The United States’ women’s soccer team has shattered records in recent years — it’s won three World Cups, and, at this year’s World Cup, crushed Thailand 13-0, marking the largest margin of victory at any World Cup game. But now, in addition to crushing their opponents, the team is trying to squash the gender pay gap as well.
Twenty-eight members of the U.S. women’s national team filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation in March, alleging that the federation’s failure to pay the women’s team as much as the men’s team is flagrant sexism, and violates the Equal Pay Act. But, when looking at how much money each team brings into the federation, discrepancies in viewing numbers between the men’s league and women’s league fully justify the pay gap — and always have.
These complaints are nothing new. The women’s team filed a similar lawsuit in 2016, claiming that the U.S. men’s team was unfairly paid more than the women’s team, because the men languished at 30th in the world while the women were consistently on top. Three of the team’s top players even went on the Daily Show to drum up support for their cause.
“We’re just fighting for equal rights,” Hope Solo, the team’s goalie, said.
“Our contributions to the federation should be seen as equal to the men,” Ali Krieger, a defender, added. “We’ve won three World Cups.”
This is a moot point. Of course the women’s team’s successes at the World Cup are commendable, but only a small part of an athlete’s salary is determined by their success in a tournament. Most sports leagues, including the NFL, determine player’s pay as a percentage of the league’s revenue. And when it comes to raking in the cash, the women’s league simply falls short of the men’s league, in an identical tournament format.
FIFA runs the men’s and Women’s World Cups every four years in separate years and in separate locations. Yes, the structure of the tournament is exactly the same — 24 teams from around the world convene in one country to duke it out for the trophy — but the events themselves are completely separate.
The men’s World Cup is the most watched sporting event in the world — 3.5 billion people watched it in 2018, and more than 1 billion tuned in for the final. By comparison, only 750 million people watched the Women’s World Cup in 2015, fewer than the number of people who only watched the final game of the men’s event. The result? The men’s World Cup made FIFA a lot more money — $6 billion compared to $73 million in revenue. And more than three-quarters of that $6 billion came from sponsorships and TV rights, which are determined by viewership.
These figures are reflected in the pay statistics. FIFA paid out a total purse of $400 million to men’s teams in the 2018 World Cup, and $38 million to the champions. For women the numbers were $30 million and $4 million, respectively.
And for gross income, women fare much better salary-wise versus men when it comes to non-World Cup games, but the pay scales are different. The men’s salaries are determined by game-winning bonuses, whereas women are paid a hefty base salary for the year, and receive smaller bonuses for winning games. If the women’s team wins zero games in a year, each player receives $72,000, and if they win all 20, they each receive $99,000. For men, the numbers are $100,000 and $263,000, respectively — a much wider spread. The U.S. women typically win the vast majority of their games, whereas the men are consistently under 500.
Since the women’s team is so dominant compared to the rest of the world, perhaps the women’s league should opt for a pay model that puts a bigger emphasis on bonuses to offset the low viewing numbers. It’s simply unfair to ask the men’s league to subsidize the women’s league, which would have to happen if men’s and women’s players earned the exact same salaries.
Ultimately, this is not an issue of gender discrimination. The men and women are not on the same teams, not in the same league, not on the same pitch and not even being paid from the same pool of ad revenue. The total value of the industry is what counts here. It doesn’t matter how many Olympic gold medals or World Cup trophies the women’s team has. What matters is the number of people watching their games. The women’s league is a far less profitable and popular industry, and simply can’t afford to pay its players the same as the men.
But perhaps the lack of viewership for women’s teams does reveal a problem with our culture — in every single sport that has men’s and women’s leagues, the male athletes receive far more views, which, needless to say, yield more sponsorship deals. Maybe the world is sleeping on women’s sports. Maybe the world should sit up and take notice of a team that blows 13 goals past the opposing team.
If any group of athletes is going to mend the pay discrepancy, the U.S. Women’s soccer team is probably the group to do it. But they have to do it fairly — not by suing the federation over justified pay discrepancies, but by actually raking in more viewers to close the viewership gap between men’s and women’s sports.
Then, and only then, should they be paid the same as the men’s team.