United States: Irrational Women Demand Equal Pay

Last Updated: April 7 2016
Article by Jana H. Woelfel

I am a labor and employment lawyer. I also am a soccer mom. Yesterday those worlds collided when the five captains (Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo) of the US Women's National Team filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of all women on the US national team asserting gender discrimination.

The complaint comes after a legal dispute between the player's union and the United States Soccer Federation (US Soccer). Discussions have been heated as the women's team complained of playing the World Cup on turf instead of natural grass and even cancelled an exhibition game in Hawaii due to reportedly dangerous field conditions. However, things reportedly came to a head when the women requested equal pay. The players' attorney reported US Soccer responded that the request for equal pay was "irrational," a word choice that, if true, is not the best word choice given the context. You may recall disgraced a FIFA former president was once reported to have suggested that women's teams should wear shorter shorts to generate more interest in the game. (Is there a cringe font?)

In gender discrimination/Equal Pay Act terms, the charge is simple enough. The women's national team asserts they do the same job as the players on the men's national team. They represent the US in international competitions, namely the Olympics and various tournaments which culminate in the largest international sporting tournament, the World Cup. They also play exhibition games throughout the US and other locations to promote the sport. The pay disparity of which they complain is inarguably stark.

The bulk of a male or female player's time with the US team during the year is spent training and playing exhibition matches. There is a huge difference in their pay, however. Women players receive a base salary of $72,000 per year to appear in 20 exhibition games per season, which equates to $3,600 per game for 20 games. Between April 2016 and March 2017, the women's team is scheduled for a slate of up to 27 matches. However, women do not receive any additional compensation for exhibition games in excess of the 20 game minimum. Victory bonuses can take the base salary up to a maximum of $99,000 ($4,950 per game for 20 games, and less if more games are played). In contrast, the men players receive a minimum of $5,000 to play in each game, regardless of outcome, but the bonuses available for winning against quality opponents can reach $17,625 per player per game.

The women's team has won FIFA's international World Cup competition 3 times, most recently in the summer of 2015. Female players can and did earn a $75,000 bonus for winning the World Cup last summer. Male players would be eligible for a nearly $400,000 bonus for each player; however, the men's team has not yet won a World Cup. US Soccer paid the men's team $9 million for their play in the 2014 World Cup (they lost in round 16), while the women made $2 million when they won the 2015 championship. The prowess of the women's team is acclaimed and they receive no bonuses for qualifying for the World Cup, while US Soccer pays the men's team a $2.5 million bonus to be divided among the players for qualifying.

Similarly, the women's team has won the gold medal in the Olympics 4 times, most recently in 2012. The men's team has not won the Olympics, and failed to qualify earlier this week. However, the dispute about unequal pay dates back to the women's team's appearance in the first ever Women's Olympic soccer event in 1996 when the women were offered a bonus by US Soccer only if they won gold, while the men were offered a bonus if they medaled. With the 2016 Rio Olympics this summer, the issue looms large.

Commentators typically cite to a difference in viewership and sponsors in the men's and women's team as an explanation for the disparity. This will likely be the crux of the arguments in this discrimination case – is there a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the difference in pay, such as a difference in revenue generated by each team? Preliminary data is not clear. According to the Wall Street Journal, US Soccer estimates that the women's team is budgeted to generate $17.6 million in event-based revenue for the April 2016 – March 2017 period, while the men's team is budgeted to generate $9 million in the same period. TV rights are large source of revenue in the modern sports era. Unfortunately, for clarity in this situation, US Soccer bundles men's and women's games together, and given the different performance of the men's and women's teams, comparison of ad revenue and viewership is difficult. The Wall Street Journal reports the cost of a 30-second ad during the 2015 Women's World Cup final was $210,760, compared to $465,140 for the men's final in 2014, with no American team. However, the 2015 women's final drew 8 million more viewers in the US than any other soccer match, male or female. Bottom line is that the revenue response is not clear one way or the other, which means that this is not likely to be resolved quickly, absent some sort of agreement between the women and US Soccer.

This one could go to stoppage time, but I hope not.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Jana H. Woelfel
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