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Disrespecting Women’s Soccer

women's soccer players Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, seen from behind.
Four of the members of the U.S. Women's National Team in May 2019. Photo by Jamie Smed.

Did you catch last Sunday’s big soccer game? The one in which Mexico defeated the U.S. men’s national team 1-0 to win the Gold Cup?

Maybe not. How about that other huge game – where host Brazil overcame upstart Peru 3-1 to hoist the Copa America?

Wrong again? Well, then you may be like me, meaning not really a soccer fan at all. The game that captured your attention in that case (if any) was the women’s World Cup, in which the dominant U.S national team defeated a dogged team from the Netherlands 2-0 to repeat as quadrennial champions and take the world title for a record fourth time overall.

In the world of women’s soccer, the U.S. team is The Man. Nobody has been better, and certainly not better for longer, than the American squad that has dominated their sport for two decades. Other teams are catching up. In this latest tournament, teams from Spain, France and England all pushed the Yanks practically to the limit before succumbing to the Americans’ combination of skill, depth, experience and poise. But for now, the U.S. remains No. 1. To enjoy the spectacle of most of western Europe trying to knock the American women off their perch, you didn’t need to know anything more about soccer than it has a round ball, a huge field and practically no timeouts. That is pretty much how I came to follow the tournament so closely (by my standards, anyway).

I see the American dominance of women’s soccer as the ultimate, or at least the initial, payoff of Title IX. The United States’ 1970s-era law requiring equal academic attention to male and female sports helped spawn the soccer-mom era of the 1980s and ‘90s. Most girls didn’t play tackle football or baseball (although softball eventually got pretty big). They played basketball, although not with the taller and faster boys. More than that, they played soccer. That generation of girls – my daughters’ generation – has grown into today’s U.S. women’s team.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that the American women’s rise to soccer prominence is being followed most closely by women from other Western and Westernized nations whose attention to women’s sports came soon after our own. Other traditional soccer powers, notably in Latin America, were not as quick or as thorough at embracing female scholastic sports. These countries were not as well represented at the women’s World Cup, and frankly, it doesn’t seem as if they much care. Otherwise, why on earth would not one, but two other significant soccer playoffs have their ultimate game on the same day as the final game of the women’s World Cup?

The American women are a force of nature, or at least a force of national culture. They are making the most of their star power, fighting for comparable pay as well as comparable respect.

The comparable pay is a pretty heavy lift. The U.S. Women’s National Team has support from fans – chants of “equal pay” reportedly filled the stadium after the team’s win in the final game – and from many other observers too. Not only have players spoken out in support of fairer pay; the team has sued the U.S. Soccer Federation, the governing body of the sport in the United States, over gender discrimination.

There is a lot of money in U.S. sports, but generally not for women, and especially not for women’s teams. Not a single woman made Forbes’ list of the highest-paid athletes in 2018. Serena Williams, the top-earning female athlete last year, fell nearly $5 million short of the end of the list. While 2018 was the first year since 2010 that no women made the list at all, their absence still illustrates the point that the economics of women’s sports are different than men’s.

As the salaries for team sports have exploded, the gulf between women’s team sports and men’s team sports has become especially clear. That gulf is not only about salaries, but audience and revenue. The WNBA’s TV deal with ESPN is worth $25 million per year on average, Forbes reported; the NBA earns $2.5 billion from its national TV deal. Women don’t play major league baseball or professional football, the other major sports moneymakers in the U.S., though some young athletes hope to eventually shatter those barriers. While the National Women’s Hockey League saw attendance grow in the 2018-19 season, spectators hovered in the high hundreds and low thousands per game, an order of magnitude less than average NHL games. Women’s college teams, too, have not had as much time to build the generational loyalty many men’s NCAA teams command. Importantly, women’s professional teams do not operate in well-financed leagues owned by billionaires who pay through the nose for the prestige of owning a stable of champions.

Soccer is in an unusual position in the United States, because it doesn’t have the same history here as other professional sports. That means the revenue gap is smaller. The U.S. women’s national team has argued that, in fact, it generates more revenue than the men’s national team. According to the team’s lawsuit against the Soccer Federation, the men not only receive a higher base pay, but received more than $5 million in bonuses after they lost the 2014 World Cup, while the women received less than $2 million in bonuses for winning the 2015 World Cup. Soccer is a recent arrival in the popular consciousness here in the United States, and it isn’t hard to see why the women’s team finds it grating that the men are paid more for succeeding less.

The U.S. Soccer Federation disputes the alleged pay differential. This may be, in part, a math question. Because the Federation sells broadcast rights and other sponsorships in an undifferentiated bundle, it is hard to prove exactly which team is responsible for this growing portion of the league’s revenue. It is true that gate revenues for women’s U.S. soccer games now exceed the men’s. The lawsuit may, in part, hinge on how the court chooses to calculate the women’s contributions to the Soccer Federation.

Internationally, however, men’s soccer dominates women’s financially. The comparison is not close. As for the U.S., here soccer in general is small potatoes compared to more popular American professional sports. The money in the major men’s team sports didn’t happen overnight, or even in a single generation of overnights. It is going to be a slog for women, including women’s soccer, if it ever happens at all.

In individual sports, women’s earnings also lag, with tennis being the closest to parity. The U.S. Open was the first tournament to offer equal prize money to men and women, starting in 1973. But even in tennis, men generally out-earn women at a similar ranking. Women are also far behind in golf, even though that is the sport where they come closest to being able to play with the men – which is not all that close, when you consider how much longer the men’s courses are. Women have just not achieved the skill level. It is obvious why they can’t hit their drives as far as men on average. But why do they need more putts to put a ball in the hole once it is on the green?

As a manager, I know that you show people you respect their craft through compensation – but that is not the only way you show respect. Money is important, but not more important than paying attention. Once you pay attention to someone, the earning power usually follows.

International soccer could lead the way. While most Americans are only recent converts, soccer has been a big deal for a long time elsewhere. If FIFA, the international soccer governing body, took women’s soccer more seriously, it could give these athletes a significant boost worldwide. U.S. star Megan Rapinoe pointed out that scheduling the women’s World Cup final opposite the Copa America and Gold Cup finals was unfair. The prize money for women’s World Cup winners is also significantly less; the 2023 women’s pot will be $60 million, compared to $440 million for the men in 2022. Rapinoe observed during this year’s tournament, not without reason, “I don’t think that we feel the same level of respect, certainly, that FIFA has for the men and just in general.” That respect is overdue.

Soccer should be paying attention to the women’s teams. I sure was, at least last weekend.

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