The U.S. women’s soccer team has won three World Cup championships, narrowly lost in 2011 and made the semi-finals in the women’s quadrennial world tournament three times. Last year’s victory over Japan in the championship game was watched by 23 million Americans, a record for any televised soccer game in the U.S. In contrast, the men’s team placed third only once, in 1930, and made the quarterfinals one time.
Ask many Americans who the most influential soccer players are, and the chances are high that names including Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Hope Solo and Amy Wambuch (well, before her most recent legal troubles) are mentioned before anyone on the men’s team. Yet, as is the case with many women’s sports, playing ball for women is very much an uphill climb when it comes to economics and recognition in what is still a man’s world.
Despite their long run of success, the women soccer players on the U.S. team believe they are making salaries that are vastly unfair compared to their male counterparts. In fact, this group of athletes pointed out that they generated more funds than the U.S. men's team last year, are on target to make more revenues for the U.S. Soccer Association in 2016-17, and have overall made a similar amount of money as the men’s squad for the U.S. Soccer franchise over the past several years.
Yet despite the U.S. women’s soccer team having greater success on the field and at the gate, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that there is a huge disparity between male and female soccer players. Women’s players earn a base salary of $72,000 annually to appear in 20 exhibition games, or “friendlies,” each season. Victory bonuses can boost that figure up to almost $100,000. Athletes on the U.S. men’s team, however, earn a minimum of $5,000 per friendly, win or lose; and depending on the opponent’s team ranking, they can score up to an additional $17,625 a game. Women soccer players, on the other hand, only earn an extra $1,350 if the team wins a friendly.
The female players who filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which include Solo, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, infers that U.S. Soccer has taken their victories for granted. They point out the current pay structure in place, which awards each player a $75,000 bonus if the U.S. team wins the World Cup. U.S. men's players, however, could win up to $400,000 (not that it would ever happen, with countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Spain long dominant in international men’s soccer). The difference between the last two international World Cup winners is staggering: Germany’s national soccer organization earned $35 million for its 2014 World Cup championship, while U.S. Soccer received $2 million for last year’s victory.
The revenue disparity is especially insulting to the U.S. women’s team when one considers the conditions in which women have had to play compared to men, especially during the 2015 tournament. FIFA, global soccer’s governing body, has long banned the men’s World Cup tournament from being played on artificial turf as it poses a higher risk of injury. For example, when some matches were played in suburban Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome during the 1994 Men’s World Cup in the U.S., FIFA regulations required that the stadium’s operator temporarily replace its artificial grass surface with natural turf. But many of the venues for last year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada only had the more dangerous artificial turf. Despite the protest of U.S. senators including Karen Gillebrand of New York, FIFA refused to make any accommodations for that tournament.
While only five players signed onto the EEOC complaint, they insist they speak for the entire U.S. team. This current chapter is the latest in what has been these women’s long, acrimonious relationship with U.S. Soccer. Pay disputes over 20 years ago led the federation to temporarily lock out players on the eve of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta — which ended with the U.S. women winning the gold medal in soccer.
And now, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati insists the women are cherry-picking their data and that the U.S. men’s soccer team creates far more revenue. U.S. Soccer also says its support of a professional soccer league for women, despite two prior failures, prove that it has unwavering support for women players.
But even a former EEOC chief, who served under President George W. Bush, acknowledges that the women soccer players have a very strong case. Indeed, there are strong links between revenues generated and the pay professional athletes receive (which is why the summer women’s professional basketball league athletes make a sliver of what NBA stars earn). And if revenues drive salaries in this industry, then the U.S. women’s soccer team has the wind at its back in this equal pay fight.
Image credit: U.S. Soccer
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.