With a full summer month (and much productivity) absorbed by the World Cup, July signals the start of another globally captivating sporting event, the Tour de France. The Tour de France is ranked third behind the quadrennial Olympics and World Cup in terms of global sport broadcast audiences.
Extensive media coverage providing viewers with live up-close, aerial and interactive GPS footage will follow the men’s professional peloton attacking climbs, chasing breakaways, carving out high speed descents, racing the clock, and sprinting for glory. As the racers rack up nearly 2,300 miles on cobblestones, in the Pyrenees, on flats, and along coastal regions, there is an equally important story about women’s racing that requires telling.
While the Tour’s 21 stages are exclusive to professional men, this year the Tour will also host one day of women’s racing, La Course. 20 elite women’s teams will battle it out on the historic Champs-Élysées finish in the hours before the men’s grand finale race of the Tour.
The Women’s Cycling Association (WCA) — a U.S.-based women’s cycling development, support and advocacy organization — is celebrating the Tour de France’s addition of La Course as at least a partial victory for the development of women’s racing. While women have raced previous versions of a Tour de France, it is the quality of this race, the size of the prize purse and the live international broadcast that makes this race a win for women’s cycling, even if it is only for one day.
But this sort of serious media and sport property owner commitment to women’s sport is unfortunately exceptional.
More work is needed to ensure that women’s professional cycling is more than a warm-up race for the men’s.
While there are women’s professional cycling circuits of stage races and World Cups, women’s cycling remains a secondary sport market. A lack of media coverage, a gross differential status of salaries and race prize purses, and a thinness of sport industry sponsorship prevent the most talented women from enjoying a professional status anywhere on par with even the amateur rungs of their male counterparts.
Yet, there is much more to being a professional athlete, much more in between the stage racing and podiums. Professional bike racing and elite global sport involve many more working hours and relations. The ways sport is governed and organized critically affects the lives, working conditions and rights of athletes.
On the international race scene, far more egregious concerns of legal support and representation for female professional racers exist. The frequency of racers experiencing threats, intimidation, withheld wages and even assaults by team personnel are too frequent. Women racers do not want to stir trouble or jeopardize the opportunities that they have fought to make for themselves.
The differential status between men and women’s pro sport gives rise not only to inequalities of wealth and prestige, but also to safety and security. The imbalance creates a precarious situation in which the lack of basic financial security, fair and just sport governance, and serious representation makes for vulnerability in the lives of many women professional cyclists.
This problem is neither new nor limited to professional cycling. Instead, it is common across sport disciplines for women athletes at the highest ranks. American sociologists Cheryl Cooky and Michael Messner analyzed local news and ESPN SportsCenter coverage of women’s sport since 1989. Their findings are dismal. Though women make up 40 percent of athletes, media coverage of women’s sport measures at the 1-2 percent range.
More than offer a token article on women’s sport, I want to raise an important sport industry conversation of corporate responsibility. In the second part of an ongoing feature on women and professional sport markets, I will focus on what it takes to improve women’s sport. The contemporary women’s professional cycling market presents an opportunity for better identifying the stakeholders and valuable partners capable of remedying this social inequality and elevating the market position of women in elite sport.
Rook Campbell is a Visiting Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Southern California. Follow her on Twitter: @cabinet48