Investing in women’s sports: Understanding the pay disparity in Iowa athletics

Iowa coaching staff for women’s sports makes a fraction of their peers’ salaries. The Daily Iowan investigated what factors play into that dramatic gap.
Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder answers questions for members of the media after an NCAA Tournament First Round game between No. 1 Iowa and No. 16 Holy Cross at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Saturday, March 23, 2024. The Hawkeyes defeated the Crusaders, 91-65.
Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder answers questions for members of the media after an NCAA Tournament First Round game between No. 1 Iowa and No. 16 Holy Cross at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Saturday, March 23, 2024. The Hawkeyes defeated the Crusaders, 91-65.
Grace Smith

When Caitlin Clark stepped onto the court against Michigan a month ago, her fans, her coaches, and her fellow players all knew she was there to make history. It took her just over two minutes.

Her eyes focused up and ahead, the defender too far away to stop her. Just minutes into Iowa’s contest against Michigan on Feb. 15, Clark had a clear shot at a very deep three. With those points, Clark passed Kelsey Plum — former University of Washington star guard who now plays for the Las Vegas Aces — to become the NCAA Division I women’s basketball all-time leading scorer.

That singular accomplishment has become more than just a number in a record book. The basketball phenom that is Clark — not single-handedly, she’d be sure to tell you — triggered a tsunami of fandom that stretches beyond the confines of Carver-Hawkeye Arena and into the world at large.

As her story progressed over the last four years, and as she ticked off one record after the next, the fandom expanded in both size and shape: Girls of all ages stare wide-eyed when she walks past them into the tunnel after the game. Boys wear the number 22 emblazoned on their t-shirts.  Fans of all ages at visiting arenas push and shove to get a closer look at her when she enters the court to practice sinking 3-pointers.

Yet the big looming question that many are asking but can’t quite determine: Will support for women’s basketball continue once Clark departs?

Clark declared for the 2024 WNBA Draft in February before senior night, making this season her last with the Hawkeyes. Are we witness to a temporary Caitlin Clark era in the universe? Will future generations of women hoopers sustain these kinds of crowds?

And if they will, how will the money flow?

As a result of the last two years with Clark at the helm of the Iowa women’s basketball program, Hawkeye games have increasingly sold out arenas across the country, and ticket prices can reach into the thousands of dollars.

Lisa Bluder, who has been coaching at Iowa since 2000, receives an annual base pay of $1 million. That includes a $200,000 raise she earned within the past year after the team’s historic run to the NCAA championship game — the first time in history the Hawkeyes had made it to the final game of the tournament.

Her male counterpart fares much better. Fran McCaffery, the Iowa men’s basketball coach since 2010, receives a base pay nearly double what Bluder makes.

The history of the game being played on campuses across the nation has dictated not only the comparative popularity between men’s and women’s basketball but also the money flow into the various teams.

An abundance of factors goes into the process of deciding a coach’s paycheck. From TV contracts to ticket sales, there’s no single equation that can compute the perfect salary for a coach. According to a statement from the UI Athletics Department, pay for coaching staff at Iowa is influenced by, in no particular order, “education, experience, salary market data, past program and coaching success, budget, job classification and pay level, job duties, and job performance.”

In following the money and cultural shift that sports have seen over the past several years, however, The Daily Iowan began an investigation to reveal why this wage difference exists — and why it might not be right.

Pay for Iowa’s coaching staff

The audience for all women’s sports at Iowa has been climbing over the past few years. Fans are showing up in greater numbers, media outlets are investing more by sending reporters to cover sports in Iowa City, and these teams are winning.

However, coaches at Iowa for women’s sports make considerably less than their counterparts in every respective sport.

Bluder’s current contract, for example, sets her guaranteed pay at $1.4 million, while McCaffery’s guaranteed pay is $3.3 million, according to contracts obtained by the DI. Before Iowa’s NCAA tournament success last year, Bluder’s base salary was $838,000. The Iowa coach broke $500,000 for base pay 15 years into her tenure at Iowa.

Following the money trail is hardly an easy process given the history of limited funds and attention women’s basketball — and women’s sports in general — have attracted. In short, data follows popularity, and women’s athletics didn’t have that.

The DI editorial team recognizes women’s sports have historically brought in only a fraction of the total dollar amount brought in by the men’s teams. Fans were not lining up to watch women’s basketball hours before tipoff until Clark came to town.

And indeed, the young athlete catapulted the program into an entirely new paradigm.

According to The Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa Athletics captured more revenue from women’s basketball in the 2023 fiscal year than originally anticipated. The sport was anticipated to generate $350,000. It grossed $1.2 million.

Still, the Iowa men’s basketball team, estimating $3.2 million in revenue, raked in  $3.5 million during the same time frame — nearly three times that of the women’s program despite the men’s team losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Two words: media contracts.

