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Week 3, Fall 2019 Wednesday, Friday:The US Women's National Soccer Team Fight Wage Equity


No sooner did the elite U.S. women’s team win soccer’s World Cup in Lyon, France, than chants of “Equal pay!” showered down from U.S. fans.

It was a rousing gesture of support for the 28 members of the U.S. women’s team who on March 8 filed a class action against their employer, the United States Soccer Federation. The lawsuit, echoing years of complaints from the top female players, alleged that USSF pays female players less than members of the U.S. men’s team in violation of the U.S. Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The U.S. federation disputes that claim. It attributes any differences in pay to “aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex.”

This is a particularly timely moment for the women to bring their complaints. The women’s team is acknowledged as the best in the world and cruised to its fourth World Cup title on top of four Olympic titles. The U.S. men’s team has no such victories and didn’t even qualify for last year's World Cup tournament.

Parsing the sport’s arcane revenue and pay structure makes comparisons difficult. For starters, we know that based on reported game revenue between 2016 and 2018, women’s games generated about $50.8 million for USSF while men’s games fetched $49.9 million. Advantage: Women.

But that’s where easy comparisons end. Ticket sales are only part of soccer’s revenue stream. Almost half of the more than $100 million that the USSF reported as total operating income in 2018 came from sponsorship deals — broadcast revenue and sales of jerseys and other branded equipment.

Those sponsorship deals are bundled together and USSF does not break out how much of the sponsorship revenue it attributes to women’s deals and how much to the men.

The picture is further muddied by how players are paid under their separate collective bargaining agreements. Instead of straight salaries, a good chunk of pay is based on bonuses that depend on the type of game, the rank of the opponent and the outcome of the match.

That can vary a lot from year to year. A Washington Post analysis found that the women's team did make more in bonuses and salary than the men in 2018 — but the women played almost twice the number of games and won a lot more of them.

Then, too, bonuses from playing in the elite World Cup competition are drawn from a pool determined by the international governing body, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), not the U.S. association. The FIFA pool is substantially larger for the men’s competition than for the women’s tournament.

Given all this, it's likely that a lot of time will be spent by both sides debating how to attribute revenue between the men and women and whether this or that bonus plan or contract clause is comparable between the teams.

Nonetheless, the suit contains some gag-worthy statistics. In one comparison, the suit said, if the women’s and men’s teams each played 20 “friendlies” (nontournament games) in a year and each team won them all, women would earn a maximum of $99,000 or $4,950 per game while a male player would get an average of $263,320 or $13,166 per game under their respective contract formulas.

That the world’s elite female athletes may be making just 38% of what their male counterparts make while achieving loftier heights of success on the pitch makes any pay differences look strikingly unfair.

Whether a federal judge, jury or mediator, muddling through soccer’s complex web of contracts, bonuses, sponsorship deals, and FIFA rules, reaches the same conclusion is yet to be seen.

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