fitness · soccer · team sports

Women’s soccer: questions of pay, politics and (mis)perceptions

The United States women’s national soccer team (USWNT) won the World Cup this year—their fourth. They played 20 games last year, posting 18 wins and two draws. The United State men’s national soccer team played 11 games last year, posting three wins, five losses and three draws. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

1.Question of pay. is the USWNT paid equitably? By “equitably”, we could mean something like “paid the same as men’s professional soccer in accordance with”:

  • their win-loss record, compared to those of the men’ teams
  • their tournament play/record, compared to mens’ teams
  • the prize money offered in the tournaments they play in
  • prize money offered in professional soccer tournaments in general
  • revenues generated by league and tournament games
  • revenue generated by sponsorships, merchandise, viewership, etc.
  • I could go on

Yes, we know: economics is complicated. But do we have some idea of the answer? We do– the answer seems to be “no”. The USWNT is not paid in accordance with any of the above-listed measures. How do we know this? Here are some informative bits from articles I read (here and here and here).

US women’s soccer now has edged out US men’s soccer in terms of game revenue generated ($50.8M vs. $49.9M)

The US Soccer Federation sells broadcast ad sponsorship rights for the women’s and men’s teams together, so they haven’t provided information to separate out the revenue streams.

Nike’s highest-selling soccer jersey is the USWNT’s home jersey. Here it is:

The USNWT home soccer jersey-- white, with blue and red stripes on the sleeves, and logo on front. Also back view.
The USWNT home soccer jersey– white, with blue and red stripes on the sleeves, and logo on front. Also back view.

The USWNT is paid a guaranteed base salary, while the US men’s soccer team is paid in bonuses alone. However, the men are paid when they play (win or lose), so their annual pay depends on how many games they play in a year.

The total prize money for the women’s World Cup is about $30M, whereas the FIFA men’s World Cup prize money is around $400M.

The US men’s and women’s teams have different contracts under different collective bargaining agreements. The US men’s team has publicly stated its support for increased pay equity for US women’s soccer.

The USWNT has sued the US Soccer Federation for changes in their pay structures (read more about it here):

All 28 female players sued the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) — their employer — in U.S. District Court in March, alleging they are paid less than the men and are provided with less support, despite their consistent outstanding performance. The lawsuit also argues the team’s success has “translated into substantial revenue generation and profits” for USSF and “during the period relevant to this case, the WNT earned more in profit and/or revenue than the MNT.”

The soccer federation denied the claims in the women’s lawsuit, arguing in a May court filing that the pay differential between the men and women players is “based on differences in aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex” and that the two teams are “physically and functionally separate organizations.”

The Washington Post, in the article I cited above, goes into much more detail, but their conclusion is this:

Are the women players paid less? Sometimes. When the female players have appeared to make about the same or more money, they’ve had to turn in consistently outstanding performances on the world stage. Even with those feats, earning the same amount as the men’s soccer players was near-impossible under the previous collective-bargaining agreement.

The new agreement has provisions that may reduce the difference in bonuses for friendly games and tournaments, but there is — without question and for whatever reasons — still a massive gap between men’s and women’s World Cup bonuses.

2.Question of politics. Is the question of the USWNT’s pay becoming a nasty political fight? That one’s easy.

Yes indeedy!
Yes indeedy!

Prominent Democratic politicians have not just tweeted support, but in fact introduced legislation requiring that US Soccer pay women’s and men’s teams equally. In response, the US Soccer Federation hired two lobbying firms to present a case that the women’s teams are not paid inequitably. Groups are battling over the numbers, which (as I pointed out above) are complicated. So far the lobbyists are working on Capital Hill but haven’t registered yet (they are required to register within 45 days of beginning work). The lobbyists and US Soccer say they are trying to give accurate information, and the USWNT say that the lobbyists and US Soccer are trying to derail legislation and mislead legislators. Politico reported the following interchange:

...one of the lobbyists representing U.S. Soccer — Ray Bucheger, a former Democratic congressional staffer who’s now a partner at FBB — told a Democraticcongressional staffer late last month that one of the bills could jeopardize the country’s chances of hosting future Women’s World Cups, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Bucheger declined to comment.

3.Question of (mis)perception. It is, sadly, true that lots of people hold women’s sports in lower esteem than men’s sports. And there are loads of reports and surveys and studies that show that non-professional-athlete men think they are as good or better athletes as world-class professional women athletes. You have no doubt seen the survey, published here, that 1 in 8 men in the UK surveyed believed they could take a point off tennis titan Serena Williams.

Serena's bullet serve, meme saying "I'd really like to see them try".
Yeah. Me, too.

In the comments section of this article (I know, don’t read the comments ever, but I’m doing this for blog research purposes) I saw exactly this same view: some people said that the USWNT were less good soccer players than mediocre men’s professional teams. Some cited a 2017 scrimmage with a US Soccer development program under-15 boys’ team (that the USWNT graciously did to teach the boys some techniques) in which the final score was 5-2 in favor of the boys’ team. You can read the real story here. You also might be interested to hear that in 2017 (maybe encouraged by the USWNT’s participation?) US Soccer added some girls’ development soccer teams (finally).

Other commenters said that this is the way of all women’s sports, that professional women athletes pale in comparison with (most? all?) male athletes in terms of performance. So it’s okay to pay them less and think less of them as athletes (or not to think of them as athletes, period).

REALLY?!

Person taking in a long breath, with caption "using deep breathing to calm down".
Let’s all take a deep breath now.

Responding to this general claim– that women just aren’t as good/strong/interesting athletes as men– takes a lot of hard work. Scholars and activists and athletes have been and are currently spending their careers responding in a bunch of ways. Some of those ways include:

  • carefully documenting and framing the comparative histories of sports and athletic development programs for boys and girls, pointing out the myriad disparities girls experience in everything from resources to coaching to goals to opportunities to social support, etc.
  • framing and revealing the historical and social contexts in which girls and women interested in physical activity/athletics are treated; in short, it’s not good.
  • providing context for the ways media coverage of women athletes treats and judges their athletic performance, I blogged about the juggernaut UConn women’s basketball team, stuck between a rock and a hard place– media criticized them for being too good and messing up the sport. Really. Read about it here.

What I hope and even expect is that, with increased support and programming, society’s perceptions of girls and boys and men and women as athletes will change. Then we will be able to see and value girls and women as the athletes they are and can be.

Readers– what do you think about our current atmosphere of sports development and outlets for girls and women? Any stories or ideas or suggestions you want to share would be most welcome.

A girl, throwing a heater over the plate.
A girl, throwing a heater over the plate.

One thought on “Women’s soccer: questions of pay, politics and (mis)perceptions

  1. Almost the only sports I enjoy watching involve women athletes. Partly it is the style of play (women’s hockey, without the fights and in-your-face aggression, is superior to men’s professional games). Partly it’s that love cheering for the underdog and the lesser-known sports, and pushing back against perceptions that artistry or beauty somehow detracts from athleticism (synchronized swimming, diving, equestrian, and figure skating require combinations of flexibility and core strength, plus a layer of attention to fine motor skills, that are mind-boggling). Partly it’s the lack of annoying advertising. If they got more sponsorships, would I watch less? Possibly.

    My issue is with the inherent sexism of professional sports management and fan choices. To me, the outrageous salaries and ticket prices of the big team sports (men’s hockey, basketball, soccer, baseball), and the lack of visibility for women’s teams, are obscene. Granted, I am still bitter about the demise of the excellent and profitable (despite the lack of publicity for its games) Ottawa women’s soccer team so the owners could replace it with a mediocre and much more heavily promoted men’s team.

    Liked by 1 person

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