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Photo-illustration by Sarah Rose Greenberg

The college athlete pay gap, and why it matters

Here’s what you need to know about how the NCAA’s NIL ruling has affected women athletes.

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It’s one of the biggest changes to ever hit college sports: Starting in July 2021, college athletes can now earn money from their name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights. Before that, even the best-known student athletes were barred from signing endorsement deals, creating their own brands, monetizing their social media, and other money-making opportunities that have benefitted professional athletes for decades. The new NIL ruling has been called “revolutionary” by some — and long overdue by the many college sports fans who consider the Kick Six or Miracle at Michigan just as thrilling as any moment in pro sports.

But while a whole new class of athletes is now eligible to monetize their name and image, there’s evidence that those opportunities aren’t coming equally to all. According to a recent study of college NIL deals by Opendorse, 71.7% of deals have gone to men, while only 28.3% have gone to women. The same study showed that the most-compensated college sport by far is football — the male-only sport takes 50.6% of endorsements overall, with women’s basketball a distant second at 18.5% of total compensation. To put it simply, women college athletes are receiving fewer sponsorships, and less compensation overall than their male peers.

Inequality in college sports matters — not just now, but down the line. The gender pay gap that begins in college sports continues in women’s pro sports, as recent pay discrimination suits show. And a viral video by University of Oregon basketball star Sedona Prince sparked a national conversation about disparities in resources between women’s teams and their male counterparts. Investing in women athletes at the college level gives them the support and exposure they need to become the next generation of female sports stars. It’s one reason H&R Block began its A Fair Shot initiative, which commits $1 million this year to sponsor female collegiate athletes from a variety of sports and schools, and to support them with the tax counsel and help they need as newly minted entrepreneurs.

“Gender equity is a topic important to me,” Jeff Jones, CEO of H&R Block says. “I am the father of two daughters and want them to have a fair shot in all aspects of their lives, too.” Jones hopes the initiative will not just provide material support to help close the gap between men and women athletes, but also create “momentum and a ripple effect of change.”

Caitlin Clark
Photo-illustration by Sarah Rose Greenberg

To help drive awareness of the inequities, A Fair Shot’s first partners are two basketball phenoms who started making waves in high school, and haven’t stopped since: Point guard Caitlin Clark, who leads the country in scoring with an average of 26.6 points per game, and Zia Cooke, the player who became a viral sensation after scoring 43 points in a high school game back in 2018 (and whose college team just won the national championship!) “I have a lot of people in my corner helping me out,” Cooke says, “including H&R Block being the first to help me with my taxes, [and] showing me the pathway of what it’s like to become a businesswoman.” She appreciates that the initiative is “standing up for female student athletes by not only supporting us financially, but making sure we’re set up for long-term success.”

A Fair Shot is also partnering with athletes like Sedona Prince, University of Georgia softball player Jaiden Fields, University of Texas softball player Lauren Burke, and the University of Southern California women’s beach volleyball twins Audrey and Nicole Nourse, and more student athletes throughout the year. A Fair Shot also offers online resources to help all student athletes navigate the tax implications of their new income streams.

Zia Cooke
Photo-illustration by Sarah Rose Greenberg

Jones hopes A Fair Shot can help support all student athletes as they manage the new opportunities and challenges of NIL. “Zia talks about making history being in the group of the first student-athletes to navigate going to school, practice, living on their own, and now navigating NIL,” Jones says. “We take pride that she says H&R Block has taught her to start thinking of herself like a small business. New income and business deals with brands can bring a lot of change fast. We hope to help these students have financial confidence.”

Sports fans know that the thrill of the game is the same whether the players are men or women, amateur or pro. As the NIL ruling opens more opportunities than ever to student athletes, it’s crucial that women aren’t left behind. With dedicated resources and support, we can help level the playing field between male and female athletes, support today’s college sports stars — and give the next generation of young girls a vision of excellence to aspire to.

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