Are U.S. women’s soccer players really earning less than men?

Megan Rapinoe, teammates, and supporters are demanding #EqualPay.

Portraits of the USA women's soccer team members are visible in the windows of a building on Fifth Avenue, in New York, Thursday, June 13, 2019.
Portraits of the USA women's soccer team members are visible in the windows of a building on Fifth Avenue, in New York, Thursday, June 13, 2019. –AP Photo/Richard Drew)

In the world of women’s soccer, the team to beat is the United States. The Women’s National Team (WNT) is ranked number one in the world. They just won their fourth World Cup on Sunday. Fans give them the rock-star treatment. The president argues with them on Twitter. And they’re unquestionably more successful on the world stage than the Men’s National Team (MNT).

But according to a class action lawsuit the team filed, the players are not treated as equals to the men’s national team. All 28 female players sued the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) – their employer – in U.S. District Court in March, alleging they are paid less than the men and are provided with less support, despite their consistent outstanding performance. The lawsuit also argues the team’s success has “translated into substantial revenue generation and profits” for USSF and “during the period relevant to this case, the WNT earned more in profit and/or revenue than the MNT.”

Democratic presidential primary candidates had much to say before the team clinched the 2019 Women’s World Cup on Sunday. Warren tweeted that the women’s team is paid “a fraction of what the men earn.” Gillibrand and Harris tweeted the women’s team should be paid “equally.”

The soccer federation denied the claims in the women’s lawsuit, arguing in a May court filing that the pay differential between the men and women players is “based on differences in aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex” and that the two teams are “physically and functionally separate organizations.”

So what’s going on here? Can the women’s team claim credit for bringing in more revenue? Are the women players paid less than the men?

– Total revenue: In fiscal 2018, the U.S. Soccer Federation had total operating revenue of $101.4 million. Almost half was generated by sponsorships and around one-quarter can be attributed to revenue from games played by the national teams, according to USSF financial documents.

Sponsorships grew nearly 50 percent between fiscal 2014 and 2015, when the men’s national team last played in a World Cup. They grew another 25 percent between fiscal 2015 and 2016, when the women won the 2015 World Cup, to around $45 million. Revenue from sponsorships has stayed consistent – between $44 and $48 million per year – since then.

However, we can’t directly attribute this increase to either team. USSF sells sponsorships (which include broadcast rights for all U.S. Soccer games) as a bundle. The documents we reviewed don’t distinguish which team brings in more sponsorships or how sponsorship dollars are allocated.

Although, as the Wall Street Journal reported, new marketing deals focused around equality for women suggest “there are signs the U.S. women’s equal-pay fight has spurred more marketing deals for the federation.” One sign is the record sales of the USWNT’s home jersey. Nike CEO Mark Parker reported the jersey “is now the number one soccer jersey, men’s or women’s, ever sold on Nike.com in one season.”

There was a long-standing gap between revenue generated by the men and women, but that has disappeared in recent years. The women’s team contributed close or more than half of the federation’s revenue from games since fiscal 2016. Overall, from fiscal 2016 to 2018, the women’s games generated about $900,000 more revenue than the men’s games. In the year following the 2015 World Cup win, women’s games generated $1.9 million more than the men’s games. And in recent years, the men’s revenue tally also includes the fees that opposing teams pay in order to play the United States.

The USSF points out that if this calculation is extended to fiscal 2015 – in order to include a men’s World Cup cycle – the men’s team brought in $10.8 million more for the federation. For the current World Cup cycle, the women’s team is likely to have higher revenue, since they won the championship while the men failed to qualify.

Michael McCann, a Sports Illustrated writer and University of New Hampshire law professor, said: “USWNT players and U.S. Soccer have offered contradictory narratives over whether USWNT players are paid more based on revenue generation attributed to their play. To the extent degree of revenue generation influences any pay increases, the two sides will need to find common ground on how that topic is empirically measured.”

Looking only at game revenue, USSF’s own financial statements make clear that the women’s team has held its own in comparison to the men’s team since fiscal 2016.

– Net revenue: Gross revenue – especially for games – isn’t everything. Matches are expensive to produce, players have to be paid, and so, games don’t always turn a profit for the federation. That said, in fiscal 2016 and 2017, the women’s team generated more cash than expenses, bringing in net revenue of $8 million and $1 million, respectively. The mean’s team in fiscal 2015 and 2016 posted net revenue of $350,000 and $2.7 million, respectively.

