This month, a record-breaking number of Americans tuned in to watch the U.S. Women’s National Team secure a World Cup victory for the third time in history. As the team hoisted their hard-earned trophy amid a shower of confetti, it wasn’t just Carli Lloyd’s historic hat trick that had people talking. The American women were awarded a fraction of what the German men received after winning the World Cup last year: $2 million compared to $35 million for the men. The U.S. Men’s National Team was awarded $8 million just for reaching the round of 16.
The pay gap in soccer proved a quick spark for outrage and members of Congress joined the chorus last week. Reps. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Linda Sanchez (D-CA), along with 33 of their colleagues, introduced a resolution calling on FIFA, the sport’s governing body, to provide equal pay for women’s soccer players. A similar resolution was introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and several senators used a committee hearing to press U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn on equity for men’s and women’s teams.
“Whenever there’s gender pay inequity I feel compelled to speak up about it,” Speier told ThinkProgress. “This is a glaring case and I think it outraged a lot of people in this country, men and women, for being fundamentally unfair.”
The disparity in World Cup prize money is only one part of a much bigger system of inequities that is shaped by how women’s sports are developed and promoted, said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. At the root of the problem is the persistent, and flawed, assumption that even comparing men’s and women’s sports is a legitimate starting point. “It’s like comparing a tech startup company to Apple,” she explained.
And while women’s sports may be in a nascent stage compared to men’s, the main takeaway from the Women’s World Cup is that it would clearly be in the financial interest of key decision-makers to capitalize on the vast business opportunity they represent.
‘It’s like comparing a tech startup company to Apple.’
The common justification for unequal pay is markets — men’s sports are more popular, more marketable, and thus more valuable. But male athletes and their leagues have enjoyed decades of support and promotion, while women’s sports have only recently been awarded some degree of legitimacy. “So when you have generations and generations of figurative and literal capital being invested in men’s sports while completely marginalizing or punishing women, why would you think that it would be an equal comparison?” Kane asked.
As Zach Zill wrote in Jacobin Magazine, sexism is “built directly into the economics of women’s soccer,” beginning with the sponsors and broadcasters who represent the majority of the revenue that goes to FIFA. Both the quality and quantity of women’s sports coverage pales in comparison to that enjoyed by men’s sports — for instance, a mere 2 percent of the airtime on ESPN’s SportsCenter was devoted to women’s sports, according to a long-running analysis. The lack of investment and attention hamstrings leagues like the National Women’s Soccer League, another key component to building a dedicated fan base.
Those factors combine to make men’s soccer more profitable than women’s, but it doesn’t justify the chasm in prize money, Kane said. “I am not suggesting that women should be paid, at this stage in the development of women’s sports, on the same level as men’s sports,” she explained. But right now, “the disparity is so extraordinary.”
USWNT forward Abby Wambach echoed that sentiment, telling ESPNw that the pay gap in soccer is “unfortunately something you have to accept on some level, but when you do win you then have the opportunity and the platform to start voicing your opinion about, hey you know what, this is a little too big of a pay gap.”
More importantly, to say that women’s sports aren’t money makers wholly dismisses the obvious business opportunity that’s there for the taking. In the U.S., the number of girls participating in sports has increased every year for the past 25 years and 42 percent of collegiate athletes are now female.
And the audience is there, too. The Women’s World Cup drew record-breaking crowds, more people, in fact, than the final games of this year’s NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals and last year’s World Series. In order to capture that interest and move the needle with organizations like FIFA, major corporations, TV networks — all male-dominated entities — Kane emphasized that the debate needs to be reframed around one of economic opportunity.
“As long as key decision-makers think critics are asking them to do something that’s the feel-good thing to do or that’s the politically correct thing to do, then it won’t happen,” she said. “But if it’s framed … in terms of a growth industry where those decision-makers will be repaid many times over in their self-interest, I think that’s the way we need to think about this.”
‘If you think about women’s sports in the post-Title IX era, what you’re talking about is a new world order.’
Changing the prevailing sexism that has long dictated decisions involving women’s sports is a slow march. “FIFA has been an old boys club,” Speier said. “A throwback to a time when you could pay off people to get certain things and you could say, as Sepp Blatter said … that he thought women’s sports would be more popular if they wore tighter uniforms.” (Blatter, the FIFA president who has been embroiled in a corruption scandal, said in 2004 that women’s soccer players could promote “a more female aesthetic” with their clothing and “could, for example, have tighter shorts”).
FIFA’s disregard for women’s soccer took other forms at this year’s Women’s World Cup. The players were forced to play the entire tournament on turf, despite widespread complaints regarding the potential for fatigue and injury, and opposing teams had to stay in the same hotel — neither of which are conditions men’s teams have to grapple with. Offensive comments about players’ appearance made by the Brazilian women’s soccer coordinator and the Ivory Coast manager’s plea for funding shone an ugly light on the sexism at work within individual federations.
Kane said that while the recent outrage over World Cup prize money is certainly meaningful, it’s more of an important step forward than a tipping point for women’s sports. Loosening the stranglehold on power and resources that men’s sports has long maintained simply won’t be a linear progression. “If you think about women’s sports in the post-Title IX era, what you’re talking about is a new world order,” she explained.
While fans and individual athletes can obviously help put pressure on key decision-makers to address the inequities between men’s and women’s sports, Kane again came back to the importance of seizing on the money-making potential for corporations, individual federations, networks, and governing bodies like FIFA. “Name any other sort of business model or enterprise on the planet that wouldn’t look at 25 years of consistent growth with no end in sight and wouldn’t see that as a growth opportunity, rather than sort of throwing up your hands and saying, ‘what’s a key decision maker to do?’”