,887. But tickets to see the women cost $22 while tickets to see the men cost $30 (wonder what multiplying that over a season and thousands of fans does to the revenue gap between the teams?). So why charge 25 percent less to watch the women?
"Tradition and history dictate the cost of the ticket," explained UConn athletics spokesman Mike Enright. "Historically the women's tickets have always been a little less expensive than the men's tickets."
OK, so help me understand why. "It's really a factor of, like I said, history and tradition – and not that the women's team doesn't have a great history and tradition – but the history of ticket pricing."
Exactly the problem.
Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at The Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and blogger at FairGameNews.com. A full report by Pappano and WCW methodologist Allison J. Tracy, PhD., will be available this spring.