Comparing each team’s expenses is a good exercise. The USMNT consistently had higher expenses (a line item that includes salaries and bonuses) until fiscal 2018. The USWNT did make more in bonuses and salary than the USMNT in fiscal 2018, according to our estimates, but it’s worth noting they also played almost double the number of games and won significantly more often.

All of that begs the question, is the USWNT being paid less?

– Earnings: It’s tough to make a straightforward comparison of the earnings for men and women players, because the two teams have different collective-bargaining agreements that outline different pay structures.

A contract player on the women’s team makes a base salary and can earn performance-based bonuses. (Players without a contract have a different pay schedule.)

On the men’s team, players earn only bonuses.

The teams play different numbers of games each year and earn different bonuses depending on the game type, their opponents’ FIFA rank and the game’s outcome. On top of that, both teams can earn additional bonuses for winning specific tournaments. And certain events, such as the World Cup, have a separate bonus structure entirely.

“The male players are paid when they play, but not when they sit,” McCann said. “USMNT players must thus be on the roster to be pay eligible. USWNT players, in contrast, are guaranteed pay.”

The lawsuit from the women’s team sketched out the following scenario: If both teams played 20 friendlies in a year, a top-tier women’s national team player would earn $164,320 less, or “38% of the compensation of a similarly situated MNT player.” That was true under the previous collective-bargaining agreemen tthat ended in December 2016.

The Fact Checker obtained the new agreement, which took effect in April 2017. Using the same 20-game scenario, we calculated the player on the women’s team would earn $28,333 less, or about 89 percent of the compensation of a similarly situated men’s team player. If both teams lost all 20 games, the players would make the same amount. That’s because the men earn a $5,000 bonus when they lose and the women have a $100,000 base salary.

USWNT players have previously said publicly they believed this was the best agreement they could get without going on strike. McCann said: “The players’ unions negotiated these systems. This type of argument thus implicitly directs USWNT players to blame their own union for negotiating a system that pays them in ways they find unacceptable.”

Under the women’s new bargaining agreement, the players can also earn attendance bonuses, payment for commercial appearances and per diems that are equal and tied to what the men can earn.

– World Cup earnings: Then there’s the World Cup – which has a different bonus structure entirely.

Before we dive in, it’s important to understand how World Cup prize money works. FIFA sets the amount and awards any prize money to the winning country’s federation. The federation – in this case USSF – then distributes it to the players based on each team’s collective-bargaining agreement.

Total prize money for the Women’s World Cup in 2019 is $30 million – the champions will walk away with about $4 million. For contrast, in the 2018 Men’s World Cup, the champions won $38 million from a total pool of about $400 million. In other words, the champions from the men’s world cup were awarded more than the total prize money in the women’s tournament. So there’s no question that there’s a huge gap in earning potential here.

How does this play out for the teams? According to their collective-bargaining agreements, the men’s team earns $3,000 more for a loss in a World Cup qualifying game than the women earn for a win. And that is just the beginning of the differences. In their legal response, USSF attributes the gap to the total prize money that FIFA provides.

Jeffery Kessler, the female players’ attorney, said via email: “The USSF has an obligation under US law to provide equal pay regardless of how FIFA discriminates. The discrimination against the women occurs in both Non- World Cup games and World Cup games.”

Hampton Dellinger, a writer and lawyer who represented an international coalition of women’s soccer players protesting gender inequality at the 2015 World Cup, said via email: “In my opinion, US Soccer has been using sexism at the FIFA level to justify at least some of its own gender discrimination. That’s not right. Particularly for a non-profit and one where the women have been dramatically outperforming the men for a generation.”

We repeatedly contacted the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association, which represented the USWNT during these negotiations, and received no response.

A representative for the federation pointed to the organization’s commitment to supporting women’s soccer – including paying the top players’ salaries for the National Women’s Soccer League – as well the changes made under the 2017 collective bargaining agreement. When it comes to World Cup bonuses, USSF argues it is unfair to be held accountable for FIFA’s decisions, when they are simply passing on prize money.

– The bottom line: When it comes to revenue from games, the women’s national soccer team has held its own against the men’s team since the 2015 World Cup win. But games account for only one-quarter of USSF revenue. Sponsorships make up half, and it’s hard to determine what the women’s team contributed to USSF without more data.

Are the women players paid less? Sometimes. When the female players have appeared to make about the same or more money, they’ve had to turn in consistently outstanding performances on the world stage. Even with those feats, earning the same amount as the men’s soccer players was near-impossible under the previous collective-bargaining agreement.

The new agreement has provisions that may reduce the difference in bonuses for friendly games and tournaments, but there is – without question and for whatever reasons – still a massive gap between men’s and women’s World Cup bonuses.

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