In late October, the women’s varsity soccer team at Burlington High School in Vermont managed to draw four yellow cards on a single play, a feat almost unheard of in the sport at any level.
When captain Helen Worden scored with three minutes remaining to put her team ahead of their rivals, four of the players on the field tore off their jerseys to reveal the words “Equal Pay”on their T-shirts.
The players were penalized by the referee, but the crowd loved the move. The moment went viral.
The call to equal pay is one women in soccer have heard often since the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) won the World Cup this summer. The team ignited a global debate about how female athletes are paid.
The USWNT has been embroiled in a fight for equal pay with the U.S. Soccer Federation, the governing body for both the men’s and women’s national teams in the United States. Back in March, all 28 players on the USWNT filed a federal lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, alleging violations of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
And in the same week that the Australian Women’s National Team won equal pay with their male counterparts, the USWNT’s claim got a big boost. In a signal from the presiding federal judge that their claims are strong, the team was awarded class certification going forward. Players Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Carli Lloyd were named class representatives.
In essence, the USWNT claims that they perform substantially the same work as the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT), but get paid a lot less for it.
The USWNT isn’t the first women’s team to demand fair compensation for their work. The U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team orchestrated a wide-ranging strike during their championship training camp in 2017 and won a new deal with U.S.A Hockey.
WNBA players, who continue to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the league, also have been outspoken about the wage gap between their pay and that of the men’s teams.
While the USWNT’s equal pay message has inspired women from high school soccer teams to traditional office jobs, a specific segment of the population doesn’t believe the USWNT, despite being vastly more successful team on the world stage, should be paid commensurate with their male counterparts, often suggesting that the USWNT (and their highly-paid lawyers) simply don’t understand how revenue works.
Luckily, in the wake of the USWNT’s filing in federal court and U.S. Soccer’s response, we have a lot more information about how each team is compensated.
To explain where each team stands when it comes to pay, let’s take a look at some of the most common objections to equal pay for men’s and women’s teams.
It’s true that globally, the Men’s World Cup brings in much more money than the Women’s World Cup. But while that argument may hold up when talking about the prize money FIFA doles out, it doesn’t necessarily hold water when talking about how U.S. Soccer distributes the money the USMNT and USWNT bring in.
According to numbers obtained by the Wall Street Journal, in the period between 2016 and 2018, the USWNT out-drew the men’s team in ticket sales, bringing in $50.8 million to the men’s $49.9 million. For 2016, the year after the women won the 2015 World Cup, they brought in $1.9 million in revenue more than the men. Those numbers are even more impressive given that U.S, Soccer has set a lower price for USWNT tickets than for tickets to see the men’s team play. In other words, the USWNT is out-earning the men at the gate, even though their tickets cost less. In the wake of the women’s World Cup win this summer and the ensuing victory tour, it’s likely the USWNT will again earn more revenue for U.S. Soccer than the men’s team.
The women also play more games than the men. A lot more. Winning games means playing deeper into tournaments and going on victory tours. From 2015 to 2018, the USWNT played 19 more games than the USMNT did. Given that the USMNT plays about 17 games in an average year, the USWNT played more than an additional year of matches more than the men. All those matches mean more training, more traveling, and more media appearances by the USWNT than by the men’s team.
David Berri, professor of economics at Southern Utah University, says the problem plaguing the pay scale in women’s sports is the same problem facing women in most industries. “It’s all the same story. Men are making decisions about women’s sports. And the attitude of men seems to be that women should be grateful that they can play at all.”
“Too often women’s sports are seen as a cost,” Berri continues. “Too often the men focus on costs and profits when it comes to women’s sports. Meanwhile, does anyone care that most teams in Major League Soccer are not making a profit? Or that this situation in the MLS is not likely to change soon? Men are often regarded as an investment. Women are a cost. So, when women ask for higher wages, all you hear is that women’s sports are not profitable enough.”
For example, back in 1982, the NBA suffered $15 to 20 million in losses, and only seven of 23 teams in the league showed a profit. In fact, that year there was a question as to whether the NBA would survive. The NHL, founded in 1917, claimed overall losses of $300 million in 2005, and the entire season was subsequently cancelled over a lock out.
