Given the current successful situation of the United States women’s national soccer team, why has salary not increased, and how can the current momentum be supported and continued?

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The “78-cents on the dollar” figure is a well-known contemporary demand for equal compensation between men and women (O’Brien 2015). Even now, American women earn an estimated $545.7 billion less than men (U.S. Department of Labor 2020, 5). Yet this statistic only encapsulates the aggregate wage gap in the United States. What fails to be addressed is the more extreme pay gaps within specific sectors of employment. Specifically, the pay gap is striking in professional sports. Currently, the United States women’s national soccer team (USWNST) is going to court over unequal pay practices: the team has outperformed the men’s team World Cup viewership, yet still received lower pay (Kaplan 2019). Such a contradiction warrants further investigation. With the pay disparity at 38% between the women’s and men’s national United States soccer team, it proposes the question: given the current successful situation of the United States women’s national soccer team, why has salary not increased, and how can the current momentum be supported and continued? (“Violations of the Equal Pay Act” 2019, 12-13). Using the future of USWNST salary contracts, previous successes in viewership, and stereotypes that suppress women’s sports coverage as a jumping off point, this paper will propose a vital catalyst for improving the national team’s salaries: the creation of a culture wherein women will be celebrated for their athletic achievements. On where we can reimagine an athletic sphere where all genders are commemorated and compensated.  


The Current Determinants of National Team Salaries

Currently, contracted women on the USWNST are paid a base salary of $100,000 in the World Cup, plus victory earnings (ESPN 2020). Further, the team is also composed of non-contracted players, whose salaries vary based on team performance. However, there is a discrepancy in the differnce between men and women’s wages for non-contracted players. For a man, “making a World Cup team will net [them] $68,750 (ESPN 2020). A women’s player will make $37,500 for making the World Cup squad.” (ESPN 2020) Furthermore, non-contracted men earn a win bonus of “$9,375, and a loss will result in a payment of $5,000.” (ESPN 2020) For a women player, “a victory… brings each player $5,250, and they get nothing for a loss” (ESPN 2020).

Furthermore, players earn some revenue from tickets. Other than the $1.50 and “7.5% of every ticket sold above 17,000” taken away from the collective pool, the athletes receive the rest (ESPN 2020). Beyond tickets, a large portion of pay is derived from sponsorship deals, which may bump salaries by more than 50% (Pesce 2019). Therefore, given that sponsorship deals are determined by viewership — the higher viewership you have, the more you can get paid.


Explanation Behind The Inferior Women’s Pay

With these determinants in mind, what can be done to increase women’s pay might be evident: increase the viewership of the USWNST. This would not only bring them larger sponsorship deals and ticket sales, but it would also increase base salaries and bonuses in future contracts. Although this goal is essential in the long run, this increase in viewership still does not explain the compensation gap between the United States men’s and women’s national soccer teams during the 2019 World Cup, where viewership was higher for women’s matches.

The CNBC has reported a “22% U.S. viewership boost” compared to their male counterparts (Hess 2019). Further, it has even been shown that the women’s national team earned more in franchise revenue than the male team did (Bachman 2019). Yet they are still continuing to earn less, making 27% less than men’s salaries (Hess 2019). This extreme discrepancy was explained in a court case brought by the USWNST, and it was found that they had “rejected an offer to be paid under the same pay-to-play structure as the MNT [Men’s National Team]” (Cater 2020). The fact that they accepted this contract in the first place reveals the underlying issue at play: the team initially expected lower viewership and accepted a stable contract based on this assumption. This shows the underlying conventional expectation in the industry, which is that women are seen to be less profitable.

What now needs to be considered is the continuation of the team’s current surprise success. Although the USWNST has seen great success for the last year or two, we must also acknowledge that there is a reason they chose a pay structure different from the males years ago: they were unconfident in their ability to perform and earn at the same level that men did. The sudden influx in viewership that outperformed men was unexpected, and therefore could easily be lost as fast as it came in. Given that the women’s team “has struggled to gain momentum domestically,” the question now, as concerned by NBC News, becomes, how can women maintain this high viewership (Compton 2019)? 


