Why So Few Powerful Female Athletes?

Women are watching and playing more sports than ever. So why aren't more women endorsement superstars?

They say women are the fairer sex. But it certainly doesn't seem fair when recognition for athletic performance is handed out. How do female athletes measure up on the Power 100? Less than 1/10th as well as their male counterparts.

Of the eight women on the 2010 Power 100, only Serena and Venus Williams—ranked at No. 16 and No. 42, respectively—cracked the top 50. But that's hardly surprising when you consider that in mainstream pro sports, outside of individual endeavors such as tennis and golf, women have.037% the number of roster spots available to them as do men. The NBA has 450 active roster spots open each season (15 spots on each of its 30 franchises), as opposed to 132 in the WNBA (11 spots on 12 franchises). Add the NFL (1,696 roster openings), MLB (750), and NHL (690), and you'll see that athletic opportunity at the highest level knocks a lot louder if there's a guy on the other side of the door.

And this in an era when, outside of sports, there's more gender-based employment equality than at any time in history. According to Labor Dept. statistics, as of November 2009, for the first time, more women than men held full-time jobs in the U.S. Long-term cultural changes have driven this surge, with America's current economic factors pushing the figure over the 50% mark.

Females represented on the 2009 Power 100 are about on par with their top-level front-office counterparts. A recent analysis of staff directories from the 135-plus franchises of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and Nascar revealed that only about 11% of vice-presidencies or higher positions were filled by women.

Only in Tennis

Of all sports, professional tennis represents the best leveler of on-field compensation. The sport's four Grand Slam events—the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open—finally offer equal prize money for male and female champions after decades of not doing so; the French Open was the last to capitulate in 2009.

Were we just examining the athletes' off-field rankings, where women fare slightly better, we'd be adding three more power players to the eight on the list. Retired golfer Annika Sorenstam comes in at No. 34 off-field but No. 110 overall; Sorenstam's approximate $10 million in annual endorsement income before she hung up her clubs is comparable to that of Lorena Ochoa (No.56 on the Power 100) and Michelle Wie (who failed to make the Power 100 cut at No.108 but comes in at No.81 off-field).Just-retired WNBA star Lisa Leslie just misses at No.101 but is No.42 off-field.And IndyCar and soon to be Nascar darling Danica Patrick comes in at No. 30 off-field thanks to such sponsors as Go Daddy, but only No. 88 when her behind-the-wheel performance is merged in.

Will we ever see a $1 billion female athlete? If we do, we'll have the Women's Sports Foundation to thank, at least in part. The nonprofit founded by Billie Jean King in 1974 influences public policy to increase girls' participation in sports with no barriers to entry. It's all about amassing athletic grrrl power.

Click here to see the world's most powerful athletes in the 2010 Power 100.

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