During Bluder’s tenure, she has coached the team to 17 NCAA tournament runs, four Sweet 16 games, two Elite Eights,  and one Final Four. Women’s basketball games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena were sold out all season this year, which is a first for the program.

Every time the women’s team plays at home, roaring screams ripple across the stadium every time a Hawkeye puts the ball through the net. Long lines form for the sticky-sweet Carver Cones, and the smell of popcorn fills the air.


McCaffery has coached for 13 years and succeeded in seven NCAA tournament bids — but has only taken his team to round two before elimination. This year the team didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament, ending its season with a loss in the second round of the NIT — a smaller postseason tournament hosting teams that did not win enough quality games during the season to receive a berth in the NCAA tournament.

This season, as of February, the men’s team is averaging just 9,712 people in attendance at home games and has struggled all year to get students into seats. Even in the middle of an Iowa blizzard, over 13,000 people showed up to watch the women’s team in January.

While this is the first season the women’s basketball team has averaged more in attendance than the men’s, the numbers indicate a trend toward greater support for and success of the sport in Iowa.

Scott Dochterman has been covering Iowa basketball for years with The Athletic and has seen these changes firsthand.

“It’s surging in a way that’s unrecognizable, I would say, just from covering this industry since the later part of the last decade,” Dochterman said. “I would have never guessed this."

TV contracts and lucrative deals

Bluder’s salary doesn’t keep pace with the successes of the program she leads, and that’s attributable — in part — to differing program revenue fueled by national broadcast deals that still under-recognize women’s basketball.

Brandee Britt, the social media coordinator for the Iowa women’s basketball team, says the bulk of revenue in collegiate athletics is generated from the TV contracts held with broadcast networks. Records requested from the Iowa Office of Transparency from fiscal 2023 show that nearly $50 million in revenue comes from media deals, making up a good portion of the total operating revenue.

According to ESPN, a 2021 report found that women’s basketball in total could be worth around  $100 million, but previous TV contracts valued women’s basketball rights at a fraction of that amount. This report was published before the explosive growth seen in 2022 TV viewership rates.

In the Big Ten, men’s basketball and football each have their own respective TV contracts, while women’s basketball is lumped in with the rest of the collegiate sports. Britt said over the past several years, athletic leaders across the Big Ten have been advocating for the separation of women’s basketball into its own contract, to no avail.

Even if Bluder and her team sparked a national wave of attention for the sport, women’s basketball is only allotted an amount of money outlined by the TV deal, which is then further divided into the different schools included in the contract. In fiscal 2024, the Iowa women’s basketball revenue from media rights hovered around $100,000, compared to the $5 million from the men’s basketball media contracts.

If the women’s basketball media contract was structured like the men’s basketball media contract, the end number would be far higher.

“If you take women’s basketball out of there and sell it for what it should be — because 9.3 million people, or a peak of 12 million people, watch the national championship game — that would be significantly more money,” Britt said.

At the beginning of this year, The Athletic reported the NCAA inked a “lucrative” eight-year deal with ESPN worth $115 million per year for 40 annual college sports championships, including the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

While the exact details of the contract are not public information, the new contract values collegiate national women’s basketball at about $65 million per year. This is much closer to the estimated, actual value of women’s basketball.

Anne Costabile, the Chicago Sky beat reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, said there is an enormous difference in treatment between men’s and women’s athletics, explaining the stark pay gap seen in these TV contracts.

“Women have had to build toward relevancy, and men just get an opportunity to prove that they’re relevant,” Costabile said. “Men have been allowed to try and fail, and women have only been given opportunities when there’s a proven success rate … and this TV deal is an example of that.”

Although the NCAA women’s basketball deal can be seen as progress toward equity, the Associated Press found that the women’s basketball community wants the sport to have its own deal,  like the men’s side does, rather than being lumped with several other sports.

Despite the 10 million people who tuned into last year’s women’s championship game between Iowa and LSU, this wave of popularity and money that followed is new.

Historically, the NCAA has lost money by putting on the women’s basketball tournament. According to the Associated Press, the deal will allow the NCAA to cover its deficit from the women’s basketball tournament, which totals $2.8 million as of 2019.

The new contract makes it easier for university athletic directors to put money into women’s sports simply because it’s generating more money, according to the Associated Press.

There are, however, programs that were making that investment before this updated TV contract.

LSU women’s basketball head coach Kim Mulkey currently receives a base salary of over $3 million, making her the highest-paid collegiate women’s basketball coach in the nation. According to reporting from USA Today, the LSU women’s basketball department is operating with a significant deficit. However, the LSU Athletic Director Scott Woodward said this money being poured into the program is an investment for the future.

