On Bias in Sports

If there’s one event to capture the world’s attention towards the end of 2022, it should be the ongoing FIFA World Cup, the second most watched sporting event that’s held only quadrennially. Besides the deafening roar of fan-packed stadiums and its far-reaching fanfares, there are facets of this world cup that are oftentimes overlooked, like Qatar’s heinous human rights records that built the stadiums with something comparable to modern day slavery.

One of such issues is gender equality, that recently made headlines with Iranian protestors, a close ally of Qatar. And if one compares the popularity of this (male) world cup to its female counterpart, it’s not hard to realize the latter had been dwarfed by the former pretty much since their inception. On the sidelines, I had some online discussions on this subject, which quickly deteriorated into a debate, first heated, then ugly.

There’s no denial to the fact almost all commercially successful major sports are male-dominated. This includes soccer, basketball, baseball, rugby and so on. We are familiar with names like World Cup, NBA, MLB, NFL, but certainly not as familiar with their female counterparts (some of which don’t exist in the first place). Feminists are quick to point this out as systematic bias against female, and it should be corrected. Female athletes’ voices for equal pay grow louder, but the society as a whole only seems to budge.

To some degree I’m part of the resistance. When I watch sports, I seek the most thrilling, intense and inspiring matches, regardless of gender, and I assume the majority of sports audiences share this position. In fact, for most of the aforementioned big-name sports like NBA and MLB, their rules don’t prohibit female athletes, on which ground I consider them gender-neutral (instead of male-only). Differences in body anatomy mean the best female athletes can’t make themselves into these leagues.
This thought is affirmed by my experience watching tennis, a major (if not the only) sport that is commercially successful and at the same time treats and promotes its male and female matches not too differently. My experience is that the male matches tend to closer [3], more exciting, with more entertaining rallies, so I watch them more often.
So when it comes to pay (or media attention), I would fully support equal pay for equal work. For athletes, the quality of “work” should be the quality of the matches and the excitement they generate. For the previous example of tennis, the matches are great for both genders as their viewerships were generally similar [1 2], and the tennis grand slams pay equal amounts of prize money. But this is not the norm in sports, for basketball, WNBA had a fraction of viewership and revenue compared to NBA, and is subsidized by the latter. Even that’s better than baseball, where no professional female league exists in North America.

But when I think about this further, a more thought-provoking question comes to my mind. If one watches sports with [group A] and [group B], and finds [A] more entertaining than [B], that person would likely watch [A] more than [B] in the future. This person is not harboring bias against [B], instead just making sensible preference to the best utility of his/her time and efforts. The different groups could be genders, geological regions, ethnicities, ages and so on. When it comes to gender, body anatomy could (at least partly) explain why most male sports are more popular than their female counterparts, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. But the other issues are more subtle, that [group B] could be a particular geological region that had been economically impoverished, whose athletes didn’t have access to as good training. With economic developments that could change, the same sport with [B] could be as exciting as [A], by which time the audiences’ preference would become a bias. When in this process does sensible choices become biases, prudence become prejudice, I have no clue. The least I can say is that, it would be hard as a society to promote the former while avoiding the latter.


For single’s matches in 2022 US Open, counting only completed matches (excluding retirements), men’s singles averaged 4.23 sets per match (best of 3 in 5 sets) and women’s singles averaged 2.34 sets per match (best of 2 in 3 sets).
The distribution of the number of games a losing side won in a set is as follows:

Number of Games Man’s Single Woman’s Single
6 15.4% 13.7%
5 8.7% 7.5%
4 24.0% 23.3%
3 20.3% 24.7%
2 11.6% 16.1%
1 8.7% 8.9%
0 11.4% 5.8%

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