The Fight for Fair Pay and Equal Treatment in U.S. Women’s Soccer

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On Wednesday March 30, 2016, five members of the U.S. Women’s National Team (WNT) in soccer filed a complaint in federal court accusing the US Soccer Federation of wage discrimination. These women, Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, are some of the biggest stars in women’s global soccer. They allege that they earn as little as 40 percent of what male soccer players earn and are consistently shortchanged on bonuses and appearance fees.

Although pay is the primary concern of the complaint, the women filing the suit also hope to address persistent inequalities, such as unsafe playing fields, lack of media coverage for women’s games, and problems with hotels and accommodations. The case has been submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for consideration.

Alex Morgan (right) is among the five U.S. Women's National team players that have filed a complaint in federal court accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation of wage discrimination. (Photo: Reuben Schafir '17)
Alex Morgan (right) is among the five U.S. Women’s National team players that have filed a complaint in federal court accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation of wage discrimination. (Photo: Reuben Schafir ’17)

“Equal pay for equal work is the cornerstone issue,” says Rich Nichols, who is both an attorney and the  Executive Director of the U.S. WNT Player’s Association. Nichols, continues stating, “Additionally, health and safety issues with regard to playing surfaces, venues, facilities, travel and accommodations … all those equality-related challenges that the men’s team does not have to endure.”

After its announcement, the suit gathered widespread, popular support, with U.S. men’s soccer star Landon Donovan and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton taking to Twitter. Bringing this type of unprecedented case just months before the women’s team heads to Rio where they are favorites to win an Olympic gold medal is a risky and bold move.

Nichols explains the reasoning behind the timing citing the mounting impact of years of discrimination of abuse. “Well, since at least 1999, the WNT has always made equal pay an issue with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), and for 16 years, despite mounting success, the pay disparities continue to grow. So, after the 2015 World Cup victory, the collective feeling is “enough is enough”.

“We kind of exhausted every other avenue,” added team co-captain Sauerbrunn in an interview with ESPN. She continued, “This was the next logical step for us. We were forced to do something that brings all this to light, that makes the USSF justify when they pay us less than the men.”

Although this case aims to tackle numerous facets of discrimination in women’s soccer, it centers around pay. Following the public announcement of the women’s case, the USSF issued a statement denying the allegations and asserting its “unwavering support” for the WNT.

Still, the pay disparities are both readily apparent and striking. A breakdown of the USSF compensation structure presented by the New York Times demonstrated that the Men’s National Team (MNT) would receive $5000 for playing in a “friendly” or exhibition match and $17,000 for a win. A professional woman player would receive nothing for a loss and $1300 for a win in a similar game.

“The players are not asking to be overpaid,” said retired WNT legend Abby Wambach in an interview with the Daily News. “They are asking to be paid their market value.”

U.S. Soccer pays its WNT players between $36,000 and $72,000 annually, while male players are paid 2 to 3 times more.  

WNT players also cite wage discrimination in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the American professional women’s league.  The federation pays annual salaries to the 24 WNT who play on NSWL that range from $46,000 to $56,000. These salaries are in addition to national team salaries.

These wages appear relatively high in comparison to the league’s 170 other players, who are paid by team owners with annual salaries ranging between as $6,800, or $3.27 an hour, to $37,800 on the high end. The men’s American professional league, Major League Soccer (MLS) has an average salary of approximately $345,000, and its players have gone to court in an effort to increase that.

Another one of the main complaints filed by the WNT is unfair working conditions given the sometimes abysmal quality of their playing surfaces and fields, specifically playing fields made from artificial turf. In December, the WNT boycotted an exhibition match in Hawaii because the artificial turf was uneven, peeling, and riddled with protruding rocks. Reports indicate that U.S. Soccer had inspected the field weeks earlier but failed to take action.

“All the national team players will play on artificial surface,” Wambach explained to reporters at The Daily News after the boycott. “But there are some artificial surfaces in the world that are just not good enough. Male players have walked off fields when the surface wasn’t acceptable. That standard needs to be the same for the women’s teams.”

