You’ve probably heard that the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) won the 2019 Women’s World Cup. If you’re not really into soccer and you’re about ready to navigate away from this article, stick with me. This one’s worth it.
You may have also heard that the team has sued the US Soccer Federation (USSF) over gender-based discrimination. The USSF formally denied the allegations, and a storm of media coverage has enveloped the story.
So let’s get into it. What’s actually going on here?
First, there’s an important distinction between the two organizations from which the women’s and men’s national (USMNT) teams earn money. One is the USSF, who’s the official governing body of US soccer. They’re also the official employers of both US national teams.
The second is the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA). They’re the one who hosts the men’s and women’s World Cups. We’ll get to them later.
Show Me the $$$
Part of why this issue has generated so much controversy is because there are a number of factors that determine player earnings. Here’s the gist of it: the women’s and men’s teams have established different pay structures with USSF, so they’re awarded differently for their wins, ties, and losses in non-tournament matches, or “friendlies.” Women earn a base salary in addition to performance bonuses, whereas men earn only bonuses. But USWNT bonuses are only a fraction of the men’s, and they do not earn any bonuses for losses or ties with lower-ranking teams.
This concept in and of itself isn’t discriminatory. However, it doesn’t work out fairly in all cases. For instance, if you calculate the average player’s total earnings based on 20 victories in “friendly matches,” women would only receive 89% of the average male player’s income. Basically, women must play more games in order to have the same earning potential as their male counterparts.
My Revenue is Bigger Than Your Revenue
OK, so if there’s a clear pay gap, why doesn’t USSF just amend USWNT’s contract?
USSF claims that USWNT brings in less revenue than USMNT, and that they therefore are not entitled to the same level of compensation. Historically, that’s been true, and if you include USMNT’s last World Cup cycle (fiscal 2015), they brought in significantly more than the women.
That said, this gap has disappeared and even begun to reverse in more recent years. Since fiscal 2016, USWNT has brought in approximately $900,000 more in gross revenue than the men. Simply put, USWNT has been at least comparable to USMNT in bringing money to the federation, despite multiple obstacles.
It’s worth noting that the women have brought in more money in recent years despite lower ticket prices and a lesser investment in marketing efforts. USWNT has also continually outperformed USMNT for over a decade, and they’ve become massively popular in recent years. One example: Nike reported that the US women’s home soccer jersey was the top selling jersey ever sold on Nike.com in a single season. This illustrates again how USWNT is forced to work harder and perform better in order to achieve—or even get closer to—USMNT’s earning potential.
What’s FIFA Got To Do With It?
As mentioned above, FIFA operates separately from USSF because they’re the international governing body of soccer. FIFA has been publicly criticized for their role in perpetuating pay disparity for a couple of reasons. Most notably, the total prize awarded to USWNT for winning the 2019 World Cup was about 7.5% of the amount awarded to the French national team in 2018. USMNT also received $3.5 million more during the 2014 World Cup in performance bonuses, despite being eliminated in the Round of 16, while the women went on to take the 2015 championship.
Many people argue that these huge pay gaps are justified, again, because men bring in more revenue. In fact, the $400 million bonus awarded to the French national team in 2018 was only 7% of the $6 billiondollars the tournament raised, whereas the money awarded to USWNT comprised about 23% of money raised in their tournament.
With regard to USWNT’s lawsuit, it’s important to understand that part of USSF’s explanation for the pay disparity is that they merely pass along the money that FIFA determines each team will receive for winning the World Cup. That’s true, but it leaves out an important detail: the players are not the official recipients of FIFA’s prize money, the USSF is. The USSF then allocates and distributes the money to the players. And according to USWNT’s lawyer, USSF has a legal obligation under US law to “provide equal pay regardless of how FIFA discriminates.”
I’ll Take Gender Discrimination for 89 Cents on the Dollar
Historically, women have not been given equal respect or inclusion in sports. Traditional gender roles tell us that women are more emotionally sensitive and unassuming than their male counterparts, not to mention that they tend to be physically smaller and have lower muscle-mass. So, when women enter into the arena of professional sports, they’re not typically viewed as equals. Of course, this has a negative impact not only on how women are treated, but therefore how profitable employers, sponsors, and fans think they are.
But USSF claims that the problem is revenue. Even if that’s the reason, which it doesn’t entirely appear to be, then shouldn’t we all be asking ourselves whythere’s a revenue difference? Better yet, shouldn’t we ask how FIFA, USSF, and other employers of women athletes can make sure that their players are supported and therefore able to bring in more money? USWNT’s lawsuit represents a cultural push for parity and inclusion that USSF and FIFA simply aren’t advocating for. In fact, they’re actively ignoring it.
Bottom line—USWNT receives less compensation for playing more games per season, winning a higher percentage of those games than the men, as well as winning far more tournaments in recent years. Furthermore, they’ve become increasingly nationally and globally popular, therefore making them one of the most marketable teams in recent history. In other words, these women work harder and perform better than their male counterparts, but their employers refuse to pay them equally because sexist perceptions and policies make it virtually impossible for women to bring in the same revenue to a non-profit organization who consistently meets and surpasses its operational expenses. This willful ignorance accomplishes two things:
1. Most immediately, it prevents the well-deserved women of USWNT from earning equal compensation for more than comparable work.
2. It justifies the system of discrimination that placed these women in a position of inequity in the first place.
If we want to talk seriously about creating gender parity, we can’t just disregard the fight for equal pay each time there’s a disparity in revenue. We should be having a deeper, more nuanced conversation about how our culture tends to perceive female athletes and how we can begin to deconstruct our own biases, fund stronger coaches and programs, invest in greater marketing efforts, and ultimately create truly equal opportunities that generate equal pay for women in sports.