The Argument Against Maintaining Viewership

Many continue to argue that women cannot maintain this viewership, as their matches are simply less entertaining. They claim that women’s viewership cannot exceed that of men’s, as strength is valued in sports; women cannot replicate it to the level men are able to, simply due to physiological differences. However, this argument is limited in that the low viewership is actually rooted in the unequal coverage women recieve. In fact, “academics agree that ‘routine’ women’s sports coverage is under-represented” (O’Neill and Mulready 2014, 1). An analysis published in the Newspaper Research Journal found that “86.7 percent of all articles focus on men’s sports,” while only “5.2 percent focus on women’s sports” (Schmidt 2016). Another by Cooky et al. revealed that although women athletes take up 40% of the overall players, they only receive less than 4% of coverage (2015). Given that women are underrepresented in not only games played, but general media, low viewership is expected. 

Yet when women coverage “rises to comparable levels to men’s sports during large sporting events like the Olympics,” women have been shown to outperform men in viewership (O’Neill and Mulready 2014, 1). Fortune Magazine reports that Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka’s game in “the U.S. Open finals… turned out to be the most-watched” in the tournament’s history (O’Neill and Mulready 2014, 1; Bloomberg 2018).

Although they may seem like isolated instances, what these games represent is that women athletes are capable of attaining viewership levels comparable to those of men. Society does enjoy women’s games, and therefore values sportsmanship outside of the notions of masculine strength. In fact, there have been a multitude of studies trying to understand what we crave so much in sports. The tribal theory explains that “supporters have a kind of cult with their club,” evoking a sense of belonging in individuals (Dionísio, Leal, and Moutinho 2008, 23). Others explain that “being identified with a favorite team is more important than being identified with their work and social groups’” (Emba 2016). No matter what the approach is, the general consensus is that a sense of national pride and identity is what addicts viewers to professional sports, not physical skill. This makes sense with the exceeding popularity of the national women’s soccer team, as many Americans want their country to win, identifying with the USWNST. As stated by Cheryl Cooky, associate professor of American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, “the interest for women’s sports is there. It’s just a problem of how leagues and teams are marketed. … We don’t see the same amount of coverage. We don’t see the same investment in women’s sports” (Beato 2019). 


The Simple Solution: Increasing Coverage

It therefore may seem like increasing the coverage of the USWNST to a comparable amount as the men’s team is imperative. Not only does it provide relatively equal, or even better financial incentives through similar viewership, it is also morally preferable. However this is unfortunately not enough. Although, once again, it may seem as if it is adequate, what must be taken into consideration is the team’s ability to maintain this viewership. The previously mentioned instances of outperformance are limited in that the team’s ability to reproduce the performance is unknown. The increase in viewership for the women’s team was unprecedented and unlike anything seen before in the league. Therefore, there is a considerable probability that the numbers will not be able to be maintained for a long duration. Adjusting a system to meet criteria during a bullish period is not enough, and considering future struggles is necessary. As the team inevitably fails to qualify or win World Cups in the future, many will sway back to viewing men’s sports through previous implicit biases. It is impossible to assure that this upwards trend will continue forever. Therefore, we must break down the stereotype that male sports are more interesting than women’s sports.


Origins of the Stereotype

Men, given the biological tendency to prefer playing sports through a concept known as “spectator lek” have been the initial athletes, while women were left on the sidelines (Kluger 2016). Through the many generations of primarily men’s sports, sports culture has been shaped around ideas that are thought to have been idolized such as masculinity and strength. Yet, imagine a world where women first persisted as the main athletes. Cultures would have emerged around women athletes, and men would try to advocate for equal pay. This is the thought experiment set up by Kim Elsesser from Forbes magazine. We would not use strength or speed to define sports. Instead, we would even say “the men’s game is too physical and lacks the finesse, intelligent playmaking and teamwork of the women’s game” (Elsesser 20). 

