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Soccer's Women Just Want a Fair Share

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Five of the world's top women's soccer players have filed a federal wage discrimination complaint against U.S. Soccer, accusing the American governing body of unfairly paying them less than men's players. Predictably, the knee-jerk reaction among critics is to fall back on old, dubious arguments of "revenue" and the "free market."

The complaint, submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was signed by national team co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, along with forward Alex Morgan, midfielder Megan Rapinoe and goalkeeper Hope Solo, on behalf of the entire women's squad. Representing them is Jeffrey Kessler, a prominent sports attorney who has previously taken on the NFL and the NBA and recently filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA. "This is the strongest case of discrimination against women athletes in violation of law that I have ever seen," Kessler told the New York Times

The women contend that they, not the men, are driving U.S. Soccer's economic growth, with their unmatched success generating interest, ratings and revenue. More than 26 million people tuned in to watch the U.S. women defeat Japan in last summer's World Cup final, shattering records for soccer viewership in the country. By comparison, 16.5 million watched the U.S. men fall to Belgium in their Round of 16 match in the 2014 World Cup. "The numbers speak for themselves," Solo said. "We are the best in the world, have three World Cup championships, four Olympic championships, and the [men] get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships."

Andrew Das of the Times summed up the unbalanced pay structure:

The women’s players are salaried employees -- the top players are paid about $72,000 a year by the federation -- but they contend that even with that extra income, their bonus structure means they earn far less than their male counterparts, who receive money from U.S. Soccer only if they are called to the national team.

A men’s player, for example, receives $5,000 for a loss in a friendly match but as much as $17,625 for a win against a top opponent. A women’s player receives $1,350 for a similar match, but only if the United States wins; women’s players receive no bonuses for losses or ties.

Here's where critics tend to jump in against the "political correctness" of equal pay, arguing that the women don't deserve more money because they don't generate as much revenue as the men. This argument has been used for years across all sports, from soccer to tennis to basketball to golf and back to tennis again. But there are a bevy of factors that hamper the profitability of women's sports that have little to do with their true value. Sports executives, the media, sponsors, leagues, tournaments, etc. make a conscious decision to undervalue women's sports, which in turn lowers their coverage, promotion -- even their playing conditions.

As Zach Zill wrote in a Jacobin essay, "Soccer's Sexist Political Economy," "those best positioned to spend and make money on women’s soccer consciously choose not to invest in the women’s game. They decide that it’s not worth their time or their dollars. That they continue to do so in the face of so much evidence showing the women’s game’s popularity -- hence profit-making potential -- only compounds the case against them." 

It's pretty galling to witness people who run a system that purposefully fails to market women's sports, and then turn around and tout the women's supposedly inferior marketability as evidence they should be paid less. (Not to mention that the world-champion women have faced other indignities, like playing on artificial turf and receiving 30 cents less per ticket in attendance bonus.)

These are arguments against using revenue to criticize equal pay broadly. But there's a trap specific to this case and soccer. Twitter abounds with talking heads posting the vastly disparate figures of TV sponsor revenue generated by the men's and women's World Cup. ESPN got $529 million in sponsor money for the men's tournament, while Fox received just $17 million from sponsors for airing the women. Again, you can decide whether that's because the women are inherently worth that much less, or because sponsors have decided it to be so. But that's beside the point. This case isn't about FIFA or the comparative global scale of men's versus women's soccer -- the crux of the women's argument is that they, not the men, are the primary economic force driving U.S. Soccer.

When the U.S. men generate higher ratings and more revenue, it's more a function of the teams they're playing, which have international followings. If 668,000 people are tuning in to watch USA-Germany, it's not necessarily the U.S. men generating the majority of that interest.

"It's not clear what the men's team is doing to generate the revenue," sports economist David Berri told me. "Men are getting paid more for playing the teams that built up international soccer. They came late to the game, and they're just riding the coattails. Any U.S. men's team you field in international play will generate television ratings simply because the other team is there."

If you doubt that sports fans in the U.S. are more interested in watching international soccer than the local boys, take a look at English Premier League viewers compared to Major League Soccer: they're nearly double.

Meanwhile, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that the vast majority of the 26.7 million people who watched the U.S. women win their third World Cup tuned in to watch Japan.

Rounding out this discussion are some much-needed, sobering facts from sports analyst Danny Page, who's here to nip this "men earn more because they generate more" nonsense in the bud. It's difficult to compare last year's revenues since the women had a World Cup and the men did not, so he's posted profit/loss projections for the upcoming fiscal year, taken directly from U.S. Soccer's budgets: 

You read that right: From April 2016 to March 2017, the women are projected to generate $17.6 million in revenue and $5.2 million in net profit. The men are projected to generate $9.1 million in revenue and post a net loss of $964,000. And those numbers are really not politically correct.

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

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

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