What the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Needs More Than Equal Pay

The argument that the female champions can draw big crowds only during World Cup years doesn’t consider the lacking investment from their governing body.

U.S. women’s soccer, in non–World Cup years, is not being sold nearly as effectively as men’s soccer has been. (Jean Catuffe / Getty)

This evening, the four-time World Cup–champion U.S. women’s national soccer team will kick off its victory tour in a historic setting: the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, California. The stadium holds the record for the largest-ever attendance at a U.S. women’s sporting event (90,185), at the historic 1999 Women’s World Cup final, where Brandi Chastain’s penalty kick won it all against China.

Much has been made of the fact that the Chastains and Mia Hamms of today—Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, and their teammates—are fighting for equal pay. Chants of the phrase rang out from the stands after the team’s championship victory against the Netherlands last month, and later throughout the “Canyon of Heroes” as the women were feted with a ticker-tape parade. But there is another, maybe even more important, part of the lawsuit the USWNT filed against the U.S. Soccer Federation months before the World Cup: the demand for equal resources such as marketing funds.

Earlier this week, U.S. Soccer Federation President Carlos Cordeiro released a letter and fact sheet showing that the women’s team was actually paid more than the men’s team in salaries and game bonuses from 2010 to 2018. He was ostensibly trying to garner public support ahead of the federation and the women’s team entering mediation on the matter. The fact sheet makes use of some fuzzy math, and it doesn’t account for the fact that the women’s team played many more matches than the men’s in that time span. Notably, the documents also avoid a major part of the lawsuit, which asks for equal investment in the team in additional areas such as coaching and training, travel, and marketing budgets.

The reason Cordeiro didn’t expose those numbers in his fact sheet is likely because they are vastly disparate. You could start at the top and just compare the earnings of the teams’ coaches for the 2017–18 season. The World Cup–winning Jill Ellis’s most recently reported compensation was $318,533, while the former U.S. men’s-national-team coach Bruce Arena made $1.4 million during that period (the same year, the men’s team lost to Trinidad and Tobago, keeping it out of the 2018 World Cup).

Many point to the high energy surrounding the Women’s World Cup years and then to the low attendance numbers of the league games in between to try to show that women’s soccer can’t maintain a profitable, excited audience. But that’s not how sports works. If you build it, they will come. And after you build it, you have to market it. U.S. women’s soccer, in non–World Cup years, is not being sold nearly as effectively as men’s soccer has been.

According to the lawsuit filed in March, the lack of promotion for the women’s games is having a direct effect on the USWNT’s profitability. The lawsuit notes that the federation “has not announced WNT games with sufficient notice to allow for maximum attendance; and has not used all available means to promote WNT games in a manner at least equal to MNT games.” The federation also charges less for tickets to women’s games, a direct financial hit to the team’s profitability. In an interview with The New York Times Magazine last month, Megan Rapinoe explained her reasoning for the difference:

Do you have an idea other than sexism as to why people aren’t investing in women’s sports in a huge way right now? Probably 75 percent of the people going to Major League Soccer games—are they going because they’re hard-core soccer fans or because it’s a cool experience? The MLS marketing is great, the branding is great, and it’s a fun atmosphere to be a part of. I feel like women could have the exact same thing, but for some reason people aren’t investing in it.

The example Rapinoe cites—Major League Soccer—proves just how crucial investment is to growing a sport. Back in 2001, MLS’s sixth season, the league was considered a tiny fish in the professional-sports circuit. Average attendance numbers at games were falling consistently; the league had lost $250 million since its first match; two teams had folded; and the league itself reportedly almost shuttered, too.

The turnaround for MLS began in 2002, when team owners got together with the league’s commissioner, Don Garber, to form a separate company: Soccer United Marketing. SUM purchased broadcasting rights for that year’s men’s World Cup for $70 million, in an attempt to bolster soccer fandom in the United States. By 2004, SUM had formed an exclusive partnership with the U.S. Soccer Federation. Garber, who is also SUM’s CEO, explained in a 2018 interview that the tight relationship between MLS, SUM, and the federation exists thanks to a commitment to “providing an opportunity for American players to play professionally, to building stadiums and training infrastructure, to building a fan culture, and growing the sport overall.” SUM is the same firm cited in the U.S. women’s national team’s lawsuit, which alleges that Kathy Carter, the former president of SUM, “acknowledged that the WNT has been under-marketed [and] ‘taken … for granted.’”

The recent announcements of a Budweiser sponsorship deal for the National Women’s Soccer League and an ESPN broadcast deal that will ensure at least some of the women’s-league games will be televised (after a deal with A&E ended prematurely in February) are a start to getting more eyes on women’s soccer outside of the World Cup. But these are tiny steps for a league already seven years in. Just like MLS, women’s soccer needs an influx of investment and marketing support from SUM and the federation to keep growing.

Over the next two months, the USWNT will play in front of huge crowds during its victory tour, adding to the World Cup profits it’s already made for the U.S. Soccer Federation. The least the organization could do is invest that revenue back into the team and market it like the world-class product it is.