Changing the game: women are ready to invest in their financial future

While the number of female sports professionals and salaries have increased dramatically since Title IX, these athletes need to make financial wellness a key part of their game plan.


Women in sports have come a long way since the passage of Title IX in 1972. This groundbreaking federal civil rights law has not only brought millions of girls and women into athletics, but has required schools, agencies and other institutions that receive federal funding to operate all educational activities -- including sports programs -- equally for women and men.

Over the years, Title IX has empowered female athletes to make significant strides in terms of viewership, performance and pay. In 2023, the Women's Final Four NCAA college basketball semifinals averaged 4.5 million viewers, up 66% from last season.1 And fans saw a record-breaking women's basketball championship between LSU and Iowa, which shattered multiple records.2 Female college athletes are also emerging as economic winners, thanks to NIL (name, image, likeness), the NCAA's policy to promote sports programs and drive revenue.3

In addition, female participation in high school and college athletics has skyrocketed,4 and professional money-making opportunities are also expanding. Television broadcasters and streaming platforms have added more Women's National Basketball Association and National Women's Soccer League games to their lineups,5 and endorsement deal revenues are also on the rise.6 Recent changes to NCAA regulations allow college athletes to earn money off sponsorships, and social media has also opened up non-traditional avenues for female athletes to attract fans and business opportunities. Tennis star Serena Williams, who brought in over $45 million in endorsements in the last year, ranks on Forbes 2023 list of the top 50 world's highest-paid athletes, which also demonstrates the potential earning power of elite female athletes.7

Yet with all of these advances and opportunities, Williams is the only woman to make Forbes' highest-paid athletes list. The sports gender pay gap is significant, with NBA players' salaries starting at almost $1 million, in contrast to their female WNBA counterparts, whose highest salaries remain less than one-quarter of that amount.8 In women's soccer, the FIFA Women's World Cup prize is $150 million for 2023, still far below the $440 million received for the 2022 Men's World Cup.9

Cathy L Bender headshot
"Many trailblazing female athletes have suffered financially because they didn't receive suitable financial guidance."

— Cathy L. Bender, CRPC®
First Vice President
Senior Financial Advisor
Retirement Accredited Financial Advisor
Merrill Lynch Wealth Management

Given these and other disparities, many women who have gone on to pursue careers in sports are finding long-term financial well-being elusive.

"Even now, the disparity in wage income is amazing for the female athlete," says Cathy Bender, a Senior Financial Advisor at Merrill. According to Bender, female athletes have often not received the same quality of financial guidance as their male counterparts.

"Many trailblazing female athletes have suffered financially because they didn't receive suitable financial guidance," Bender notes.

Ms. Bender is a trailblazer herself. She was the first Black female athlete to attend Vanderbilt University on a basketball scholarship in 1978,10 has been inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, and now uses her experience as a financial advisor to help clients pursue their financial goals.

Leanne Jewett headshot
"Peak career earnings tend to occur at a younger age for female athletes, so they have to capitalize quickly on a financial plan. They've typically put in a lot of hard work and have had to be extremely goals-focused. We try to translate that kind of goals-based approach into their financial planning."

— Leanne Jewett, CFA®
Senior Vice President
Wealth Management Advisor
Sports & Entertainment Advisor
Merrill Lynch Wealth Management

Merrill's Sports & Entertainment Advisor program equips advisors with specialized knowledge, tailored to the unique needs of high-net-worth clients in the fields of sports and entertainment whose goals are to grow, preserve and transfer their wealth.

Female sports professionals face challenges, such as fewer teams to join, less media coverage, lower pay and smaller sponsorship deals compared to their male counterparts. These constraints are compounded by the fact that if a female athlete decides to start a family, pregnancy can threaten the renewal of her contract, or lead to cuts in sponsorship deals, something that Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix recently publicized.11All of these heighten the importance of having a financial advisor who understands these challenges.

"Female athletes often have small windows of opportunity where the wealth is coming in, that they need to take advantage of," Bender offers, "but sometimes they've been advised to invest conservatively, or have been treated a certain way because they're women, and haven't seen the same returns as men."

Not only is the window of financial opportunity often shorter for women, it also often occurs when the athlete is quite young, according to Merrill Lynch Wealth Management Advisor Leanne Jewett.

"Peak career earnings tend to occur at a younger age for female athletes, so they have to capitalize quickly on a financial plan," Jewett notes. "They've typically put in a lot of hard work and have had to be extremely goals focused. We try to translate that kind of goals-based approach into their financial planning."

Linda Davila headshot
"Women in sports need to take control of their financial lives and find a firm that can help them manage their financial future."

