Only worth $2 million?

Photographer: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images)

Soccer, Tennis and Bridging the Gender Pay Gap

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The success of the U.S. Women's National Team in the Women's World Cup has re-invigorated the debate over the gender pay gap in sports. The champions pulled in just $2 million in prize money -- compared with the $35 million Germany earned for winning the men's tournament last year. Every one of the 32 men's teams earned at least $8 million in 2014 just for participating in the World Cup.

Pay disparity isn't anything new in women's sports, and certainly not in women's soccer. Even the most elite players earn a pittance in the National Women's Soccer League, where salaries range from $6,800 to $37,800. Many earn less than the U.S. minimum wage and have to take second jobs and live with host families during the season. During the World Cup, it was revealed that Morgan Brian and Meghan Klingenberg have been living with former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy and his family while playing for the Houston Dash.

It's one thing to go after pay gaps in regular-season salaries among different leagues, but the disparity in World Cup payouts is especially stark, with the prize money in both tournaments determined by a single body: FIFA. For the men's World Cup, FIFA awarded a total of $576 million to 32 teams, while giving just $15 million to 24 squads in the women's World Cup. Indeed, the message FIFA seems to be sending is that it values its worst men's players at least four times more than its best women.

This is an unacceptable premise to Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, who has introduced a resolution calling for FIFA to pay men and women equally "and to treat all athletes with the respect and dignity those athletes deserve." He also calls on other organizations at both the national and international level to do the same.

It's an admirable goal, but you'll excuse me if I'm not particularly optimistic about its prospects for success, at least not through a Senate resolution. I've little faith in the power of a Congress that can't even pass equal pay for female workers in the U.S. to achieve the same for female athletes worldwide. And it's not like the U.S. Senate wields heavy influence among the embattled ranks of FIFA.

That said, Leahy brings up a good point, demonstrating that there is a model for how the pay gap may be closed in sports. Since 2007, all four Grand Slam tennis tournaments have awarded equal prize money to the men and the women. The U.S. Open has had pay equality since 1973, thanks to Billie Jean King and her work with the Women's Tennis Association, which she founded. And it hasn't hurt the overall payouts; both singles champions in next month's Open stand to make a record $3.3 million -- a 10 percent increase from last year's tournament.

With tennis, as with soccer, the anti-equality crowd touts the same arguments that market forces dictate women earn less, because they're less popular. Some also repeat the fallacy that women don't work as hard, noting that women's tennis is a best-of-three sets, while men's tennis is best-of five. (For one thing, lots of women tennis players have for years been in favor of playing five sets, only to have their calls routinely ignored by tennis officials.)

It bears repeating: The coverage, popularity, marketability and ultimately profitability of sports does not exist in a vacuum. As I've written about the lack of coverage of women's sports in major sports news programs, all these factors exist in a cycle, feeding into each other to grow the whole. The same can be said for player compensation: Higher salaries and prizes make that sport more attractive to young players seeking athletics as a lucrative career. Opening your talent pool beyond those who are willing and able to play simply for love of the game will inevitably yield higher-quality athletes, a better product on the field, and in turn increase popularity and viewership.

Of course, there's no convincing some people who automatically assume female athletes to be inferior that they deserve to be rewarded on par with the men. But if sports organizations such as FIFA did a better job at promoting its women's teams, there would be more money to go around to everyone. Equal prize money is a good place to start -- the acknowledgment that the sport values not women or men but champions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net