On International Women’s Day, three months before they were to suit up for the 2019 FIFA’s World Cup, the U.S. Women’s National Team sued.
The gender-based discrimination claim is against the United States Soccer Federation, and includes all 28 members of the U.S. team. They’re seeking class-action status, so that every player dating back through 2014 can be represented.
“As players, we deserved to be paid equally for our work, regardless of our gender," 2018 U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year Alex Morgan said in a statement.
The U.S. Soccer Federation pays the women who play for the national team less than it pays the men. That much is not in dispute.
What is slightly murkier is the extent. The comparisons are not always like-for-like.
In their complaint, the women tried to illustrate the pay disparity. From 2013 to 2016, women could earn a maximum of $4,950 per non-tournament game, assuming they won. Men would earn an average of $13,166, if they played a similar 20 games in a year. That means the women would earn 38% of what the men could.
(There are mitigating factors. The men’s team doesn’t play 20 games in a year. Also, in 2017, the women signed a new collective bargaining agreement. Details of the new pay structure aren’t public. Still, you get the drift. There’s a pay gap.)
According to publicly released data, the top-earning women make comparable amounts as the top-earning men, at least from U.S. Soccer. However, further down the pay list, women earn much less. From 2008 to 2016, the 50th best paid male player made nearly 10 times as much as the 50th best paid female player. One reason for this: The men get paid for appearances. Much of the women’s pay comes from incentives, like winning trophies. They need to perform at an elite level just to keep pace financially.
And they have performed at an elite level. The U.S. women have won four Olympic Golds and three World Cups, including the most recent one, in 2015. They’re the top ranked team in the world, according to soccer’s international governing body FIFA, and they have been for 10 out of the last 11 years.
To the quarterfinalists go the spoils
The U.S. Men’s team, on the other hand? They’re ranked 24 in the world by FIFA, have never won a World Cup, and didn’t qualify for the most recent one, Russia 2018. They haven’t medaled in the Olympics since 1904. (Only three teams participated that year.)
The most recent Women’s World Cup final was the most-viewed soccer game in the United States, regardless of gender. 23 million people watched. There was a congratulatory ticker-tape parade in New York City. President Barack Obama personally called the team to congratulate them. Each player and the coach got her own Sports Illustrated cover.
After the tournament, U.S. Soccer paid the team a total of $1.75 million in bonuses. The men’s team, which lost in the Round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup, got $5.375 million.
Shortly afterward, five female players filed a wage-discrimination lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The 2017 collective bargaining agreement didn’t resolve the EEOC complaint, so the women requested and received a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC.
The USSF’s defense in the case likely hinges on the difference between “equal” and “equitable.”
“U.S. Soccer believes that all female athletes deserve fair and equitable pay, and we strive to meet this core value at all times,” read a statement released in response to the lawsuit.
“Specifically, in April of 2017, we agreed to a fair and equitable collective bargaining agreement with the Women’s National Team, which included a contract structure that the players specifically requested to provide them with a guaranteed salary and benefits.”
The men’s and women’s teams have different pay—and different pay structures. The men make the bulk of their salaries and get healthcare from their club teams, then receive what is essentially a bonus payment for representing the national team.
The women on the national team roster get a subsidized base salary from U.S. Soccer (paid through their National Women’s Soccer League teams). Their benefits (including maternity leave and disability pay) are bankrolled by the national federation. Then they receive win-based and tournament bonuses. There’s no appearance fee if they lose.
They can supplement this income with endorsement deals. Or part-time jobs. McCall Zerboni, a fringe U.S. player who didn’t make the World Cup roster, once sold knick-knacks to strangers on the beach in Southern California. Outside the United States, where the base pay for national team players is comparatively cushy for women’s soccer, it’s more extreme. Thai midfielder Miranda Nild worked in her parents’ restaurant. Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl lectures and coaches. Chile midfielder Daniela Pardo has two additional jobs—and goes to school in her spare time.
"As a professional athlete, there are no men that are in this situation of thinking about their second jobs or being asked what their second job is," U.S. forward Christen Press said.
The other influencing factor in the gendered pay discrepancy is how much each team earns for the USSF.
The year the women won the World Cup, they brought in $6.6 million after expenses. The profit from the men was under $2 million. But that year was an anomaly. Almost every other year, the men generate more revenue.
Sponsorships from brands like Nike and television rights are pooled for both teams. (For television, they’re also bundled with Major League Soccer, which complicates matters slightly.) Despite the women playing the most-viewed game in the nation’s history, the men attract more viewers in general. According to Nielsen ratings, from 2012 to 2016, men’s games had double the viewers as women’s games on average.
Of course, ratings and revenue are not zero-sum. Part of the thinking behind bundling sponsorships and TV deals is the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. Popularity of one team benefits the other.
The men’s team certainly sees it that way.
“The United States National Soccer Team Players Association fully supports the efforts of the US Women's National Team Players to achieve equal pay,” a statement read. “Specifically, we are committed to the concept of a revenue-sharing model to address the US Soccer Federation's ‘market realities’ and find a way towards fair compensation.”
A global trend
The United States isn’t the only country where the men have joined the women in the pursuit of more equal pay.
In 2017, Norway became the first country to pay its men’s and women’s teams equally, after the men actually agreed to lower wages so that the women could have more. The captains of each team appeared in a photo op signing their collective bargaining agreements wearing black shirts with white text reading “Equality.”
Denmark, finalists of the 2017 European Women’s Championship, canceled a game against Sweden in the wake of a contract dispute. (FIFA awarded the game, a World Cup qualifier, 3-0 to Sweden.) The Danish men’s team offered to push some of the money from their deal to the women to help resolve it. In the end, the country’s soccer federation (DBU) agreed on a 60% increase in the women’s salaries (assuming they qualify for a tournament).
