The women of the U.S. national soccer team are famous for being extraordinary athletes, repeat world champions — and plaintiffs.
The team’s lawsuit alleging pay discrimination against the U.S. Soccer Federation has done much to define its identity.
A nearly perfect run through the World Cup has been widely interpreted as vindication of the merits of its case, so much so that fans chanted “equal pay” after the U.S. victory in the final over the Netherlands and booed the head of FIFA, the sponsor of the World Cup, during the trophy ceremony.
It’s not to take anything away from the women’s achievement — they never trailed the entire tournament — to note that the equal-pay complaint is almost entirely bunk.
It is true that the American women, who sweat and practice as much as their male compatriots (perhaps more, given their superior results), don’t make as much. But the women’s game isn’t as popular or profitable, which fundamentally drives pay.
The total prize money for the women’s 2019 World Cup was $30 million, with the champion taking away about $4 million. The total prize money for the men’s 2018 World Cup was $400 million, with the champions winning $38 million.
This seems blatantly unfair, until you take into account the completely different viewership and revenue from the two events. FIFA raked in more than $6 billion from the 2018 men’s World Cup. The women’s 2019 World Cup has been projected, when all is said and done, to make about $130 million.
The women’s tournament this year may have garnered about a billion viewers across all platforms, nothing to sneeze at, but the 2018 men’s World Cup had more than a billion viewers just for the final game.
It has been reported that the U.S. women’s team has been generating more game revenue than the U.S. men the past couple of years.
This is telling, although not quite in the way that those who allege pay discrimination think. The women are celebrities and cultural heroes, winners of four Olympic gold medals and four World Cups. The men are nobodies who failed to qualify for last year’s World Cup. Yet from 2016 to 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal, the women barely out-earned the men, $50.8 million to $49.9 million.
The lawsuit’s explanation for a smaller audience for the women’s team is what it calls “manufactured revenue depression,” a deliberate effort by the federation to squelch the women’s reach and undercut their ticket prices.
Perhaps the federation should have done more, and can do more, to promote the women’s game, but the smaller women’s audience can’t be the work of one organization.
Another element of pay for women’s and men’s players is their play for professional leagues, where the scale of the audiences is, again, vastly different.
The National Women’s Soccer League has two strong teams that average more than 10,000 fans per game, but the other seven teams in the league average fewer than 5,000. Sky Blue FC, based in Piscataway, New Jersey, averages 1,432.
By way of comparison, the worst of the men’s Major League Soccer teams, the Chicago Fire, averages 11,417. The best-attended team, Atlanta United, has drawn roughly 70,000 people for four home games this season, about the total attendance for all NWSL games so far.
All that said, according to a Washington Post analysis, the women’s national team actually made more in bonuses and salary than the men in 2018 (although they played more games and, needless to say, won more).
The women and men have two different collective bargaining agreements, and different World Cup hoops to jump through, so making direct apple-to-apple comparisons is complicated.
It’s hard to argue, though, with the simple approach the women say that they have proposed in the past — revenue sharing based on how much money they bring in.
There’s risk to this arrangement if the women underperform, but this group is nothing if not self-confident, and so far has always delivered.