31 Jul Fuzzy numbers are muddying the waters in the USWNT’s equal-pay fight | Football
US Soccer’s argument that it has paid the women’s national team more than it has paid their male counterparts over a 10-year span is technically correct, at least when World Cup prize money is excluded. But the numbers still lend themselves to interpretation and spin from each side.
Some of US Soccer’s figures, which it released on Monday, will throw a wrench in the women’s lawsuit seeking equal pay. But other numbers will leave US Soccer open for counterarguments in court and in the ongoing public relations battle.
Few could blame US Soccer for fighting back against misleading information doing the rounds on social media, such as claims that the US women receive 38 cents to the dollar against US men’s pay – something that is true only under the unlikeliest of circumstances. Any comparison is complex. Too many circumstances are different for the US men and women. Instead of apples-to-apples comparisons, we get a lot of cherry-picked numbers.
The US Soccer release, attached to an open letter from federation president Carlos Cordeiro, was comprehensive, and the numbers were also reviewed by an unnamed independent accounting firm. The top-line from US Soccer – that the US women earned $34.1m from 2010 to 2018, compared to $26.4m for the men – is startling.
But these numbers included the salaries US Soccer pays players for participating in the NWSL. Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding signed in 2013, these salaries ranged from $40,000 to $56,000. Under the collective bargaining agreement signed in 2017, 22 players averaged $65,000 in 2017 and $67,500 in 2018. All told, US Soccer paid nearly $8 million in NWSL salaries over this period, effectively accounting for the gap between the two teams.
A women’s team representative immediately pounced on the conflation of NWSL and national team pay: “The numbers USSF uses are utterly false which, among other things, inappropriately include the NWSL salaries of the players to inflate the women’s players compensation.”
The federation also didn’t mention until later in its release that bonus money from men’s and women’s World Cups swings the ledger toward the men: $41.0 million to $39.7 million.
So if you subtract NWSL pay and include only national team pay, the men made roughly $9 million more over a 10-year span.
In defense of that gap, US Soccer pointed out that revenue, excluding sponsorships that are given to US Soccer as a whole, favors the men’s team by a whopping margin: $185.7 million for the men (an average of $972,147 per game) to $101.3 million for the women (an average of $425,446 per game).
Those numbers are in line with previously released data on attendance, ratings and revenue. That news isn’t all bad for the women’s team: their collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2017, has a clause awarding players bonuses if Soccer United Marketing, which handles US Soccer’s overall marketing rights, exceeds its revenue targets.
But the federation curiously did not point out that women’s compensation increased dramatically in that CBA, even though some gaps remain in comparison with the men’s team. In this two-year cycle, in which the men failed to qualify for the World Cup and the women won it, the women will earn much more than the men.
The big difference in the contracts is World Cup prize money, which raises the first of many questions:
How much of the gap in Fifa prize money should US Soccer be expected to make up?
The federation earned $9m when the men’s team reached the World Cup last 16 in 2014, and only $4m when the women won the title this year. From that prize money, the women earned a bonus of $2.53m, plus a $1.4m bonus for a post-Cup tour of friendlies, or 98.25% of US Soccer’s winnings. Had the US men won, they would have earned a maximum of $27.6m or 72.57% of the prize money of $38m.
So if equal pay were taken to a literal extreme, US Soccer would be in the hole for more than $20m this year and tens of millions if they won back pay in their lawsuit. The women have not said they want such a payment, but we also don’t know how much they’re seeking or how much a court might award.
Right now, US Soccer could afford it – the federation has reported net assets of $162.7m. But a lot of hands are on that money – including youth development, which will directly help the US women as they try to keep up with European teams who have been routinely beating the USA at youth level and nearly did it in France.
And nearly $72m of that surplus came from hosting the Copa América in 2016, a windfall unlikely to be repeated.
How much does US Soccer’s NWSL subsidy help?
While lumping NWSL salaries in with national team pay may be misleading, players would surely make less money without such subsidies – if they played in the NWSL at all. If the national team players earned any less in the NWSL, enterprising European clubs might be able to entice them overseas, which would cripple the NWSL while it’s still trying to gain traction and failed to gain a substantive long-term boost from the USA’s 2015 World Cup win.
Can US Soccer stay afloat in the PR battle when the men’s CBA is done?
The US men are playing under a CBA that expired in December. They now have the difficult task of negotiating for better pay when doing so would generate howling headlines about “the men getting a raise while the women don’t”.
The men’s players association released a statement Tuesday, supporting the women’s team while giving an update on their team’s plight: “We are currently waiting on a response from US Soccer to our proposal that would pay the men a fair share of all of the revenue they generate and would provide equal pay to the USMNT and USWNT players.”
The association did not respond to a request to clarify what “equal pay” would entail.
So US Soccer faces a quandary. Perhaps the way out is to bring the men and women to the table at the same time, tear up the women’s CBA from 2017 and start fresh.
Or perhaps the federation can wait and see if the hoopla and spin fade.