From the boardroom to the playing field, stakeholders are increasingly recognising the importance of fostering diversity, equality and inclusivity within the world of sport.

Sports organisations that prioritise inclusivity attract top talent from diverse backgrounds, creating a dynamic and innovative workforce that reflects the diversity of their fan base, participants, sponsors, partners and the broader community.

Sport is a cornerstone of the global economy, generating billions in revenue annually and creating countless jobs worldwide. As a thriving business sector, it not only fuels economic growth but also fosters innovation, drives investment, and shapes cultural identity.

By innovating and advancing as an industry to provide equal access and fair treatment for all those involved in sport — regardless of gender, age, social class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or religion — the future for this sector holds enormous potential.

However, inequality and discrimination persist for various groups of society; whether in the form of access and participation in certain sports, unequal pay, or marginalisation in sports leadership roles. For women, the journey towards gender equality both on and off the pitch has been marked by major hurdles — but also significant milestones, particularly in the last few years.

The current state of play

The gender pay gap persists in professional sports, with female athletes earning significantly less than their male counterparts. According to Forbes, the top 10 highest-paid male athletes in 2023 earned a combined $1.05 billion, while the top 10 highest-paid female athletes earned a combined $525 million.

Women’s representation in executive positions within the industry is also lacking. According to a report by Women on Boards UK, women hold only 26% of board positions across UK sports organisations. While in the US, women make up only 22% of executive positions in professional sports leagues, according to a study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES).

Calls for change 

A review led by former Lioness Karen Carney called for key changes to be made within women’s soccer, which she believes could be a billion pound industry. These included the top two tiers in the women’s game to be made fully professional, for money to be redirected from the men’s FA Cup, and to have a dedicated broadcast slot. In 2023, just 8% of sports media coverage in the UK was dedicated to women’s sports, despite women’s sports accounting for 35% of all sports participation. 

What’s more, female athletes receive a disproportionately small share of sponsorship and endorsement deals compared to male athletes. In 2023, female athletes accounted for only 8% of total athlete endorsement income globally. 

People with disabilities, chronic illnesses or other physical or mental limitations often face obstacles when it comes to actively participating in sports. Accessible infrastructure, training facilities, appropriate equipment and qualified coaches are some of the factors that are being improved to ensure participation for all.

There are encouraging signs of change, with more organisations committing to diversity and inclusion initiatives, and taking concrete steps to level the playing field.

From sports leagues implementing equitable policies to brands championing female athletes and executives, there are a growing number of success stories to celebrate.

Champions of change, campaigns and stories of progress in sport diversity

1. The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has been a trailblazer in promoting gender equality in sports. With a strong focus on empowering female athletes and advocating for social justice issues, the league has become a symbol of progress and inclusivity in professional sports in the US and worldwide. At just over 25 years old, the organisation is made up of mostly Black women and has a visible queer demographic.  

2. The Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative (BJKLI), founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King in 2014, continues to work to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace, with a particular focus on advancing women in leadership roles within the sports industry. The initiative provides resources, mentorship, and advocacy to empower women to excel in sports business. 

3. In February 2024, British beauty brand Charlotte Tilbury made history by being the first female-founded brand to partner with the F1 Academy. It’s a groundbreaking partnership that aims to support female drivers and promote gender diversity in Formula 1. Motorsport has a huge female following, and Tilbury has said she hopes to “open up the traditionally male-dominated world of motorsport to even more talented young women.”

4. Women now outnumber men in South Korea’s sports stadiums. In South Korea, women now make up 55% of fans at professional sporting events. (That percentage is less than half in the US, and less than 25% in UK and Australia.) These events are safe places for women, with children’s playrooms on site, and reports of less smoking, drinking and swearing.

5. The Special Olympics has made significant strides in promoting inclusion and empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities through sports. One notable change brought about by the Special Olympics is the expansion of opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities to participate in organized sports competitions and events at local, national, and international levels.

6. Growth in sponsorship deals: The number of sponsorship deals in women’s professional sports has increased more than 22% year-on-year, according to SponsorUnited’s latest Women in Sports Marketing Partnerships report. Three specific leagues—LPGA, WTA, and WNBA—contributed significantly to the 5,500+ deals that were activated in the past year.

