The US women’s national soccer team returns home this week to a hero’s welcome.
After their win at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France on Sunday, they’ll get a ticker tape parade in Manhattan on Wednesday, only the second women’s team ever to receive the honor (the first was the 2015 World Cup-winning team). And though several members of the team have famously said they won’t be visiting the White House, they’ve already been invited to tour the House and Senate.
But when the celebration is over, the players have another battle ahead of them — their pay discrimination lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation.
The 28 players on the women’s national team sued the federation in March, alleging that they are paid less than their counterparts on the US men’s national team even though they win more games and bring in more money. According to the suit, a top-tier women’s player could earn as little as 38 percent of what a top-tier men’s player makes in a year, a gap of $164,320. That gap closed a bit with a new collective bargaining agreement in 2017, but the players still say they’re paid unfairly.
“These athletes generate more revenue and garner higher TV ratings but get paid less simply because they are women,” said Molly Levinson, a spokesperson for the team in their lawsuit, in a statement to Vox. “It is time for the Federation to correct this disparity once and for all.”
The soccer federation agrees that the men’s and women’s teams are not paid the same but has said it’s impossible to compare the teams because their pay structures are so different. The two groups have agreed to mediation in an effort to resolve the suit out of court.
The team’s World Cup win, and the enormous popularity of players like Megan Rapinoe, means the women have lots of support in their fight. The New York Times editorial board on Monday called for the team to be paid fairly. Fans chanted “equal pay” from the stands following the team’s victory.
But the players are also facing a culture that still values men’s sports more than women’s. “There’s just a mentality out here for whatever reason that women just don’t deserve to be paid the same as men in professional sports,” Rich Nichols, the former executive director of the Women’s National Team Players Association, told Vox.
The outcome of the players’ suit could be a test of how much that mentality is changing.
The women’s soccer team makes less than male players, even though they win more games and bring in more money
The US women’s national soccer team has been fighting for better pay for years. In 2016, five players — Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Hope Solo — filed a pay discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
It was the first time in professional sports history that any athlete had filed such a discrimination complaint against a current employer, said Nichols, who now represents Solo. “It took great guts and courage for those five women to jeopardize their jobs and their careers” by filing, he added.
With no movement on the complaint by August 2018, Solo, who was terminated by US Soccer in 2016, filed a gender discrimination lawsuit. The 28 current players filed their own lawsuit on March 8 of this year, International Women’s Day.
“Despite the fact that these female and male players are called upon to perform the same job responsibilities on their teams and participate in international competitions for their single common employer,” the lawsuit states, “the female players have been consistently paid less money than their male counterparts. This is true even though their performance has been superior to that of the male players — with the female players, in contrast to male players, becoming world champions.”
Soccer players’ pay is complicated, as Meg Kelly reports at the Washington Post. Players on the women’s team earn a base salary and are eligible for performance-based bonuses, whereas men only earn bonuses. The teams also play different numbers of games in a year. And if they make the World Cup, a separate bonus structure applies.
Still, the women’s team laid out some major inequities in their suit. If a women’s team won 20 non-tournament games in a year, the suit states, a top-tier player on that team would make a maximum of $99,000. But if a men’s team did the same, a top-tier men’s player would make an average of $263,320.
In 2014, the soccer federation paid the men’s national team $5.375 million in bonuses for its World Cup performance — the team was eliminated in the round of 16. The women’s national team, meanwhile, made just $1.725 million in bonuses for winning the entire tournament in 2015. “The WNT earned more than three times less than the MNT while performing demonstrably better,” the suit states.
The women’s players also say they bring in more money for US Soccer than their male counterparts. According to the Wall Street Journal, women’s games have brought in more money than men’s in recent years, thanks to the women’s team’s World Cup win in 2015. Between 2016 and 2018, the women’s games earned about $50.8 million in revenue, compared with $49.9 million for the men’s games. The difference is largely due to ticket sales, the paper reported.