These events came as part of a wave of women’s teams agitating for better pay. Australia boycotted a U.S. tour after the 2015 World Cup to protest below-minimum wages. (They now receive at least $30,000 AUD plus match fees, up from the previous base salary of $21,000 AUD.)
Scotland used a media blackout leading up to Euro 2017 to secure a first-ever collective agreement with the Scottish Football Association. And five players quit the Brazil team in 2017 after its first female manager was sacked, “exhausted from years of disrespect and lack of support,” they wrote in an open letter. They cited appearance fees and a lack of female say in the direction of the sport.
However, gender parity is still elusive, even in Norway, where the men’s team will still make more for qualifying for the World Cup or European Championship.
Additionally, the 2019 World Cup won’t feature Ada Hagerberg, the best player in the world according to FIFA. (When she won that distinction at the inaugural 2018 Ballon d’Or award ceremony, the host asked if she would twerk on stage. Yikes.) She’s boycotting to protest unequal conditions, including field quality, food, and respect.
Hegerberg hasn’t produced a list of demands or anything like that, but it’s not hard to find examples of unequal treatment. For one, FIFA paid for business class return flights for each team in the 2018 Men’s World Cup. It only agreed this year to bump women’s teams up to business, and then only for flights longer than four hours. The 2019 World Cup will also be the first Women’s World Cup where opposing teams don’t have to share hotels, which was long ago prohibited in men’s World Cup rules.
In 2017, Ireland’s players didn’t attend a training session to protest working conditions, including pay. Also among their demands: training uniforms, so that they wouldn’t have to keep changing in public restrooms to return borrowed gear.
Field conditions are also worse in the women’s game. In the lawsuit filed by the U.S. team, they highlight the amount of times the team has played on turf, instead of real grass. (13 times from 2014 to 2017, compared to just once by U.S. men. Also, a game in Hawaii was outright canceled because the turf was in such poor condition.)
Players believe turf is more likely to cause injuries than natural grass. There isn’t a whole lot of conclusive research into this topic yet. A 12-year study at a Japanese university of 397 male players found a “significant increase” in “upper extremity trauma.” And one study found an increase in ACL tears on synthetic surfaces for American football (but not soccer). Either way, soccer players of all genders prefer grass. FIFA announced that it will outlaw artificial turf beginning with the 2023 World Cup.
Then there’s prize money. France banked a cool $38 million for winning the men’s World Cup last year. Whoever wins the women’s World Cup in July will make only $4 million.
There’s a total of $30 million in prize money up for grabs this summer in France. That’s not even as much as the increase of prize money available for the men ahead of their next World Cup: it’s going up $40 million to a total of $440 million for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Former FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke was asked about the disparity ahead of the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
“That’s not even a question I will answer because it is nonsense,” Valcke said. “We played 30th (men’s) World Cup in 2014 and we are playing the seventh women’s World Cup so things can grow step-by-step.
“We are still another 23 World Cups before potentially women should receive the same amount as men.”
92 years is a long time to wait for equality.
A long, slow climb
Women are used to being told to wait their turn. The push for more equal pay has a long history. The U.S. women’s lawsuit is based on the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Women began entering the workforce in the late 1800s and early 1900s after the Industrial Revolution. Back then, common belief held that they were there to supplement the incomes of the men in their lives, so women were paid less than half of what men in their positions made, according to Moira Weigel in Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating.
By 1940, before World War II, about a quarter of women worked outside the home in the United States. But as men shipped off to war, roughly five million women joined the workforce, according to Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil in their book, Through Women's Eyes: An American History with Documents. By 1950, a third of women over 14 had jobs.
On average, women’s wages were 53% of the wages of the men they replaced during WWII.
Things have improved since then. Women now make 80% of what men do in the United States. (That’s all races. Black women make 65 cents per dollar earned by white men, and it’s 58 cents on the dollar for Latino women.)
Soccer lags behind the national averages. The gap is perhaps most jarring for coaches. According to USSF’s publicly released data, Jill Ellis, the World Cup-winning coach of the women’s team, made $291,029 last year. The coaches who failed to qualify the men for the World Cup, Jurgen Klinsmann ($3.35 million in his settlement) and Bruce Arena ($899,348 in base pay and a $50,000 bonus), made significantly more.
Ellis also made less than Andri Herzog ($355,537), Klinsmann’s fired assistant, and Tab Ramos ($295,558 in base pay plus a $30,000 bonus), the coach of the Under-20 men’s team.
U.S. Soccer’s argument in defense of the pay disparity comes down, again, to the market.
“I don’t want to use the word deserve in any of this,” former USSF President Sunil Gulati told Sports Illustrated. “I’d reverse the question: Do you think revenue should matter at all in determination of compensation in a market economy?”
Laying aside the fact that the U.S. Soccer Federation is a non-profit, there have been many instances when society has decided to limit market pressures in order to improve people’s lives. Some easy examples include the 40-hour work week, child-labor laws, and environmental protection rules. Or, for instance, the Equal Pay Act of 1963.
There’s also the fact that it’s an even tier for all men. It’s a separate tier for women. Christian Pulisic, arguably America’s best men’s player, will make as much as his least-talented teammate if they both play in the same game, even if Pulisic may bring more market value in the form of viewers and sponsorships.
America’s best women’s players will make less than either.
“Equal pay for equal work should be a fundamental principle of our economy,” former President Obama said in a speech. “It’s the idea that whether you’re a high school teacher, a business executive, or a professional soccer player or tennis player, your work should be equally valued and rewarded, whether you are a man or a woman.”
It may take a presidential decree to finally secure equal pay for the most successful women’s national soccer team ever. In the meantime, whether the battleground is the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, or the U.S. District Court, the USWNT will just keep fighting—and, most likely, winning.