Five key members of the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT) are taking a stand off the field to fight for equal rights, filing a wage-discrimination action against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) with the Equal Opportunity Commission. The players include goalkeeper Hope Solo, forward Alex Morgan, midfielder Megan Rapinoe and co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn – all of whom achieved international recognition after last year’s resounding World Cup victory over Japan. The American women’s 5-2 win was the most-watched soccer game of all time in the U.S., with over 26 million viewers. (As a point of historical reference, it’s worth noting that the greatest World Cup success the U.S. men’s national team (USMNT) has ever seen is a third place finish at the inaugural tournament in 1930.)
Now these American women, the defending world champions and some of the best players of the game on Earth, are pointing out an absurd, anachronistic injustice: female soccer players can receive as little as 40 percent as their male counterparts.
In July, when the USWNT took home their third World Cup Finals win, the sobering reality of pay inequality set in that they would take home only $2 million compared to the $35 million taken home by the German’s men team – their male counterparts who won the men’s World Cup tournament in Brazil. Even the U.S. men’s team went home with more “winnings” – $9 million – after they were knocked out in the round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup.
While FIFA is the organization behind the World Cup, USSF is in charge of the promotion and sponsorship for the teams. According to NBC Sports, last year USSF made over $16 million from the USWNT while the USMNT caused a $2 million loss. One would think that would be a pretty good expression of the “worth” of the players on the women’s team, but it isn’t remotely reflected in their wages. Per game, women earn between $3,600-$4,590, while men earn between $6,250-$17,625 – despite similar game attendance, viewers, three World Cup wins and consistently dominating the Olympics.
In its response, the USSF points to the data that historically, the USMNT brings in more cash and the difference in the last year is a huge anomaly. On Thursday night, federation spokespeople went on record calling the figures in the players’ complaint “inaccurate, misleading or both.” They pushed back with figures showing the USMNT produced revenue and attendance about double that of the USWNT, and television ratings that were a “multiple” of what the women attract. However, the federation negated the fact that the USWNT exceeded revenue projections by over $15 million last year when their World Cup triumph set television viewership records for the sport in U.S. history.
If this last year has been an anomaly, it’s certainly been an anomaly that hit the U.S. sporting world awfully hard and awfully fast. Men’s soccer has benefited from decades of investment and promotion soccer going back to the 1920s. Investment in women’s soccer, on the other hand, is a comparatively recent development. But the U.S. women have made the most of it, posting wins and successes the men’s team has never even come close to. And yet, their pay still does not reflect that.
Statistics provided by USSF paint a clear picture of the status of men and women’s soccer in the U.S. Average attendance for the twenty-year span between 1995 and 2005, shows increases for both the USMNT and USWNT. The men boast an impressive 89 percent increase, but the spike in attendance for women’s soccer is nothing short of astronomical – 599 percent increase. Not only are the U.S. women winning the hearts of their countrymen (and countrywomen), they’re winning on the field, too. Another metric provided by US Soccer for both the women’s and men’s teams is winning percentage. Two years are covered for both teams: in 2008 the USMNT had a winning percentage of .714, while the USWNT neared perfection at .944, and in 2012 the men and women held nearly the same averages at .750 and .922, respectively.
Per the USSF’s own projections, in 2016 the USWNT will make upwards of $26 million, up from about $11 million annually (2015: $11,184,563, 2014: $12,162,029), compared to the USMNT projections of $21 million. The revenues from previous years show that the USMNT brings in about $15 million consistently (2015: $14,867,576, 2014: $15,251,025) excluding World Cup revenues, which totals about $15 million for 2014. Clearly these numbers show that USSF recognizes the huge revenue stream the USWNT will bring going into to the future. The USSF’s own budget shows a drastic surplus increase coming up for the 2016 Fiscal Year of about $15.5 million, up from previous years of $9.5 million (both 2014 & 2015, it should be noted that 2014 was a Men’s World Cup year), effectively demonstrating that the USWNT is clearly bringing not only more money, but more profits. An analysis of the expenses from the past 10 years on both the USWNT and USMNT also depicts that the expenses towards the USWNT has remained stagnant, whereas for the the USMNT, the expenses have skyrocketed, from a pure economic standpoint it’s obvious that the USWNT provides the better return on investment. Evidently, USSF believes in spending more on a losing USMNT and paying them more, rather than investing into a winning USWNT and paying them fairly.
Pay gaps continue to be a problem in many industries for a number of reasons. Actress Jennifer Lawrence recently gained support in Hollywood and across the country by calling out the tendency of studios to pay actresses less than their male co-stars. The pay scales of professional athletes, too, are front and center of American culture. Wages represent the quantified value of each individual player’s talent. Unlike in Hollywood though, the USWNT doesn’t have Bradley Cooper fighting their battles for them, and are instead taking the fight into their own hands. They are threatening their professional futures by considering boycotting games to champion their cause, as they told NBC’s Matt Lauer Thursday morning.
If there is no resolution, this means that potential strikes could bleed into the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this August. If that’s the case, the chances of a U.S. win in women’s soccer will be put into serious jeopardy. This would be a shame, considering the USWNT has won not just back-to-back, but back-to-back-to-back Olympic gold medals. Among the five women considering strike (because of the pay dispute – not the zika virus) is Hope Solo, who has won four Golden Gloves in the last five years and is at this moment arguably the best keeper in the game. Is it really worth keeping Solo and her star teammates off the field so the USSF can save a few million by underpaying them?
The movement to reward men and women equally – in sports and other industries – has already started. Several sports have adopted pay equality: the top male and female athletes of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, all of the tennis Grand Slams, and the World Surf League receive the same amount of money in their winnings.
Athletes don’t just play for money – it’s impossible to underestimate the pull of pure, simple love of the game. It is certain that the protesting USWNT players are feeling this right now. But fairness is important. They aren’t asking much, just to be considered equals in a realm where they’ve proven themselves superior.
At the end of the day, the fight for equal pay isn’t just about money. It’s about respect for the women’s contribution to a sport in which they have clearly excelled, and serves as encouragement for girls who have a dream of playing professionally. Hope, Alex, Megan, Carli and Becky are inspiring more and more girls to play soccer every single day – maybe the next great American stars are among them. What kind of example do we want to set for them?
Vanessa Oblinger and Cristina Perez captain recreational soccer teams and play in leagues across the D.M.V. area.
Cross-post from Thought Catalog.