Although this may be limited in the obvious biological inevitability of men to first persist in sports, what this does show is that our enjoyment of sports is based on outdated cultural norms. How could we expect women to perform at the same level as men in a culture shaped around masculinity and brute force? In the advanced societies of today, it wouldn’t make sense for us to use these old cultural norms rooted in unequal opportunities. The existence of these cultures is shown evidently in Empowering Women Through Sport where Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of United Nations Women, discusses the inequities perpetuated by sports through the Olympic Review. She explains how our current culture doesn’t allow women players to touch fields, claiming that “deep-seated attitudes about gender roles can hold back substantive change” (Mlambo-Ngcuka 2019).

We must understand that our enjoyment of women’s sports is purely cultural, and we are capable of enjoying women’s sports as much as we enjoy men’s sports. But beyond a conceptual conjecture, this once again has been proven throughout this paper where when given the opportunity to view women’s sports, we embrace it — women were capable of producing comparable viewership levels as men. Therefore, once this stereotype is broken, society will allow itself to view women’s sports, in turn, enjoying and continuing to watch them. And the best way to break this stereotype, referring back to Mlambo-Ngcuka, is “a culture that reflects equality, respect for diversity and non-violence, within and beyond sport” (Mlambo-Ngcuka 2019).


The Creation of a Culture

This brings us to an even more important question: how can we start to reimagine a culture where compensation disparities between genders do not exist? Given that sports such as basketball, baseball and soccer have risen in popularity only in the last couple of decades, we know cultures can be made in short amounts of time. Therefore simply refining an existing culture on sports will take even less time. Mlambo-Ngcuka believes that the key is role models “excelling on the field of play and reaching the Olympic podium, so that girls see, and believe in their own capabilities” (2019). These role models can show upcoming women “that they can excel on the field; many are using their status to start important conversations about gender equality and to advocate for women’s rights more widely” (Mlambo-Ngcuka 2019). 

Anya Alvarez from The Guardian believes the best way to override our outdated culture is to provide better marketing. She explains how “the lack of foundation that they have to build from to capitalize on their talent” is the true culprit (Alvarez 2019). She further goes on to claim other issues surrounding women’s sport inequities such as equal pay do not “matter until we start investing equally in how we market and promote these athletes” (Alvarez 2019). Andrew Zimbalist from Forbes Magazine agrees, explaining how “this disrespect of female athletes” in its lack of attention in the media fails to “recognize the value and power of women in sport” (Zimbalist 2019). In essence, we must learn to dismantle the deep-rooted systems and biases that disadvantage women in the athletic sphere. 



Although providing equal coverage of USWNST games, creating role models, and fixing the current inequitable media portrayal of women seems like the perfect solution drawing from all corners of opinion, it is still limited in the sense of its failure to address sports as a greater whole. Soccer, taking up a couple of percent of the professional athlete population, this solution fails to address the greater cultures throughout all of sport. Its effects may ripple into other sports, but is miles behind curing all of the sports industry of its inequities. The varying differences from sport to sport in pay structure, media coverage, and other factors, make an overall solution for sports extremely hard to form. Nevertheless, implementation of this will be a successful step forward, providing better equality for women in the national team. So we can start to celebrate women, compensate them equally, and effectively dismantle systems that inherently prevent them from succeeding.



1 comment

  1. Hey Conner,
    This project is super interesting. I’ve heard about the USWNT’s fight for equal pay, but I never really knew why or how they were getting paid so much less. Something I found particularly interesting in your project was your discussion of how coverage and culture dictates society’s general lack of interest in women’s sports. After reading what you said, it makes a lot of sense that it really has less to do with physical strength and more to do with how invested we are in a game or what we are culturally trained to find compelling in a match that affects our interest in it. This being said, what do you think a first step might be in increasing coverage around women’s sports?

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