— Linda Davila
Senior Vice President
Wealth Management Advisor
Sports & Entertainment Advisor
Merrill Lynch Wealth Management

The primary ideas Jewett tries to instill in her clients are:

number 1  The power of planning
number 2  The power of starting early
number 3  The power of giving investments time in the market


There are other important statistics that female athletes need to consider, such as that women live longer than men, which means a longer post-career retirement. Childcare is also a major expense for mom-athletes, according to the Women in Sports Foundation. Care for elderly parents may also fall to them.

Additionally, systemic racial inequities have also played a role in excluding many families of color from creating and understanding the complexities of intergenerational wealth.

"Oftentimes, female athletes haven't been educated about the importance of financial literacy," Bender says. "That's why it's so important that female athletes take charge of their finances and find an advisor they trust."

This idea is echoed by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management Advisor, Linda Davila.

According to Davila, "One of the things that's most critical for women to do is educate themselves." Many sports professionals are generally unfamiliar with investment management, tax planning, asset protection and trusts, and estate planning. As these professionals start making money, acquiring basic financial skills is critical. Women in sports are also often deeply connected to their communities, and want to give back in ways that empower recipients.

"Women in sports need to take control of their financial lives and find tax, legal and financial advisors who can help them manage their financial future," Davila recommends.

Merrill's advisors are prepared to serve clients in all stages of their athletic career — at the beginning, their peak years, near-retirement, to retired or starting their second career. For many athletes, the greatest challenge is how to build enough wealth during their relatively short career spans to perpetuate their lifestyle after retirement for the rest of their life.

While both educational and professional institutions still have a way to go to achieve the equality goals of Title IX, the law opened doors for women to step into high-profile and high-earning sports leadership positions, including coaching, broadcasting and team ownership. In 1972, there were only 700 girls playing on high school soccer teams and there were no professional women's teams in the U.S. In 2020, Angel City FC joined the National Women's Soccer League as the 11th expansion team, followed by the San Diego Wave. Angel City FC boasts an unusual ownership structure that includes a growing slate of professional female athletes and celebrities. Their aim is to push for higher salaries, better working conditions and 401(k) benefits.12 These owners hope this model will spread.

"We're seeing this more and more," says Linda Davila. "Women are taking ownership for who they are and what they're doing.

Merrill offers services with an understanding of the unique positions of women in the sports industry

settings Personalized investment strategies that address unpredictable and/or large sporadic income streams
taxes Tax minimization strategies
cash Manage everyday cash and access liquidity — help with planning for your income and cash flow needs, including expense management and budgeting
split and zelle split Help figuring out multiple income streams, including compensation for use of name, image and likeness, early in career — even while in college
home Access to Bank of America Loans and mortgages — realize borrowing power to fund your needs, from buying a first home to funding unexpected opportunities (i.e., vacation home, securities-based lending, customized lending, custom mortgages)
leisure Plan for a fulfilling retirement and help with understanding league-sponsored pension plan characteristics and league-specific 401(k) benefits
giving Give back to loved ones and community — our Private Wealth Services group will work with you to determine the legacy you want to create for yourself, your family and chosen causes
mitigation Preserve income and assets — thoughtful planning and insurance solutions that can help protect the things you care most about — your family, business and assets


In recognition of the unique financial circumstances that athletes face, Merrill created a first-of-its-kind professional Sports & Entertainment Accredited Wealth Management Advisor™ (SE-AWMA™) designation, launched in partnership with the College for Financial Planning, a Kaplan Company. Not all financial advisors who hold the additional title of Sports & Entertainment Advisor in Merrill’s Program hold the SE-AWMASM designation.

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1 (April 1, 2023).

2 (April 3, 2023).

3 (November 4, 2022).

4 (January 13, 2022).

5 Elsesser, Kim, "8 Unbelievable Gender Pay Gap Statistics From Top Athletes, Actors And CEOs," Forbes, August 27, 2018.

6 Strauss, Ben and Hensley-Clancy, Molly, "Women's sports can do at least one thing men's can't, experts say: Get bigger," The Washington Post, April 1, 2021.

7 (May 1, 2023)

8 (May 1, 2023)

9 (March 16, 2023).

10 (May 16, 2022)

11 "Allyson Felix: My Own Nike Pregnancy Story," The New York Times, May 22, 2019.

12 Baxter, Kevin. "Angel City FC’s ownership wants to bring a new philosophy to sports," LA Times, January 10, 2021.

Chartered Retirement Planning CounselorTM, CRPCTM, and the CRPCTM logo are certification marks or registered marks of The College for Financial Planning Institute Corp. in the United States.

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