During the Women’s World Cup final match—won by the U.S. 2-0 over the Netherlands—and again during the ticker tape parade three days later in Lower Manhattan, the chant of “Equal pay, equal pay, equal pay” rose from the crowd.
The women collected about $250,000 each in bonuses for being members of the championship team, but had the men’s team done the same, the payday would have been many times greater. The 2018 Cup-winning French team got $38 million in prize money, while the U.S. women’s squad got four million for their victory.
That four million was actually a substantial upgrade from past tournaments, thanks to a 2017 deal signed with the U.S. Soccer Federation. In 2015, the U.S. women’s team also won the World Cup and banked about $1.7 million, while the 2014 U.S. men’s team got roughly $5.4 million just for reaching the final 16 teams.
The 2019 U.S. women’s team was in an odd position: dominant on the field yet playing under the weight of the gender discrimination lawsuit that they’d filed against the U.S. Soccer Federation on March 8 (International Women’s Day), just three months before the Women’s World Cup tournament began. The recent championship certainly won’t hurt the 28 women who filed the suit when the case goes before a mediator, and U.S. Soccer Federation head Carlo Cordeiro sounded a conciliatory note at the victory parade.
The argument in favor of greater men’s pay in sport usually focuses on revenue: the men attract substantially more spectators, higher television ratings, and greater money from advertising and product licensing, thereby generating much more total revenue. Even if female and male players get the same percentage of their respective pies, it amounts to a far bigger pay day for the men.
It’s not an inherently unreasonable argument, but it doesn’t apply across the board. In some sports (tennis, skating, gymnastics) women athletes are as popular, if not more popular, than the men. In the case of U.S. women’s soccer team, their decisive win in France has made co-captain Rapinoe a virtual household name, while most people would be hard-pressed to name any member of the men’s team (who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup tournament). The women’s final game pitting the U.S. against the Netherlands averaged more than 14 million U.S. television viewers, while the men’s final in 2018 which saw France play Croatia attracted 11.4 million U.S. viewers. Moreover, in a June 17 article, “U.S. Women’s Soccer Games Outearned Men’s Games,” the Wall Street Journal reported that between 2015-2018, women’s soccer generated more revenue than the men’s side, based on U.S. Soccer Federation financial reports.
The women’s quest for equal pay has received a boost from such renowned female athletes past and present as Billie Jean King and Serena Williams. The foot-dragging on equal pay by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, and the U.S. Soccer Federation has echoes of 1972 when Billie Jean King won the U.S. Open tennis championship, taking home $10,000, while men’s champ Ilie Nastase collected $25,000. King refused to play the following year unless the prize money was equalized, and the U.S. Open promptly became the first major championship with equal female-male prize money. King, a trail blazer on and off the court, became the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association, as well as one of nine women who co-founded the first women’s professional tennis tour in 1973. In a recent Los Angeles Times article “Billie Jean King adds her voice to the USWNT’s equal pay fight,” King argues that women athletes, like women workers, deserved to paid as much as men, at all levels, and that it is time for FIFA to do right by women.
No doubt, many women (and men) who previously had never sat down and actually watched a soccer game on television became fans of the U.S. women’s team, and the sport in general. The U.S. women not only excelled on the field, they have been highly visible off the pitch with Megan Rapinoe in particular doing quadruple duty as a star footballer; advocate for gender, LGBTQ and racial equality; Trump critic; and flat-out celebrity. A visit to the White House is not happening (seems to be a mutual decision!) but the Cup-winning women will be visiting Congress later this year.
While FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation seem to be gradually coming around on the pay issue, the U.S. women have been their own greatest ally. They have made themselves, and the sport, much more visible than it was before thanks to their hard work and activism. The recent New York Times article “What’s a World Cup Title Worth? For U.S. Women, Six Figures and Counting,” also notes that in addition to the minimum $250,000 payday for the women, several positive financial ripple effects are predicted. These include money from endorsements for the star players, as well as revenue from various licensing deals which include everything from trading cards to jerseys, video games, toys and bobbleheads. Moreover, the increased interest in women’s soccer is predicted to lead to bigger crowds and TV numbers for women’s professional soccer, resulting in more income for teams and higher player salaries. A similar effect is happening in several European countries where the women’s game is becoming much better known and attracting more fans and sponsors.
The World Cup comes around only every four years, but that doesn’t mean that the players aren’t playing during that interregnum. All of the team USA members play in the nine-team National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), which was founded in 2013 and has franchises in the Houston, Orlando, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Tacoma, Salt Lake City, Raleigh and Portland, Oregon metro areas. The NWSL is supported by the Canadian Soccer Association and the U.S. Soccer Federation, and league games are played from April to October. In addition to the members of the U.S women’s team (and other top-flight U.S. players), there are a number of international players who also play for NWSL teams. Another avenue for high-level women’s soccer is NCAA Division I collegiate play (Florida State, Stanford, Georgetown, North Carolina and Baylor were the five strongest teams in 2018).
At the professional level, let’s hope the interest is sustained. While NWSL attendance has increased by 75 percent since its inaugural year, there is certainly room for more fans at games, as well as more teams; it seems amazing that there is no team in New York, the Bay Area, Southern California, Boston, Atlanta or Philadelphia, to name just a few seemingly likely candidate cities for professional women’s soccer.
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