This year’s women’s World Cup final also got better ratings in the US than last year’s men’s World Cup championship game — 10 percent of American households with TVs watched the game, compared with 8.3 percent that watched the men’s equivalent, according to Nielsen. The game was the best-rated US soccer telecast since the women’s team previously won the World Cup in 2015, according to CNBC.
All this reflects one fact that no one disputes: The US women’s national soccer team is dominating on an international stage, and the men’s national soccer team is not. The US men have never won a World Cup and did not qualify for the tournament last year. The women have won four times since the Women’s World Cup was founded in 1991. The question now is whether their success will translate into equal pay.
Conditions are improving, but players say there’s more to do
The women’s team has made some gains over the years. According to the Washington Post, a new collective bargaining agreement with US Soccer in 2017 closed the pay gap for non-tournament play somewhat: Under the new agreement, a women’s player would earn $28,333 less than a men’s player in a 20-game-winning scenario, compared with $164,320 less under the old contract.
US Soccer has taken steps to eliminate inequities in travel and playing conditions, according to the New York Times — for example, the women’s team has recently flown on chartered rather than commercial flights, a luxury once reserved for the men.
But the players say their concerns about pay remain unresolved.
“We — all players, every player at this World Cup — put on the most incredible show that you could ever ask for,” team co-captain Megan Rapinoe said on Sunday. “We can’t do anything more, to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better, to do anything. It’s time to move that conversation forward to the next step.”
US Soccer has said that the claims in the players’ lawsuit are “misleading and inaccurate” and that the women’s and men’s teams are too different to compare, according to the New York Times. The federation has not yet responded to Vox’s request for comment.
And while the team has received widespread support from everyone from ordinary fans to US senators, its equal pay suit has also gotten some pushback, with Rich Lowry at the New York Post writing that the complaint “is almost entirely bunk” and arguing that since the women’s team is so much better than the men’s team, the difference in revenue should be even bigger.
The women’s fight is also reflective of a larger inequity: Across sports, female athletes struggle to get the same pay and attention that men get. The minimum starting salary for an NBA player, for example, is about eight times what the average WNBA player makes, according to the New York Times. Female basketball players aren’t necessarily looking to make the same salaries men get, as Jessica Luther writes at HuffPost, but they do want a bigger chunk of the money their league makes — less than a quarter of WNBA revenue goes to players, while that figure is 50 percent for the NBA.
Advocates also say the soccer players’ suit is reminiscent of countless discrimination complaints filed by female athletes at the high school and college levels.
“It’s unfortunately a sad continuation of the way that women and girls in sports are treated in the US,” Neena Chaudhry, the general counsel of the National Women’s Law Center, told the Times.
The World Cup win could have an impact on the players’ lawsuit — and beyond
Despite those cultural obstacles, the US women’s team has success on its side as it enters mediation with the soccer federation.
“Winning the World Cup adds pressure on US Soccer to meet the players’ demands,” wrote Caitlin Murray, author of a book on the team, at the Guardian. “With the world’s attention on the champions, the public began chanting for equal pay. That wave of support will not be lost on the lawyers dealing with this lawsuit.”
If the players are successful in their effort, it could have implications beyond their paychecks. Rapinoe has said the team is fighting not just for themselves but for other women who are paid unfairly.
“We very much believe it is our responsibility,” she told the Times in March, “not only for our team and for future US players, but for players around the world — and frankly women all around the world — to feel like they have an ally in standing up for themselves, and fighting for what they believe in, and fighting for what they deserve and for what they feel like they have earned.”
For years, opponents of equal pay for female athletes have claimed that women don’t play on the same level as men, that they’re not as exciting to watch, and that fans just don’t care about them. The women’s soccer team’s victory, and the outpouring of love for the players from all quarters of American society, has been a resounding rebuke to those claims.
That matters not just for the team and their lawsuit, but for a generation of women playing sports today — and hoping to get paid fairly for doing it.