The women of the US national soccer team are famous for being extraordinary athletes, repeat world champions — and plaintiffs.
The team’s lawsuit alleging pay discrimination against the US soccer federation has done much to define its identity. A nearly perfect run through the World Cup has been widely interpreted as vindication of the merits, so much so that fans chanted “equal pay” after the US victory in the final over the Netherlands and booed the head of FIFA, the organizer of the World Cup, during the trophy ceremony.
It’s not to take anything away from the women’s achievement — they never trailed the entire tournament — to note that the equal-pay complaint is almost entirely bunk.
It is true that the American women, who sweat and practice as much as their male compatriots — perhaps more, given their superior results — don’t make as much. But the women’s game isn’t as popular or profitable, which fundamentally drives pay.
The total prize money for the women’s 2019 World Cup was $30 million, with the champion taking away about $4 million. The total for the men’s 2018 World Cup was $400 million, with the champions winning $38 million.
This seems blatantly unfair, until you take into account the vastly different viewership and revenue from the two events. FIFA raked in more than $6 billion from the 2018 men’s World Cup. The women’s 2019 World Cup has been projected, when all is said and done, to make about $130 million.
The women’s tournament this year may have garnered about a billion viewers across all platforms, nothing to sneeze at, but the 2018 men’s World Cup had more than a billion viewers just for the final game.
It has been reported that the US women’s team has been generating more game revenue than the US men the last couple of years. This is telling, although not quite in the way that those alleging pay discrimination think. The women are celebrities and cultural heroes, winners of four Olympic gold medals and four World Cups.
The men are nobodies who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Yet from 2016 to 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal, the women just barely out-earned the men, $50.8 to $49.9 million.
The explanation for the smaller audience for the women’s team in the equal-pay lawsuit is what it calls “manufactured revenue depression,” a deliberate effort by the federation to squelch the women’s audience and undercut ticket prices. Perhaps the federation should have done more and can do more to promote the women’s game. But it’s not possible that the smaller women’s audience can be the work of one organization.
Another element of pay for women’s and men’s players is their play for professional leagues, where the scale of the audiences is, again, vastly different.
The National Women’s Soccer League has two strong teams that average more than 10,000 fans, but the other seven teams in the league average fewer than 5,000. The Sky Blue FC, based in Piscataway, N.J., averages 1,432.
By way of comparison, the worst of the men’s Major League Soccer teams, the Chicago Fire, averages 11,417. The best-attended team, Atlanta United, has drawn roughly 70,000 people for four home games this season, roughly the total attendance for all NWSL games so far.
All that said, according to a Washington Post analysis, the women’s national team actually made more in bonuses and salary than the men did in 2018 (although they played more games and needless to say, won more).
The women and men have two different collective-bargaining agreements, and different World Cup hoops to jump through, so making direct apples-to-apples comparisons is difficult. It’s hard to argue, though, with the simple approach the women say that they have proposed in the past — revenue-sharing based on how much money they bring in.
There’s risk to this arrangement if the women underperform, but this group is nothing if not self-confident, and so far has always delivered.