Almost everyone who’s been striving for greater equality within sport has, over recent years, been quick to laud the progress of women’s sport.

And those plaudits have been well-deserved; there’s no question women’s sport is developing at an impressive rate in terms of the quality of the performances as well as the level of respect, profile and attention it’s receiving.

Female athletes are no longer, in the main anyway, second-rate citizens and female sport is, by most people, viewed as something worth watching.

That’s a significant shift in comparison to even a decade ago.

Yet there’s one area in which female athletes lag severely behind their male counterparts and that’s when it comes to pay.

This week, the respected American sports news company, Sportico, released its list of highest paid athletes in 2023.

One aspect of the results was truly shocking.

Everyone knows male athletes get paid more in salary and prize money than women, as well as earning more from endorsements.

So it came as little surprise to see Cristiano Ronaldo top of the list with the footballer’s earnings totalling $275 million, $215 million of which is his salary and $60 million is endorsements.

Golfer Jon Rahm is second on the list with total earnings of $203 million and completing the top five are Lionel Messi on $130 million, LeBron James on $125.7 million and Kylian Mbappé on $125 million.

I started scrolling down the list to find the highest-earning female athlete.

I went past Tiger Woods in fourteenth place with earnings last year of $77.2 million and past Lewis Hamilton in nineteenth place with earnings of £62 million.

On I scrolled through the top 100 individuals on the list, and still no sign of a female athlete.

I reached number 200. Shockingly, still no sign of a female athlete.

Finally, just outside of the top 200, was Coco Gauff.

The American tennis superstar-in-the-making was the highest-earning female athlete in the world in 2023 with a total income on $22.7 million, leaving her almost $10 million short of making the top 100.

Two things should be noted in the 2023 list.

Firstly, figures for last year, and over the past few years, have been somewhat skewed as a result of the Saudi Arabian money that has flowed into men’s sport.

Rahm would not have been in nearly as lofty a position in the list had it not been for the multi-year commitment with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf initiative that saw him sign a $300 million deal.

And while Ronaldo has regularly been sitting comfortably towards the top of the highest-earners table for some years, his $200 million a year salary from Saudi club, Al Nassr, ensured he’s clear in the number one position this year.

The Herald: Ronaldo is the world's highest-paid sportspersonRonaldo is the world's highest-paid sportsperson

And secondly, the complete absence of a single female in the upper positions on the list is unusual; this has happened only once previously in 15 years, in 2018. 

Typically, the odd woman appears, in the shape of Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Maria Sharapova or Li Na, who have all been positioned towards the top in recent years.

What’s clear is that for a woman to break into the chosen few of sport’s highest earners, they need to a be a true superstar.

Williams is arguably the greatest female athlete ever to have lived. She’s certainly the most widely known.

And both Osaka and Li Na are mega-stars in their own countries which enabled them to tap into huge markets in Japan and China.

But other than these individuals, who transcended their own sport and indeed, transcended sport as a whole, female athletes can’t get near the figures even male athletes who are well short of the best in the world can reach.

For example, 40 of the top 100 are basketball players, with the eye-watering salaries the NBA pays – the top players regularly pocket upward of $40 million a year in salary payments – ensuring even the men who are the level below the very best are absolutely rolling in cash.

The discussion folowing the release of a list such as this inevitably turns to how female athletes can close the gap between them and their male counterparts.

Certainly, equality in sports can never be achieved with such a significant disparity in earnings.

But I’d argue that instead of concentrating so intently on earnings, the focus should be upon how female sports are marketed.

Rather than looking purely at the figures, a more reasonable approach would be to look at how to increase the promotion of women’s sport which will, in turn, increase the money coming into women’s sport.

In the short-term, any female wanting to earn close to what male athletes earn should become a tennis player; this is the one sport that consistently remunerates female athletes better than any other.

But longer-term, there’s no reason as to why female athletes cannot begin to make more of an impact in the top 100, top 50 or even top 20 of this list.

Already, interest in women’s sport and female athletes is higher than it’s ever been.

While that may not fix all the problems, it’s a good start.

Next is not to focus on money but rather, on how to promote and market women’s sport which will, unquestionably, encourage sponsors to invest in women’s sport as well as men’s sport or, just imagine, instead of men’s sport.

And given the progress over the past decade, there’s absolutely no reason why, with the right approach, a decade from now, women are regular fixtures in the top 100 on this list instead of being outsiders looking enviously in.