This boycott came on the heels of outrage among WNT team players over the artificial turf playing surfaces installed on the fields for the Women’s World Cup; the Men’s World Cup team played on grass. Artificial turf is more difficult and dangerous to play on, the ball bounces and moves differently, and it is much easier for players to scratch and strain their legs. Although members of the WNT led a group of signatories from 20 countries asking FIFA to change from artificial turf fields to natural grass for the Women’s World Cup, FIFA ignored their request and the women backed down in order to be better able to prepare for the impending games.

U.S. Soccer says its payment structure boils down to revenue–the MNT brings in more revenue than the women and, therefore, the men deserve to be paid more. U.S. Soccer said in a statement, “counter to the women’s claim, the men drive revenue that’s ‘almost twice’ as high as that of the women’s team.”

Although this claim may have been true in the past, recent financial reports suggest that in reality the WNT may be the “financial engine” of U.S. Soccer. In 2015, the WNT exceeded revenue projections by $16 million earning U.S. Soccer over $17 million in net profit. Conversely, the MNT operated at a $1 million loss. Although this high revenue for women can be partly attributed to their World Cup success, the disparity is shocking.

“We have always believed that the revenues produced by the popularity of the WNT, even before the 2015 World Cup victory, are the economic engine for U.S. Soccer, and U.S. Soccer’s financials proved our point,” says Nichols. “The most salient detail was the close to $20 million revenue and the $17 million in net profit generated by the WNT in 2015.

If the WNT wins their fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in Rio this year, the victory tour alone is expected to bring in $8 million in revenue. Since the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, the WNT has won three of the seven Women’s World Cups and never finished below third. As their popularity grows, so does the interest from advertisers, marketers, and sponsors . . . and the net profit for US soccer. Even if the WNT has generated smaller revenue and crowds in the past, the revenue justification put forth by U.S. Soccer proves to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As Nichols puts it, “The ability for the growth of any company depends on how much money is invested in it. U.S. Soccer is always saying that the women’s team brings in less revenue, but U.S. Soccer invested $18-19 million in men’s soccer in 2015 and only $8 million in the women’s game. So, if you are investing more than 100 percent less in your product, how do you expect it to be productive?” This self-fulfilling prophecy of less investment and stunted potential is a problem across all women’s professional sports and is an issue that the WNT members hope to address.

The CBA dictated that in return for a lower baseline compensation structure, WNT members would receive special benefits, such as health insurance, vision, dental, and pregnancy leave that members of the MNT, who operate under a more generous, all-bonus payment structure, do not get.

The final justification that has been put forward to explain the lower wages and investment in both women’s soccer and women’s sports in general is the fact that people are less interested in women’s sports — men are faster and stronger and, therefore, more interesting to watch. However, recent TV ratings contradict this view. The 2015 Women’s World Cup final featuring the WNT attracted 24.5 million viewers in the United States, a record for any soccer game (men’s or women’s) in U.S. history, and a larger audience than that of the 2015 NBA final.

Ultimately, the goal of the women’s case is simple says Nichols, “Respect, and equal pay for equal work.”

Recently, there has been slight progress. FIFA has pledged to ensure that 16 percent of its executive posts are filled by women. The new president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, the father of four daughters, declared soon after taking office that “the future of soccer belongs to women.” In 2017, U.S. soccer will roll out its first iteration of a soccer development program for girls, a program that has been in place for boys since 2000.

When asked whether the WNT would consider striking and refusing to play in the Olympics if their demands for equality are not met, Nichols responded simply, “We reserve all rights as we move forward in this fight for equal pay.”

As Sauerbrunn told the Daily News, “I would like to leave a lasting impression on women in sports and women in general, I would like to leave a legacy where we have left the generations below us, whether they want to be soccer players or doctors, to follow that path and believe in it, and fight any obstacles that get in your way because all things are possible.”