It’s been riveting to watch the U.S. women’s national team battle through the Women’s World Cup, from their eye-popping 13-0 rout over Thailand to their clapback at critics who chastised them for having too much fun.
But looming in the background of the team’s effort to defend its World Cup title is a much bigger battle: their lawsuit against their boss, the U.S. Soccer Federation, alleging institutionalized gender discrimination.
The women say they deserve equal pay to the men’s national team while U.S. Soccer’s longstanding official response is that the men generate more revenue than the women. But it’s not that simple, even though it’s a popular assumption among naysayers happy to dismiss women athletes as inherently destined to remain a rung below their male counterparts.
Without the women pushing U.S. Soccer to eventually do the right thing, the U.S. women’s national team program wouldn’t be what it is today.
Ever since the women won the 2015 World Cup, their home games have generated more revenue for the federation than the men’s games, according to U.S. Soccer’s own financial reports. From 2016 to 2018, the women brought in around $51 million while the men brought in $50 million.
Again, these numbers come directly from U.S. Soccer, a nonprofit organization that exists to grow the sport of soccer — not to make money.
The federation hasn’t officially commented on what its financial reports say but pushes back on the comparison between men’s and women’s game revenue because, the argument goes, the men’s team commands higher appearance fees to play teams around the world. And the men’s team, merely by existing, allows U.S. Soccer to host events such as the 2016 Copa America Centenario, a tournament that featured South American powerhouses competing against the U.S. men, which brought in around $50 million in revenue for the federation.
Such sources of revenue are not related to anything specific the U.S. men’s national team has done, but to the vastly different infrastructure that surrounds men’s soccer globally compared to the women’s version of the sport. The men’s team does not have to be a sought-after team to take advantage of these extra revenue streams. They have opportunity simply because they are a men’s team.
If the same sort of infrastructure existed around women’s soccer, the U.S. women’s team — three-time World Cup champions and four-time Olympic gold medalists — would surely command the highest appearance fees in the world. If South American countries such as Brazil hadn’t made women’s soccer illegal until 1979 and embraced women’s soccer today, perhaps the U.S. women’s national team could host a special edition of the Copa America worth millions of dollars too.
When it comes to what the U.S. national teams do — how they play, how many hours they put in, how they connect with fans, how many tickets they sell — the women have been outperforming the men the last few years, and it’s why their games bring in more revenue.
And what about broadcast rights and TV ratings? What about team sponsorship deals? Irrelevant. U.S. Soccer bundles them before it sells them, leaving no way to determine whether the men or women are the biggest drivers in those deals.
None of this necessarily means the women will win equal pay as we know it. It may not even mean that “equal pay” should be the outcome of the lawsuit. That’s because it’s unclear what “equal pay” in this dispute would look like.
Each team has collectively bargained for different compensation structures — the women are paid through a mix of salaries and bonuses, while the men are paid only through bonuses — and the women haven’t indicated they want a different structure. Therefore, comparing the men’s compensation to the women’s isn’t quite like comparing apples to oranges — it may be more like oranges to kumquats. Although it’s a bit complicated, the women say the injustice isn’t about the structure — it’s about more money overall being made available to the men, regardless of how it’s paid out.
But the lawsuit brings to light a host of other disparities in how the men’s and women’s teams are treated that are less complicated and much more difficult for U.S. Soccer to defend.
The women have played almost a quarter of their home games on artificial turf, the lawsuit says, while the men have almost never been asked to play on the fake stuff that players say is harder on their bodies. The men have been asked to play on artificial turf just once since 1994, not long after the women boycotted a game on artificial turf. There’s no logical reason for the women to be forced to play on inferior fields, but U.S. Soccer seemed to make every effort to ensure the men always play on natural grass, including laying temporary grass over artificial turf fields while the women, even when playing at the same venue, weren’t offered the same.
The lawsuit also alleges the men were flown on charter flights 17 times in 2017 while the women weren’t flown on charters at all that year. The men did play in World Cup qualifiers in 2017, which explains many charter flights, but the women have essentially argued that shouldn’t matter.
U.S. Soccer does deserve some credit: The federation has already begun to address the non-monetary disparities in the lawsuit. The women haven’t played on artificial turf since 2017 and are being flown on charter flights now. But there’s a notable caveat: The switch to an all-natural grass schedule came only after the women players publicly complained that the federation wasn’t seriously considering natural-grass options. And the change in charter flights coincided with the lawsuit the women filed this year.
That’s been the case with U.S. Soccer far too often in recent years: The federation often eventually does the right thing, but only after the women complain and the federation looks bad. That’s what happened in 2016, when five players filed a discrimination complaint against the federation. Carli Lloyd called out U.S. Soccer for giving the men per diems of $75 while the women got $60. She sarcastically quipped: “Maybe they figure that women are smaller and thus eat less.” The embarrassed federation immediately ensured per diems would never be unequal again.
Critics of the lawsuit filed by the U.S. women’s national team may argue that such a move is too drastic, or that the players should be focusing on the World Cup happening now in France. But in truth, none of this is new for the U.S. women. They have been getting into bitter disputes, legal and otherwise, with U.S. Soccer since the 1990s.
Without those disputes over the years — without the women pushing U.S. Soccer to eventually do the right thing — the U.S. women’s national team program wouldn’t be what it is today. These gains include having food provided at training camps, providing protection for players who get pregnant and ensuring year-round games to keep players sharp.
The players on the U.S. women’s national team had to threaten to quit to earn salaries from the federation, and being able to make a living is why the U.S. has become so dominant in women’s soccer.
Now, the players are pushing once again, and it’s on U.S. Soccer to come around and do the right thing.
Caitlin Murray is the author of “The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer.”