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What critics get wrong about the U.S. women's soccer pay debate

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

The national debate over American soccer’s gender pay gap was already brewing long before the U.S. Women’s National Team won a second consecutive World Cup on Sunday. Now the issue is at a full boil—especially after U.S. fans in France chanted “EQUAL PAY” at the end of the World Cup final.

Critics of the debate have a few favorite arguments for why the women’s team should not be paid the same as the men’s—and most of the arguments simply don’t compute anymore. Here are the numbers and the facts.

The women earn less in base salary than the men

In March, 28 members of the 2015 USWNT filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, mapping out the disparity in base pay between the women and men. The two sides are currently mediating the lawsuit.

The lawsuit stated that if the UWWNT and USMNT each played and won 20 exhibition games, the women would earn a maximum of $99,000 for the season ($4,950 per game) while the men would earn $263,320 ($13,166 per game). The men get a $5,000 bonus per game played, while the women’s pay is guaranteed whether they play or not, but lower.

So, prior to 2017, the women were getting paid less than half what the men were getting for regular games.

In 2017, the USWNT reached a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with U.S. Soccer. Under the new CBA, the women got a 30% bump in base pay, and improved bonuses. The precise numbers of the new CBA are not public, but even with the 30% bump, the disparity is still wide between the women and men.

In March, the USMNT put out a statement saying the team “fully supports the efforts of the US Women’s National Team Players to achieve equal pay.” On the other hand, when Deadspin recently reached out to every current player on the USMNT for individual comments on the USWNT’s quest for equal pay, it got no response or “no comment” across the board.

Tim Howard, the legendary former USMNT goalie and current MLS goalie, had more to say during a recent visit to Yahoo Finance. “I think it’s the first time in a long time that the women feel empowered enough to say, ‘Enough is enough, we want equal pay,’” Howard told Yahoo Finance. “I have a daughter who plays the game, and I would tell her the same thing: Roll up your sleeves and get all the money you can, because you deserve it.”

The women’s team now generates more revenue

Since the debate first started, which was long before the lawsuit, critics have retorted that the women should not be paid the same as the men because the women generate less revenue. In a May court filing, U.S. Soccer used that argument, saying that the pay disparity is "based on differences in aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex."

But the women’s team has actually generated more revenue than the men’s since the 2015 USWNT’s World Cup win sparked a new level of American interest in the women’s game. According to financial reports from the U.S. Soccer Federation reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, USWNT games generated more total revenue than the USMNT games from 2016 through 2018: $50.8 million in revenue vs. $49.9 million for the men.

One of the popular refrains you hear now from those who are dismissive of the women’s fight for equal pay is that the women’s team only generated more revenue over the last three years because the men didn’t make a World Cup in that time. Well, yes. These are pro athletes, and it is their job to make the World Cup and go far in it. The women have performed their job better than the men for eight years.

The women earn less from the World Cup than the men

And then there’s FIFA. In the discussion over soccer pay, it is key to distinguish between two separate spheres: regular season, where base pay is determined by U.S. Soccer, and World Cup years, in which payouts come from FIFA.

The overall prize purse for the 2018 FIFA World Cup was $400 million, and the winning team, France, got $38 million of that to divvy up among its players and staff. By comparison, the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup purse was $30 million, and the USWNT got $4 million of that. So the winning men’s team last year earned more than the entire Women’s World Cup purse this year.

In 2015, the USWNT prize purse was just $2 million. In 2014, the USMNT divvied up $9 million after exiting in the Round of 16.

Megan Rapinoe (15) with Alex Morgan after scoring a goal in the World Cup final in Lyon, France, July 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Big TV ratings, big jersey sales

Critics retort that the disparity in World Cup purses makes sense, since men’s World Cups generate far more global revenue than women’s World Cups. And that’s true.

But 14.3 million people watched the women’s final on Sunday on Fox, 22% more than watched the men’s final last year (11.4 million viewers). This year’s women’s final was the most-watched soccer telecast in the U.S. since the 2015 women’s final, which got 25.4 million viewers—topping the 24.7 million viewers who tuned in for the 2014 men’s final. (The 2019 Women’s World Cup ratings on Fox were down 9% overall from 2015.)

In fact, the 2015 Women’s World Cup final remains the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history.

In addition, Nike CEO Mark Parker recently disclosed on an earnings call that the U.S. Women's home jersey is “now the No. 1 soccer jersey, men's or women's, ever sold on Nike.com in one season.”

U.S. Soccer sponsorship revenue grew 25% between 2015 and 2016 after the USWNT won the 2015 Women’s World Cup, but U.S. Soccer sells sponsorships and broadcasting deals in a bundle, so we can’t separate how much of that revenue comes from the men vs the women.

Just for making a World Cup roster, U.S. Soccer pays men $69,000 each, while it pays women $15,000 each, according to a 2016 New York Times op-ed by Carli Lloyd. U.S. Soccer chalks that up the disparity in FIFA’s World Cup purses.

But some experts feel U.S. Soccer is seeking to distract from its own inequitable pay practices by pushing the blame to FIFA. Hampton Dellinger, an attorney who represented an international group of women’s soccer players protesting gender inequality at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, told the Washington Post: “In my opinion, US Soccer has been using sexism at the FIFA level to justify at least some of its own gender discrimination. That’s not right.”

Only a select few players are making big endorsement money

Another talking point recently has been that because the USWNT is so dominant, its players are earning far more off the field. That’s true—but misleading. While stars like Alex Morgan (Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Nationwide), Carli Lloyd (Visa), and Megan Rapinoe (BodyArmor) have gained individual sponsorships, they are the exception to the rule and the majority of the women don’t have those deals.

To recap where things stand: The women’s team has generated more revenue since 2016 than the men’s team; the women still earn less than the men in base pay from U.S. Soccer. That is a separate issue from FIFA, which doles out less in World Cup payouts to the women than it does to the men. The U.S. women have won four World Cups, while the men’s team has won zero.

The U.S. Women’s National Team is not lobbying FIFA for equal pay. It is lobbying the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, and has generated more revenue for U.S. Soccer than the men’s team has for three years running.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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