“I’m looking at it for the greater good — not just for women’s sports but for young girls in this community and people who aspire to come to this university and for making people feel great in this state,” the LSU athletic director said in the USA Today article.

Revenue and popularity

For years, the public didn’t question lower pay for women’s sports. In years past, only a small percentage of seats were filled at Carver, and giant black curtains were used to block off sections and create the illusion of a packed crowd.

Until recently, attendance for any other women’s sport was marginal.

Costabile attributed the discrepancy in fan attention to a lack of promotion and subsequent public visibility. She believes that’s changed because of the attention this Iowa women’s basketball team has brought upon itself in recent years.

“Now the change that’s going on with Iowa women’s basketball is a credit to the visibility that Caitlin’s bringing about,” Costabile said. “But to go even farther back, it’s a credit to the decades of work that Lisa Bluder has done building that program — players that have come through her program have made it relevant.”

While women’s sports are undoubtedly reaching a larger audience in Iowa today, the revenue discrepancy is still present. As it stands, women’s sports at Iowa have lower operating revenues than men’s teams, according to the fiscal 2023 financing report for Iowa.

The Iowa Office of Transparency confirmed women’s basketball generates less money than its counterpart, drawing in around $4 million compared to the men’s approximate $15 million in fiscal 2023.

The reasoning for this, however, could point to more systemic inequalities within athletics as a whole.

Costabile believes it starts with the functioning of American society, in which sexism and misogyny are “ingrained -isms.”

“Women have to make up such a gap [of] the distance between being on an equal playing field, but while they’re trying to make that up, they’re also combating these conditionings that the average American has,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s a lot of conditioning that has to be broken. And the only way that that happens is honestly through discussion. I don’t know that we all are having those discussions enough.”

Part of the issue, Costabile argues, goes beyond the head start men’s sports got because women weren’t allowed to play college sports until much later. Iowa’s women’s basketball program started in 1974, while the men’s team was solidified as a varsity sport in 1901.

She notes that women’s sports operated in comparison to men’s, and initially attempted to replicate men’s style of basketball to bring those fans over to women’s basketball.

“Women’s sports were predicated on the fact that their success was going to be found in mirroring men and reaching the heights that men reached,” Costabile said. “You can’t try to make women’s athletes male athletes.”

If women’s sports are compared to men’s — two different styles of sports — some audiences can find them to be less entertaining, thus turning those viewers away. Costabile argues the women’s game needs to be marketed as a different brand of basketball, and Clark, she says, is a perfect example.

“The way that people show up to see Caitlin is breaking those things down,” Costabile said. “People are showing up to see her because she’s entertaining, and she’s a thrilling athlete to watch.”

Costabile said the only comparisons that should occur are investment and pay discrepancies.

“We should compare the things that contribute to this continued inequality between men and women,” she said. “Comparing a game is not the same as comparing ingrained sexism.”

The media plays an enormous role in the money trail within women’s sports, especially since the dawn of NIL deals in college athletics.

An ESPN investigation in February 2023 into inequity in college sports posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, showed 84 percent of Power 5 programs referenced men’s sports more than women’s.

ESPN noted this differing representation could lead to Title IX violations and lawsuits in addition to potential economic ramifications such as less money for sponsorships and endorsements due to the reduced attention.

In a review of 3,200 posts per athletic department account over the span of five years until February of 2023, ESPN found that “@TheIowaHawkeyes” mentioned men in 54.5 percent of the posts.

Women’s teams were mentioned 45.5 percent of the time, but the women’s basketball team was mentioned slightly more than 50 percent of the time over the men’s team in the regular season.

Clark is an outlier in this data set, making her way to the bottom of the 20 most frequently mentioned athletes in all Power 5 schools. She is one of seven women on this list, skewing Iowa’s data closer to equitable with a single player.

As Clark’s name continued to become more recognizable during her junior year last season, the Iowa athletics account continued to post about her and her many accomplishments. This social media promotion from an account with almost 300,000 followers didn’t exclusively lead to Clark’s national recognition, but it certainly helped in establishing a household name.

Britt, Iowa women’s basketball social media coordinator, said since Clark and the team’s successful run in the 2023 NCAA tournament, the university’s social media team posts Clark more frequently, and she’s appearing in far more promotional content for the university.

Britt, who has been with the team since 2016, said Hawkeye Sports Properties — an outside Learfield marketing agency that manages the Hawkeye brand — told her it was hard to sell women’s sports.

Learfield directly contributes to certain coaches’ guaranteed compensation, including an additional $150,000 to McCaffery, according to his most recent contract. Learfield is not referenced in Bluder’s contract pertaining to guaranteed compensation.