Asking women’s pro sports leagues to show a profit within a matter of years or even decades after being founded holds them to standard not even men’s pro sports leagues have historically met.
I suppose this is a matter of preference, but most of the world disagrees.
More than one billion people tuned in to watch the Women’s World Cup last summer in France, and the two most-watched soccer games in U.S. television history are USWNT games, with the 2019 final between the U.S. and the Netherlands drawing more then 20 million Americans viewers. The only soccer match in U.S. history to win a bigger television audience was the 2015 Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan, which was watched by more than 24 million viewers. The U.S. audience for the women’s final in 2019 was 22 percent higher than for the men’s final in 2018.
The global audience for the women’s World Cup is staggering considering that the men’s World Cup features international star players. With few exceptions on the top women’s teams, the majority of the women playing in the World Cup this year were unknowns to a global audiences. The women’s tournament also featured 24 teams, as opposed to 32 in the men’s tournament, meaning the women’s World Cup had six fewer countries invested in tuning in to watch their own teams play.
Does the men’s tournament draw more viewers worldwide? Of course it does, it’s been around since 1930. The inaugural women’s World Cup tournament took place in 1991.
When it comes to bringing in an audience, Berri points out that men’s sports have the advantage of decades of marketing and promotion, while women’s pro athletes are only now becoming household names.
Effective marketing of women’s sports has a huge impact on the audiences they attract. This year, thanks to increased promotion of the league by networks like ESPN, ABC, and CBS, WNBA viewership was up 31 percent. The first three WNBA games of the 2019 season saw an increase of 64 percent over the first four games of 2018.
Likewise, the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team’s gold medal shootout win was the most-watched late night NBC Sports Network program since the network’s debut in 2003. That game introduced hockey superstars like Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, and Meghan Duggan to casual sports fans.
Berri says it’s not difficult to understand why women’s sports are playing catch-up when it comes to TV revenue.
“To put it simply, men had a huge head start,” he says. “Men have been playing organized professional team sports since the 19th century. Women, though, have only been playing for a few decades. Beyond the huge head start, men also get 95 percent of the sports media coverage. So, men’s sports get a tremendous amount of free advertising that is not available to women.”
It’s true that the USMNT and the USWNT negotiated completely different pay structures with U.S. Soccer, with the women receiving an annual salary and benefits, while the men are compensated in the form of bonuses and match fees. Player salaries under the terms of the 2017 CBA are not disclosed, but the top women players make around $100,000 USWNT annually for playing for the USWNT, plus an average salary of around $65,000 for playing in the U.S. Soccer-sponsored National Women’s Soccer League. It’s worth pointing out that U.S. Soccer also invested heavily in MLS back when the league was getting off the ground, and that men’s players are also paid (significantly more) for playing for various clubs, albeit from different sources.
Members of the USMNT also earn a $68,750 bonus just for making the roster, more than $31,000 more than USWNT players. This summer, Luna Bars stepped in with a $718,750 donation to the USWNT to make up the disparity. The USMNT was also set to earn more than $108,000 bonus per player just for qualifying for the World Cup. The maximum earned for a USWNT player for the same feat was just $37,500. While there is room for some divergence in the men’s pay to compensate for the lack of a salary, we quickly arrive at a point where the men’s bonuses more than make up for the differences in pay structure.
An even more dramatic wage gap was in place for the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team prior to their protest and subsequent pay increase in 2017. At the time, women’s players earned just $1,000 per every six months each Olympic cycle — a salary that worked out to approximately $1,500 per year. They received nearly nothing the other three and a half years, though they, like the men, trained constantly. The “bonus” pay structure only works if a player earns enough money to support themselves via a professional team.
So while the “Olympic bonus” was fine for NHL players, who average a $2.4 million salary from their club teams, women’s players were forced to work two or three jobs in order to support their training with the national team.
For now, it appears as if the USWNT and U.S. Soccer are headed for trial. Mediation between the two sides broke down in August, and the judge set a jury trial date for May , which still leaves the two sides with plenty of time to settle the dispute, though no meetings between the parties are currently scheduled.
The optics of the pay disparity between the two teams are bad enough that Congress may get involved. In July, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin introduced a bill that would block funds for the 2026 World Cup, set to be played in the United States, Canada and Mexico, until the equal pay issue is resolved.