In Soccer, Pay Defies Performance

Bringing equality to the women’s team will require not only changing salaries, but also changing the way people think about investing in the capabilities of women.

USA Today Sports / Reuters

With four Olympic gold medals and three World Cup championships (the most recent of which netted more than 23 million viewers for the final game)—the women’s national soccer team has undoubtedly outperformed their male counterparts in recent years. Given all this, how can the U.S. Soccer Federation (the body in charge of professional soccer in America ) possibly justify paying female pro-soccer players less than their male counterparts?

It turns out, lots of ways.

This year, five players from the women’s team filed a lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation of wage discrimination. In their filing, the women say that despite their success, male players are still get paid significantly more just for showing up.

That’s understandably frustrating, since it clearly shows that pay isn’t always tied to merit. The federation claims that among top players, the wage gap is actually much smaller than the figure cited in the women’s team’s claim, which states that some women earn as little as one-quarter of what male players earn. U.S. Soccer contests that that’s not a fair representation. According to the federation’s documents, among the top-25 earners in the league, 14 of whom are women, pay is much more equal and the gap is in fact closer to 2 percent. But still, how can that pay discrepancy—albeit a small one—among the most important men and women in the league be justified?

Apparently, there’s an explanation for that too. And it’s a familiar one: The league compensates men and women differently.

For instance, women receive a higher base salary than men—around $72,000 annually. But women only receive a per game bonus if they win during the 20 “friendly” matches played outside of competitive tournaments. Men receive a bonus just for playing, and they get a larger bonus for winning. And when it comes to bigger international competitions, the discrepancies can be stark. Men, for instance received more than $50,000 for making the World Cup roster, while women receive only $15,000. U.S. Soccer argues that these figures are based, in part, on the fact that men and women’s leagues have different requirements and schedules. They say that the men’s team produces revenue and ticket sales that are double what they are for the women’s team, which means that players on the men’s team reap the benefits through revenue-sharing agreements.

Another piece of this is the money coming from FIFA, the body that controls international competition, including the World Cup. For getting booted in the round of 16, the men’s team was awarded $9 million by FIFA. For winning the World Cup, the women’s team took home $2 million. The USSF says that the additional compensation that the teams receive from FIFA plays a huge role in how salaries are doled out to the national teams. And for men, there’s simply much more money.

But aside from the revenue differences from ticket sales and FIFA, there are also pay discrepancies at the national level that seemingly could, and should, be easily, and quickly remedied. For example, when participating in international games, each player on the men’s team is given a $75 per diem, while members of the women’s team receive only $60. And women are paid less for their public appearances too. That’s not because women eat less, or because their time isn’t worth as much, but it is due in part to differences in the two group’s collective bargaining agreements with U.S. Soccer. The men’s team successfully negotiated pay raises for these fees in their 2015 collective bargaining agreement, but the women’s team never renegotiated their CBA after its expiration in 2012. This same agreement is where choices about salaries versus pay-for-play arrangements were made. Instead of negotiating a new CBA, the women’s team signed a revised memorandum, that kept the terms of their old CBA until a new one was put in place, at the close of 2016.

And that too, has been a source of controversy of late. Recently, a judge ruled that the guiding document that the women’s team signed upon expiration of their collective-bargaining agreement in essence acts as an agreement until a new one is signed. That means that the women don’t in fact have the legal right to use some forms of leverage, like a player’s strike —which is disallowed under their previous contract—in order to persuade the league to meet their demands.

Of course, this fight for equality is bigger than compensation—it’s also about treating male and female players equally when it comes to other facets of the job. In recent years, one of the biggest qualms from women’s soccer teams has been the use of astroturf—which can lead to worse playing conditions and injuries—instead of grass, which the men play on. Conditions on astroturf have been so bad that it's led to game cancellations and strike threats among women’s teams. But replacing artificial fields with real grass cost money, money that many leagues have been unwilling to dole out for women’s competitions.

The rift between the women’s team and the organizations that pay them is perhaps so infuriating  because they remind women that even when performance goals are met, exceeded, and even when women clearly outperform men—excuses can be made and the buck can be passed. It’s a reminder that the lack of pay equity between the genders is a deeply-rooted and systemic problem that requires not only changes to budgets, but changes in the way people think about and invest in the contributions and capabilities of women, at all levels. And that, feels like a dauntingly tall order.

It’s well known that the EEOC could take a long time to rule on whether or not the wage discrepancies in the U.S. Soccer League are, in fact, discriminatory or just dissatisfactory. In the meantime, team is gearing up for the Olympics and revenue projections for the upcoming seasons anticipate significant gains for the women’s squad, and losses for the men’s. But without a strengthened labor contract between female players and the league that demands some of level of equity, the women’s team might still find themselves at a disadvantage despite their progress. That makes 2016 a pretty big year for women’s soccer in the U.S.

This article is part of a week-long series of articles about the business of sports. Joe Pinsker on the future of corporate sponsorship is here. Alana Semuels on publicly-financed sports stadiums is here.