The USWNT, a Lawsuit and Cultural Change


A lawsuit, an unfair bargaining agreement, and cultural barriers stand between the USWNT and equality.


Why do we watch football? When we watch football, we bear witness to universal, acutely human struggles playing out in comprehensible terms and in an entertaining format. Experiencing the excitement every win and disappointment of every loss right alongside our favourite team affiliates us with others around us. We feel as though we are part of a community, and we feel a greater sense of belonging the more invested we are in our teams. Particularly when it concerns watching our national teams, watching football can be an affirmation of national identity. That is why the triumph for the US Women’s National Team during the FIFA Women’s World Cup this past summer reverberated as a triumph across the entire country.

As the US celebrated the victory, many players directed media attention to a long-standing structural problem within the USA football labour market, and within the markets of professional sports more broadly all around the world; the wide remuneration disparities between male and female players. 

The lawsuit 

In March 2016, five players from the USWNT filed an action with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the US Soccer Federation (USSF), the official governing body of football in the US, of wage discrimination. Under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII, employers cannot discriminate based on sex by paying lower wages “for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions”. [1] It is thus incumbent upon the USWNT players to prove that despite equal effort under similar working conditions, pay discrepancy persists. 

The USWNT case will be based on the following claims; (1) the USWNT contributes at least as much to the USSF’s reputation and finances as the men’s team (2) despite requiring equal skill, effort and commitment from their players, the USSF still pays female players less than male ones (especially considering that the USWNT invests more time playing, promoting the team, and practicing), (3) unequal bonuses are offered to male vs female players who made the World Cup team and for match wins and losses (4) the USWNT received suboptimal training and travel conditions compared to their male counterparts and less marketing promoting their team. [2]

The Equal Pay Act draws an exception to standards of equal pay in situations where “payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex”. [3] The USSF will likely make the legal argument that the disparity in pay can be justified through one of these exceptions; that inequality in pay is not purposefully crafted, rather that it manifests itself due to market forces. 

“The numbers speak for themselves. We are the best in the world, have [four] World Cup Championships, four Olympic Championships, and the USMNT gets paid more just to show up than we get paid to win major championships.” – Hope Solo, USWNT Goalie

Is the men’s game, then, of higher demand to spectators? Is it of a significantly higher quality? Is the men’s game more valuable as to justify income inequality? Simply stated, no. The USSF doesn’t attribute the accumulation of sponsorship revenue to either team, however sponsorship revenue rose considerably in 2016, after the USWNT took home the World Cup title in 2015.  From 2015-2018, ticket sales from USWNT games contributed $50.8 million USD in revenue to the USSF, out-earning their male counterparts, who generated $49.9 million USD in ticket sales over the same period. [4] The women’s team has brought in four Olympic gold medals and four World Cup titles, while their male counterparts have won no gold medals* nor World Cup titles. [5]

Raking in the dough 

Remuneration schemes for footballers vary drastically in magnitude and structure based on a country’s football association regulations. USWNT players are compensated by the USSF to play for the national team, however 35% of female national team players worldwide are not paid for their efforts representing their country on the field. [6]

USWNT players are paid a base salary of $100,000 + bonuses based on outcome (win or tie) and rank of opposing teams. USMNT players have no base salary and are paid only in bonuses. However, bonuses are awarded even in the case of a loss. The Washington Post posits that under the previous collective bargaining agreement between the players and the USSF (under which the lawsuit was launched), if both the women’s and men’s team play 20 friendlies, a player on the USWNT would receive 38% of the annual pay of a similarly-skilled player on the men’s team.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, which took effect in April 2017, in the same situation as above, a female player would make 89% of the annual compensation as her male counterpart, thus reducing the gap in remuneration greatly but not to the point of equality. [7]

A typical USWNT player’s salary will be based on compensation from both the national team and the contract they’ve signed with the club they represent when they’re not playing for the national team. However, football consists of more than reward for performance on the field; star quality draws massive contributions from sponsors. Income going directly to players from sponsorships is based on individual contracts made with players. High-profile players tend to earn a significant portion of their overall income from brand and sponsorship deals.

Moreover, in World Cup years, prize money is also a significant element in the pay structure of a footballer. In 2019 the players from the winning team of the Women’s World Cup received about $4 million USD. In 2018 the Men’s World Cup champions walked away with $38 million USD. 

