The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game

by david berri
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

david berri is a sports economist and professor of economics at Southern Utah University.

Published December 12, 2019


In a country seemingly rabid only for sports in which players can use their hands, soccer roared into hearts and headlines this summer. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) successfully defended its World Cup in July, but it wasn’t just its success on the field that captured the public’s imagination. Rather, each satisfying win rallied more sentiment to a team fighting for equal pay in the courts.

Many column inches have since parsed the numbers on the women’s fight for economic equality. But most of the ink spilled lacked full context. Here, I bring it all together in one place and provide novel arguments for why the women deserve their fair share now.

Pay for Performance?

Over the past 30 years, the USWNT has won three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. And the 2015 Women’s World Cup final was the most watched soccer match in U.S. history. Meanwhile, the men’s national soccer team (USMNT) has never finished better than 8th in the World Cup and failed to even qualify for the 2018 tournament. Given who is performing better on the field, the women should be paid at least as well as the men, right?

From this point, things get a little complicated. Members of USWNT contend they’re not remunerated as well as the men, but the actual differences take a bit of work to think through. As Meg Kelly of the Washington Post’s Fact Checker notes:

“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. [FIFA is the sports international governing body.] 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.”

All that said, Kelly notes that if games are measured as piece work, it is indeed the case that the rate of pay for the USWNT was lower than that for the men of Team USA. Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post columnist, did the math, pointing out that if stars Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn were paid at the same rate as the men for the same work, the quartet’s wages would have been $11.3 million higher than the checks they received. And it is this inequity that led members of USWNT to file a class action lawsuit contending the U.S. Soccer Federation engages in gender discrimination.

The response from U.S. Soccer can best be described as inconsistent. On the one hand, the group says that, all told, the women end up with more money. On the other hand, U.S. Soccer says the reason women are paid less is because their games generate less revenue. U.S. Soccer also blames FIFA because World Cup funds are not nearly balanced by gender.

FIFA did announce that the prize money for women will double for the 2023 World Cup. But FIFA is also increasing the prize money for men to $440 million. And that means the dollar gap between men and women will actually widen. The bottom line: Although just how much less the women are paid requires a bit of work to calculate, everyone besides U.S. Soccer seems to agree the women are getting less, and they assume that revenue differences play a big role here.

The Revenue Mirage

Frank De Boer (head coach of the Atlanta United of Major League Soccer, the U.S. professional men’s league) took up this revenue theme: women don’t deserve to be paid the same because they don’t generate equal proceeds. But according to the Wall Street Journal, the gap no longer exists. Revenues from the U.S. women’s games from 2016 to 2018 totaled $50.8 million, while the men generated $49.9 million across the same period. And, of course, the time period doesn’t include the hefty revenues from the 2019 Women’s World Cup and the USWNT’s subsequent victory tour.

The Journal’s findings are even more surprising when we consider another problem with the revenue-as-rationale argument. As Mark Joseph Stern of Slate describes, the USWNT lawsuit argues that revenues for women are depressed because the U.S. Soccer Federation doesn’t promote the women as aggressively as it promotes the men. This leads to less demand for tickets, which in turn lowers the prices that can be charged and leads to less revenue.

The U.S. Soccer Federation’s primary objective is to promote the sport in the United States, and maintaining unequal pay is not consistent with that objective.
Should Revenue Matter?

But this dispute begs a more fundamental question. What if the promotional efforts of U.S. Soccer were the same for men and women and that — after these efforts — revenue for men’s soccer eclipsed the mark for women? Would that merit a pay difference?

I contend not. The U.S. Soccer Federation is a non-profit, not a business (though it is sitting on a $150 million surplus). Its primary objective is to promote the sport in the United States, and maintaining unequal pay is not consistent with that objective. (For what it’s worth, FIFA claims it has the same goal worldwide.)

Then there’s the matter of how to spend U.S. Soccer’s $150 million nest eggJeffrey Kessler, a lawyer representing the women, points out that the money U.S. Soccer receives from FIFA can be allocated as the former deems fit: “FIFA determines how much money to give to USSF, but USSF can give to anyone. … It is USSF’s decision to discriminate.”

Thus, U.S. Soccer has both the means and the motive to close the wage gap. And even if the Wall Street Journal is wrong about revenues being in balance, we could still argue that men don’t necessarily deserve to be paid more.

The Old Boy’s Club

This is where it’s helpful to have some historical perspective. Consider Manchester United. The men’s team — in the English Premier League — attracts nearly 75,000 fans per game. Meanwhile, Manchester United of the Women’s Super League only averaged about 8,000 fans per contest last year. Attendance differences lead many to conclude that men’s soccer is inherently better than women’s soccer. Therefore, men deserve to be paid more.

Or maybe not. The Women’s Super League has only existed since 2010, while the men’s Manchester United team dates back to the 19th century. The early years of the men’s team didn’t see the same attendance we see today. Indeed, it existed for more than a decade before it managed to average 10,000 attendees per game.

The story of Manchester United is typical of team sports: It generally takes decades to build a fan base. And, it’s worth noting, men are to blame for women not being able to create professional leagues long ago. In England, organized soccer for women was effectively banned from 1921 until 1971. In the United States, it took the passage of Title IX in 1972 to open opportunities for girls and women to play soccer in large numbers.

Beyond the past discrimination, consider, too, that men’s sports routinely receive more than 90 percent of the sports media’s coverage and the coverage women do receive is often sexist. In the end, the gender discrimination we see in sports today is really just a continuation of the discrimination we have historically seen in sports.

The Competitive Angle

The formal mission of U.S. Soccer — the mission that makes it tax exempt — is to promote soccer. Paying women more today, even if it was the case that the revenues didn’t justify those wages, could be thought of as an investment in tomorrow. Yes, seeing Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and others dominate on the world stage can inspire girls to play soccer. But making sure the women are treated equally is also inspirational. U.S. Soccer should want to make sure that girls stay with the sport. If that doesn’t happen, future World Cup championships won’t include American women.

Maybe you don't care about fairness. Or revenues. Or ending discrimination. Even if all that doesn't persuade you, maybe you should want U.S. Soccer to close the wage gap to ensure that the women of the United States continue to dominate. “We’re number one” does have a nice ring to it.

main topic: Sports
related topics: Equal Pay