World Cup in hand, US women’s soccer team moves to battle for equal pay. Here’s what you need to know

With the World Cup over, the US Women’s National Team now has a real fight on its hands.

As the American women went unbeaten in the 2019 championship, capping their flawless run Sunday with a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands, it was hard to miss that they were playing for something bigger than a trophy.

Rapinoe seals win with a kiss

Forget the hullabaloo over the team’s purported arrogance or Alex Morgan irking the English with her tea-sipping celebration and focus on the message the Yanks hoped to send to the world: They deserve the same paychecks as their male counterparts.

Months before the tournament kicked off — on International Women’s Day, no less — stars Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn filed a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation, claiming they deserve to be paid what the American men are paid for their international performances.

In one hypothetical case cited in the lawsuit, if the women’s and men’s teams both won 20 straight games in a season, the women would make 38% what the men do.

“At this moment of tremendous pride for America, the sad equation remains all too clear, and Americans won’t stand for it anymore,” Molly Levinson, the players’ spokeswoman, said after Sunday’s win. “These athletes generate more revenue and garner higher TV ratings but get paid less simply because they are women. It is time for the Federation to correct this disparity once and for all.”

The federation denied the claim in May, saying the disparities were the product of business decisions rather than any efforts to discriminate, Sports Illustrated and other media outlets reported. The USSF also said the men and women are subject to different collective bargaining agreements, which are not made public.

Aside from the inevitable politics of any such debate, the issue is muddied because soccer operates on a much different revenue model than most American sports, yielding confusing media reports on the litigation.

Here’s what you need to know about the lawsuit:

It began with an EEOC claim

In 2016, the American foursome filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — yes, the same body that has workplace discrimination posters in your company breakroom — saying the USSF paid them less solely on the basis of their sex.

In February, the EEOC notified them of their right to sue, which they exercised the following month, alleging “institutional gender discrimination.”

While the lawsuit names the four and 24 of their teammates as plaintiffs, it also seeks to include anyone who has played for the squad since February 4, 2015. That was four days before the USWNT played its first practice game, or friendly, in preparation for the 2015 World Cup.

Next stop, mediation

The 25-page lawsuit filed in the US District Court for central California’s western division outlines the list of demands: class-action certification, back pay, interest, front pay, damages, attorneys’ fees and a permanent injunction preventing the USSF from engaging in discriminatory practices in the future.

The Cup is over, but you can still watch the women

First, though, the women must try to work things out with the USSF. They agreed to enter into mediation with their employer following Sunday’s World Cup final.

Performance and pay at international level

The issue has produced a lot of straw men, largely owing to a revenue and salary model that differs a great deal from most American sports.

Among the issues NOT on the table (and why):

  • The massive transfer fee that English club Chelsea paid for American Christian Pulisic (because transfer fees are generally paid between two teams, with the team acquiring the player then having to negotiate salary),
  • The men’s staggering annual salaries (because the bulk of that money, in most cases, comes from a player’s club, not his national team),
  • The amount of money FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, allots for winners of the men’s versus women’s World Cups (because those figures — like in horse racing or golf — are predetermined sums announced before the competition and vary according to projected revenue.)

The American women’s lawsuit focuses solely on the money and resources USWNT players receive from the USSF for representing their country at the international level.

In short, the women say they’ve exhibited the same skill and effort as the men, at times played more games and generated more money and performed far better at the international level — while receiving a fraction of the pay.

Specifics, please

With Sunday’s win, the USWNT secured their fourth World Cup title since the tournament began in 1991. The men have never won a World Cup, and they failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia. The women also have four Olympic gold medals. The men? Zilch.

The women, ranked No. 1 in the world for most of the last 11 years, claim to have better television ratings as well, a key factor in revenue figures. According to the lawsuit, the most-watched soccer game in American history was the USWNT’s 2015 World Cup final. Sunday’s final, according to Fox, was the “best metered market rating for a US soccer telecast since the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final.”

Despite these successes, the lawsuit says, there are numerous disparities in men’s and women’s pay. Under one former model, the men were paid between $6,250 and $17,625 per game, depending on their opponent and the outcome, while the USSF proposed paying the women only if they beat one of the world’s top teams.

An analysis included in the lawsuit claims that if the men’s and women’s team each played and won 20 friendlies in a year, the women would earn a maximum of $99,000, while the men would earn an average of $263,320.

When it comes to the World Cup the pay structure is “so skewed” that the men in 2014 received $5.4 million in performance bonuses, despite losing in the Round of 16, while the women the following year were paid a collective $1.7 million for the winning the whole thing, the lawsuit says.

But there’s more

While money has been a central focus — as evidenced by the crowd in Lyon, France, chanting, “Equal pay!” after the American women won — there are other issues at play.

Between 2014 and 2017, the women say they were forced to play on artificial surfaces (rather than safer natural grass) for 12 of their 62 matches at home, compared to the men playing one game on an artificial surface. On three occasions, according to the lawsuit, the USSF rolled natural grass over artificial surfaces for the men, despite the women being forced to play on artificial grass in the same stadiums.

The federation is also accused of putting the men on charter flights on 17 occasions in 2017, but not once for the women, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also accuses the USSF of undercharging fans to attend women’s matches and not devoting ample marketing resources to the women’s games, resulting in a “USSF-manufactured revenue depression for the WNT, which is then used as pretext for lower compensation.”

What does the USSF say?

An unnamed USSF rep is quoted in the lawsuit as saying that “market realities are such that the women do not deserve to be paid equally to the men.”

In response, the union representing the women proposed a revenue-sharing model under which the players would receive higher pay in the years they generated more revenue than the men, but according to the lawsuit, “the USSF categorically rejected this model.”

USSF President Carlos Cordeiro wrote an open letter earlier this year saying he was surprised by the lawsuit and that the USSF was doing a great deal to expand and cultivate support for the women’s game, including hiring staff, procuring charter flights, staging international tournaments and investing in youth programs and a development academy.

In April 2017, the USSF president wrote, the federation entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the women, granting their request for salary and benefits. The players raised no concerns with the agreement, he said.

“U.S. Soccer believes that all female athletes deserve fair and equitable pay, and we strive to meet this core value at all times,” Cordeiro wrote.

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