7. The Arsenal Women’s team sold out at Emirates Stadium in North London in their February 17 match against the Manchester Red Devils. It was the first time they’ve done so, as part of the Women’s Super League, with over 60,000 tickets and all hospitality packages sold for the event.

8. Rivals Manchester City are doing an impressive job of elevating the profile of women’s football and inspiring future generations of players. The club has taken the decision to merge the Twitter/X feeds of their men’s and women’s teams into one parent channel, @ManCity, as part of the ‘Same City, Same Passion’ campaign launched at the start of 2024.

9. The International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s Gender Equality Initiatives continue to promote gender equality in the Olympic Movement, including increasing the number of female athletes and officials, advocating for equal prize money, and supporting women’s leadership development programs in sports organizations worldwide.

10. The US’ Soccer’s Equal Pay Settlement in 2022 was a major milestone — where the United States Soccer Federation reached a landmark settlement with the members of the US Women’s National Team, resolving a long-standing dispute over equal pay and working conditions. The settlement represented a significant victory for gender equality in sports and set a precedent for other organizations to address pay disparities.

11. Australian Football League (AFLW) has transformed the landscape of Australian Rules football by establishing a professional women’s league. With growing popularity and attendance, the AFLW has provided opportunities for female athletes to pursue careers in football and inspired girls across Australia to participate in the sport. The AFLW also has a strong connection and representation within the LGBTQ+ community.

In ‘Diversity and Inclusion in Sport Organizations: A Multilevel Perspective’, George B. Cunningham, a Professor of Sport Management at the University of Florida and Director for the Laboratory for Diversity in Sport, explores strategies for creating and sustaining diverse and inclusive sport organisations, and how sport can be used to achieve positive social change. 

In his book, Cunningham examines the extent to which companies are rewarded or penalised for their diversity performance through changes in their valuation, and how diversity and inclusion signals can influence purchasing decisions and an organisation’s attractiveness among job seekers. Research suggests that people now have an expectation for sports organisations to be inclusive, and that businesses with pro-diversity mindsets within the organisation thrive; seeing improved processes, creativity and organisational effectiveness. 

Studies have shown that diverse and inclusive organisations outperform their counterparts, leading to increased innovation, broader fan engagement, and enhanced brand reputation. By tapping into the full talent pool and catering to diverse audiences, sports businesses can unlock new revenue streams and drive sustainable growth.

From mentorship programs and leadership development initiatives, to diversity training and inclusive marketing campaigns, organisations are taking proactive steps to create more inclusive environments and empower women and marginalised groups to thrive in sports business.

Recognising intersectionality and people’s uniqueness

Increasingly, the industry is recognising how gender equality intersects with other dimensions of diversity — including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability; and how the inclusivity efforts of businesses need to be intersectional, addressing the unique challenges faced by women of colour, LGBTQ+ individuals, and individuals with disabilities in sports business.

The media plays a crucial role in shaping our perceptions in sport and by providing equitable coverage, challenging stereotypes, and amplifying diverse voices, media outlets can contribute to a more inclusive sports culture.

Advancing equality in sports business requires collective action from all stakeholders. Together, sports organisations, sponsors, media outlets and fans, all play a vital role in breaking down barriers, fostering inclusivity and creating an equitable, prosperous sports industry that benefits society as a whole.

Announcing ‘Sport: The Business Game’

ITN Business’ programme, ‘Sport: The Business Game’ is launching online in October 2024 and will feature insights from thought leaders in the sports industry, including, World Sailing, England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB), and British Association for Sustainable Sport.

Presented by sports presenter and football commentator, Jacqui Oatley MBE, the programme will delve into the thriving ecosystem surrounding the sports industry, focusing on the key players who supply, support, and enable sports activities globally. 

It will highlight the network of organisations driving the business of sports forward, explore how these entities facilitate sports events and infrastructure, ensuring smooth operations and accessibility. 

With a spotlight on innovation, diversity, sustainability, and community impact, it will demonstrate the pivotal role these organisations play in shaping the future of sports.

There are commercial opportunities for leading organisations to be featured in the programme and spearhead their own news item. If your organisation wants to share what you stand for and be part of this important conversation about the business of sport, please contact Programming Directors Rams Bdesha and Jamie Connolly.