“A few years ago, they told me they had trouble selling women’s basketball,” Britt said. “I kept challenging them. There’s an audience for this. There’s an audience for this because I kept seeing the growth in our accounts.”

Britt was right, and the Hawkeyes found that audience during last season’s Final Four run.

While the Iowa women’s basketball team has had other stars perform well during their tenure and garner national attention — such as  center Megan Gustafson, who was the National Player of the Year in 2019 — Clark has taken Iowa to the next level.

Iowa’s game against Louisville kickstarted the whirlwind of attention from fans online, who specifically pointed out Clark telling opponent Hailey Van Lith, “You're down by 15 points – shut up."

“I think what made a difference with Caitlin is her swagger,” Britt said, drawing parallels between Clark and NBA great Stephen Curry. “She’s like, ‘I’m competitive. I’m going to be competitive. I’m not going to hold myself back.’ And I think people really hadn’t seen that in the women’s game.”

The idea of “trash talk” and the competitive nature of sports also reared its head during the championship game.

LSU’s Angel Reese received both praise and controversy on social media for taunting Clark during the game by waving her hand in front of her face in the “You can’t see me” taunt popularized by WWE wrestler John Cena — a gesture Clark had also used to celebrate during the championship run.

In response, Clark had this to say on ESPN: “I think men have always had trash talk ... and I think more and more people, as they turn on the game, they’re appreciating it for what it is.”

The excitement surrounding women’s basketball has exploded this season beyond these individual players.

Before the Hawkeyes and Wisconsin Badgers faced off in Madison, Wisconsin, on Dec. 10, fans lined up in 29-degree weather at 8:30 a.m. — five hours before tipoff. This was a first in recent years: The Kohl Center hadn’t sold out in 21 years before that game.

Clark noted the dedication of fans in a similar lineup outside of Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Illinois, when the Northwestern Wildcats welcomed Iowa to town. But she did wish such games had reserved seating. Many women’s basketball games are still general admission.

“I think it just shows what people are willing to give to be able to watch our team play, and I know how excited people are,” Clark said after the game. “Any time you step on the floor, whether it's at home or whether it's on the road, people spend a lot of time and money to get up to a place to watch us play.”

And for Iowa’s matchup against Nebraska on Feb. 11 in Lincoln, Nebraska, Pinnacle Bank Arena workers noted fans lining up outside as early as 4 a.m. to get a good seat inside.

Ticket prices have followed the rising interest wherever Clark and the Hawkeyes go. FOX College Hoops found the Iowa road game ticket prices going as high as $1,750 at Ohio State on Jan. 21, $2,761 at Northwestern on Jan. 31, and $1,544 at Maryland on Feb. 3.

Courtside tickets on SeatGeek for Iowa’s game against Michigan on Feb. 15 — in which Clark made history, passing Plum for the NCAA Division I women’s scoring record — were listed at $4,624.

For the countless fans who don’t have the luxury to see the Hawkeyes in person, though, they opt for a TV broadcast, where inequities between men’s and women’s sports persist with differing  TV contracts.

The future of women’s basketball at Iowa

Often, the growth the Iowa women’s basketball team has seen is solely attributed to Clark and what’s being called her once-in-a-generation presence.

At the end of February, Clark announced she would not be using her final year of COVID-19 eligibility. She is anticipated to be the first overall WNBA pick, and the Indiana Fever is expected to be her next team.

Clark will obviously leave a gaping hole in her wake upon leaving, and so will the departure of her fellow seniors, such as Kate Martin, etc. But fans are quick to point out that the next group of starters will remain national contenders.

Hannah Stuelke and Sydney Affolter, for example, have both exhibited star-quality moments throughout the season. Stuelke dropped a career-high 47 points against Penn State in February, and Affolter was selected for the Big Ten All-Tournament team after stepping up to fill in for an injured Davis as a starter.

Five-star recruit Addie Deal, espnW’s 12th overall player in the class of 2025, is a Californian who also recently committed to Iowa. The Hawkeyes also have a verbal commitment from four-star guard Journey Houston of Davenport North High School in Davenport, Iowa.

Dochterman, the journalist who has spent years covering the Iowa women’s basketball team, said the program-fan relationship is built on perceived personal connections with the entire team.

“It’s almost like small-town high school basketball at a macro level. It’s unusual, but it’s organic, and I think that’s something. That is why Iowa women’s basketball, right now, is personal to people,” Dochterman said.

Dochterman said he doesn’t think the attention on the women’s basketball program will vanish with Clark’s move to the WNBA.

“I do think, generally speaking, that the interest is so high and the fan base is so committed to women’s basketball, so I do not see a significant drop in ticket sales or interest going into the future,” Dochterman said. “There’s a brand awareness there from the people who have engaged with them and then also attended those games that they want to continue to support it.”

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