Fans expected that U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) forward Megan Rapinoe would be excited before playing in her third FIFA Women’s World Cup Final. Instead, Rapinoe expressed frustration, as FIFA had scheduled two other men’s tournament finals — the Copa América Final and CONCACAF Gold Cup Final — on the same day.
“There are two other finals going on, but this is the World Cup Final — this is like, cancel everything day,” Rapinoe said.
The outspoken forward found herself again fighting for gender equality the day before one of the biggest games of her life.
Rapinoe’s frustrations seemed justified given the team’s World Cup performance. Still, the USWNT stole the busy day, winning their fourth Women’s World Cup title with a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands. After the match, American supporters chanted “Equal pay, equal pay!” With the USWNT’s international dominance, it was hard to argue with the fans.
The USWNT’s battle with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the governing body of American soccer that allocates player salaries, first began in 2016 when five players, including Rapinoe, filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) following the team’s 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup title. The event set the record as the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history, with over 20 million viewers. The players argued that, despite record viewership and their championship win, they still earned much less than the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT).
Even objectively, the pay gap was egregious in 2016. If both the USMNT and USWNT played 20 friendly games annually, the top female players would only earn 38 percent of the “similarly situated” male players’ earnings. In 2017, the USWNT successfully renegotiated their compensation in a collective bargaining agreement. The effort was recognized as a huge step in bridging the pay gap, and the women now earn 89 percent of the men, based on the same 20-game scenario.
But 89 percent is not equal to 100 percent, and the USWNT’s performance isn’t equal to the USMNT’s. Activists have argued that the USWNT deserve greater pay based on their comparative success.
Alas, there is more to the story than the fight against a patriarchal system. According to the Washington Post, the USWNT have agreed upon an entirely different pay structure. A guaranteed base salary, health insurance and maternity leave are a few major compensatory differences. On the other hand, the USMNT have no guaranteed salary. Instead, players are paid with bonuses based on roster selection and game results. USMNT players also receive salaries entirely from their club teams, while USWNT players rely on the USSF to provide the majority of their income and benefits. As a result, the USSF could argue that the USWNT earn less because of the costs of their benefits.
The Title IX law has provided unique opportunities to American women soccer players, giving American players better training to succeed in international soccer. Though the USWNT have admittedly better odds at winning than the USMNT, it’s hard to blame the USWNT for playing against comparatively easier opponents. Moreover, the USWNT have to train as hard, if not harder, to ensure they win — just to make the same amount as the men, if not less. All of this culminated with the March 2019 lawsuit.
However, critics argue that the different pay models complicate the argument for pay equality.
“The women negotiated for security — salary security,” said Steven A. Bank, professor at the UCLA School of Law, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “The women could still have a claim [in the lawsuit], but it’s not so clear to say ‘equal pay.’”
The USWNT lawsuit largely fails to account for this key difference. Instead, the lawsuit accuses the USSF of hiding behind FIFA’s prize disparities and claims that the USWNT are paid less to perform “job duties that require equal skill, effort, and responsibilities.” The lawsuit focuses on the USWNT’s unprecedented dominance and greater generated revenue as reasons why the USWNT deserve greater pay.
However, direct revenue comparisons are complicated because they depend on the year in which revenue is earned. According to the LA Times, the lawsuit argues that the USWNT matches brought in nearly $1 million more than the USMNT matches between fiscal years 2016-2018. Even if the results of the 2015 World Cup skewed this figure, the lawsuit discredits the claim that women’s soccer is not as profitable as men’s soccer. Still, even if the USSF extends the period of comparison to include the results of the 2014 World Cup (fiscal year 2015), the men’s team brought in over $10 million more between 2015 and 2018 than the women’s team, the Washington Post reported.
To sway public opinion, USSF President Carlos Cordeiro released a controversial fact sheet which claims that the USWNT earned more than the USMNT between 2010 and 2018 last July. However, Cordeiro’s calculations used NWSL salaries after the USWNT lawsuit, which specifically addressed pay for the national team. Moreover, the calculations assumed that the USWNT maintain their dominant win percentage. However, even if the USWNT held the same FIFA ranking and won the same number of competitive games as the USMNT, then the USWNT would still earn less according to Sports Blog Nation.
“USWNT players and U.S. Soccer have offered contradictory narratives over whether USWNT players are paid more based on revenue generation attributed to their play,” said Michael McCann, a Sports Illustrated writer, in an interview with the Washington Post. “The two sides will need to find common ground.”
The FIFA prize money disparity further complicates the pay gap debate. According to the Washington Post, the USSF awarded the USMNT more money ($5.375 million) for finishing 16th at the 2014 World Cup than they awarded the USWNT ($1.725 million), who won the 2015 Women’s World Cup. USSF is simply responsible for passing to teams the prize money awarded for FIFA tournaments. Therefore, it would be hard to prove discrimination on the USSF’s part. The LA Times reported that analysts argue that the lawsuit indirectly suggests a need for the USSF to supplement FIFA payments with separate bonuses for tournament performance, but it is unclear if supplementary payment is the USSF’s responsibility.
Additionally, the lawsuit fails to mention that prize money for the Women’s World Cup comprises a larger percentage of overall revenue than that of the Men’s World Cup, according to the LA Times.
While the numbers clearly suggest a pay disparity, McCann claims that the legal argument for intentional gender discrimination will be a harder and more specific case to prove.
One argument that USSF could raise is that the USWNT agreed to the preexisting pay disparities. This argument is difficult to contest, given the USWNT’s acceptance of the conditions. Moreover, while the lawsuit alleges that the USSF violates the Equal Pay Act by paying the USWNT less, employers are legally allowed to pay women less money given differences in merit or seniority, and are not compelled to provide equal pay. Still, the USWNT have a valid argument that their merit deserves greater pay.
In 2017, the USWNT proposed an alternative payment structure. According to Sports Illustrated, the team was willing to share its risk and reward under a “revenue sharing model”: the USWNT would be paid more if they earned more in revenue, but would earn less if they brought in less. Unfortunately for the USWNT, the USSF denied their request for undisclosed reasons. If the lawsuit fails, then the USWNT should consider pushing this model, which the men’s team has supported, according to Sports Illustrated. The move would mirror Norway’s decision to ensure equal pay by cutting their national men’s team’s salaries, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Beyond pay, the lawsuit claims that the USWNT is more often subjected to inferior playing conditions than the USMNT, which is inexcusable given numerous professional soccer fields in the US. Artificial turf is notorious for causing injuries, but CBS reported that the USWNT played about 20 percent more games than the USMNT on it between 2014 and 2017. According to Sports Blog Nation, other complaints include unequal investment in match-marketing and youth teams.
If compensation is based solely on achievement, then the USWNT deserves equal pay. The USWNT has won a record 4 titles in just 34 years, while the men have remained unable to replicate the women’s team’s World Cup dominance for 100 years. Economics aside, the USSF should know that they are dealing with a women’s team that will not back down. Both the USSF and USWNT are guilty of releasing misleading statistics, stretching the truth to sway public opinion according to SB Nation. However, the USWNT’s conviction and fight for equality is emblematic of the added effort that female athletes must put in to achieve equality.