Remedies

As we witness an amplified spectator voice through social media and the ability of users to collectively mobilize to boycott companies and organizations that do not live up to the moral and ethical standards of the general public, many corporate entities have tried to appeal to this audience by holding themselves to a higher moral scrutiny and changing business models based on demands of consumers. This culture emphasizes moral principles as a way to guide business, sometimes at the expense of profits. In that vein, regarding the case of equality in football, does revenue generation even matter? 

The USWNT is one of the premier football teams in the world. In their specific case, the women’s team performs significantly and consistently better than their corresponding men’s team (which is managed under the same association) and is still subject to inequality in remuneration. However, for many female teams around the world, this is not the case. A common argument justifying the wage discrepancy between female and male teams is that the women’s game doesn’t attract as much attention or prestige as the men’s game, thus less sponsorship and advertising dollars flow towards the women, in turn the games are less profitable and attract a smaller audience, and this justifies the massive disparity in prize earnings in the world cup and in pay schemes generally. 

US Women’s Soccer World Champions Ticker Tape Parade.
Photo: New York City Department of Transportation@flickr

The culture surrounding watching female leagues simply is not as prevalent as that of watching male ones. However, this is in large part due to a history of female marginalization within the industry. In the early 20th century, in many countries such as Germany, Brazil and the Netherlands, female football clubs were banned. Even in places where there were not official restrictions on the women’s game, cultural norms surrounding football and lack of infrastructure supporting women in football provided great barriers to entry. The story of women in football has been one of exclusion, resilience, and struggle towards cultural change and inclusion. Right now, the industry is at crossroads, with on one hand an opportunity to be guided by principle, and on the other to permit the continuance of inequality. 

In the US figure skating industry, female skaters produce considerably more revenue than male skaters. However, prize money is distributed equally, irrespective of gender. Although the figure skating industry operates very differently than that of football, the football industry could take cues from the skating industry, following the principle of equality that guides allocation of prize money. Some football associations are moving forward with gender parity in the industry following such a principle; the Norway Football Association has pioneered a plan to offer equal prize money to male and female leagues, with the males offering a portion of their earnings from commercial activity to balance the playing field with their female counterparts. Other solutions proposed in the 2017 FIFPro paper on Women’s Football and Global Employment are to strengthen collective bargaining for women’s teams, to provide minimum employment and legal standards for players’ contracts (due to the precarious nature of work currently facing many female footballers), and altering payment structures on the club and federation level and to offer equal prize money at tournaments. 

Cultural change does not happen in a vacuum. It is supported by concrete changes in the industry, in broadcasting and in sponsorship. To reach a point of equality within the game, people in high up places are going to have to make difficult decisions. Some spectators are going to be made uncomfortable seeing something unfamiliar. But when has society ever progressed in a state of complete comfort? Such a shift in the industry may seem radical and comes with quite a price tag. But for the sake of women’s equality, I would argue that it is worth every cent. 

References

[1] The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA). Vol. 29, 1963, https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/epa.cfm.

[2] Bachman, Eric. “Let’s Not Wait For The Next World Cup To Score Equal Pay For Women.” Forbes, 5 Aug. 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericbachman/2019/08/05/lets-not-wait-for-the-next-world-cup-to-score-equal-pay-for-women/.

[3] The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA). Vol. 29, 1963, https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/epa.cfm.

[4] Rodrigo, Chris Mills. “US Women’s Soccer Games Outearned Men’s Matches over Past Three Years: Report.” TheHill, 17 June 2019, https://thehill.com/homenews/448875-us-womens-games-out-earned-us-mens-games-over-last-three-years-report.

[5] Editors of CBS Philadelphia. “Female Players Accuse US Soccer Federation Of Wage Discrimination.” CBS Philly, 31 Mar. 2016, https://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2016/03/31/soccer-wage-discrimination/.

[6]  FIFPro Editors. 2017 FIFPro Global Employment Report. FIFPro, 2017, p. 27.

[7]  Meg Kelly. Are the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Players Paid Less? The Gender Pay Gap Explained | The Fact Checker. The Washington Post, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k33MXVaJhLc.

[8]  FIFPro Editors. 2017 FIFPro Global Employment Report. FIFPro, 2017, p. 27.

[9] McCann, Michael. “Revenue at Center of USWNT, USSF Dispute.” SI.Com, https://www.si.com/planet-futbol/2016/04/06/uswnt-us-soccer-wage-discrimination-revenue-unequal-pay. Accessed 1 Aug. 2019.

[10]  Kelner, Martha. “Football’s Gender Pay Gap Worse than in Politics, Medicine and Space.” The Guardian, 26 Nov. 2017. www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/nov/26/football-gender-pay-gap-worse-than-in-politics-medicine-and-space.

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