Evening the Playing Field: US Women’s Soccer Fights For Equal Pay

The FIFA Women’s World Cup has captivated the attention of nations around the world, and the United States is no exception. With the group stage coming to a close this week, the U.S. Women’s National Team (“WNT”) has already demonstrated dominance in their first two games, beating Thailand and Chile by a combined score of 16-0. As the WNT’s World Cup successes have increasingly dominated headlines, the team’s recent lawsuit  filed against their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation, Inc. (“USSF”), has attracted increased attention as well. While the team battles to defend their FIFA World Cup title on the pitch, they battle in court to defend their rights, and the rights of women nationwide, to receive equal pay for equal work.

The law has long been that all people in the United States are entitled to equal pay for equal work (regardless of gender, race, or any other protected characteristic), as well as fair employment standards and work conditions. These protections were established with the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and can be traced back to 1868 and the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. According to their Complaint, for decades the WNT has endured grossly unequal pay and inferior working conditions in comparison to the Men’s National Team (“MNT”). This has continued despite the fact that the WNT is demonstrably more successful and produces comparable revenue to the MNT for the USSF, which employs both the WNT and the MNT.

The Complaint filed by the WNT details the pay gap that exists between the two teams. It explains that if a male and female national team player each played 20 exhibition games in one year, the male player would earn an average of $263,320 while the female player would earn a maximum of $99,000. Male players who try out for and earn a place on a World Cup team earn $55,000, while female players only earn $15,000 for the same accomplishment. In 2014, the USSF provided the MNT with performance bonuses totaling $5,375,000 for losing in the Round of 16. By contrast, the WNT only earned $1,725,000 for winning the entire tournament. Despite advancing three rounds further that the MNT, and ultimately winning the entire tournament, WNT players earned less than a third of what the MNT players earned.  

In response to repeated complaints regarding this gross inequality, a representative from the USSF stated, “market realities are such that the women do not deserve to be paid equally to the men.” This is a laughable claim considering the comparative success of the teams and the current international acclaim the WNT is achieving. Regarding the “market realities” the USSF referenced, according to a recent investigation conducted by the Wall Street Journal, the WNT actually generated more revenue than the MNT from 2016 to 2018. During that time period, the WNT’s games generated $50.8 million in revenue while the MNT’s games only generated $49.9 million. This was true even though the USSF invested much less in promoting and marketing the WNT’s games than they invested for the MNT.

The USSF’s statement that “the women do not deserve to be paid equally to the men” could be viewed by some as evidence of a violation of Title VII and/or the Equal Pay Act. Title VII prohibits discrimination based on specified characteristics including race, color, national origin, sex and religion, with regard to any term, condition, or privilege of employment. The Equal Pay Act asserts that no employer shall discriminate between employees on the basis of sex by paying disparate wages to employees of the opposite sex for equal work. Both doctrines are intended to protect employees from unfair and unequal treatment in the workplace and apply to all types of employment – including athletics.

In addition to shockingly unequal payment, the WNT has also endured unfair working conditions and unequal employment standards. Their Complaint explains that from 2014 to 2017, the WNT played 21% of their games on artificial surfaces rather than natural grass, compared to the MNT only having to play 2% of their games on such surfaces. Artificial surfaces increase the chances of significant, career-threatening injuries; therefore, the USSF chose to expose their female employees to dangerous conditions 10 times more often than their male employees. In addition, MNT players were provided with chartered flights for traveling to and from matches, while the WNT players were not. As noted above, the USSF also allocates vastly disproportionate amounts of its marketing and promotional resources to the MNT than the WNT. This has led to lower attendance and ticket sales for games than the WNT would have enjoyed if they received equal promotion and marketing. Collectively this behavior has led to a severe violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

While the WNT is demanding equal pay for equal work, it should also be addressed that the MNT and the WNT don’t exactly perform equal work. In fact, the WNT plays more games and spends a much greater amount of time practicing, training, and traveling than the MNT does. From 2015 to 2018, the WNT played nineteen more games than the MNT, which amounts to more than an entire additional season of games. Thus, MNT players are paid three times more than WNT players, despite the WNT players working at least 20% more.

From the years 1990 to 2015, the WNT participated in seven (7) World Cup tournaments. They were champions in three (3) of these tournaments and finished no worse than top-4 in the remainder. During the same period, the MNT likewise played in seven (7) World Cup tournaments but did not win a single championship. In fact, they did not make it to a single championship match, nor record a single top-4 finish; the best finish the MNT recorded was placing 8th in 2002, their only top-10 finish during this period. In the three World Cup tournaments that the WNT won, the MNT placed 23rd, 32nd, and 15th. For the 2019 World Cup the WNT is once again the favorite to win it all, while the MNT failed to even qualify for the tournament in 2018. These statistics make the behavior of the USSF seem all the more absurd and unsubstantiated.