The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Shatters Another Glass Ceiling!

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Women Playing Soccer

Much like the growing fandom of current U.S. women’s soccer, English women’s soccer (or football as the English call it) has had a massive following dating as far back as one hundred years ago. In 1921, for example, women’s soccer games often drew crowds of more than fifty thousand spectators.

In 1921, despite the popularity of women’s soccer, and women’s games at times drawing larger crowds than men’s games, England’s football association banned women from their league. The reasoning? That football was unsuitable for women. The reality? Male athletes were likely envious that women’s games drew larger crowds.

In 2008, after 87 years, England’s football association issued a formal apology for banning women from the association. Fortunately, English women players had formed their own football leagues and inspired women’s soccer leagues to form around the globe over the past fifty years.

Today, women’s soccer teams at times continue to draw larger crowds than men’s games. Since their inaugural game at the 1991 World Cup, the United States Women’s National Soccer Team (“USWNT”) has been the women’s team to watch. To date, they have won four World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. The USWNT is currently ranked first in the world of women’s soccer, whereas the men come in at No. 15.

Given the USWNT’s talent, popularity, sponsorship, and notably higher rates of success over the US men’s soccer team, how did the USWNT find itself in a six-year legal battle against the United States Soccer Federation (“USSF”) to earn the same pay as male players? A brief look into how the USSF paid the men and women under their respective collective bargaining agreements (“CBA’s”) provides some insight.

How Have Men’s and Women’s Compensation Differed in Soccer?

Under their previous compensation structure, bonuses were one of the factors accounting for such an enormous pay divide. Making a World Cup team would net a male player around $67,000, while a woman would make only $37,500. Further, when playing in a friendly (an exhibition tournament), a significant source of income for women’s and men’s soccer, men received larger bonuses for their wins and also received a bonus if they lost. The women, on the other hand, received a smaller bonus for the same win and received nothing for a loss.

Men also received larger bonuses than women for qualifying in the World Cup. Additionally, men’s bonuses for reaching the round of 16 at the World Cup were greater than what the women were paid for winning the entire World Cup. Further, FIFA prize money, which the USSF has no control over, also further deepened the pay divide between the men and women. If the men won the World Cup, they would each net $407,608, while a woman would make $110,000. At the 2018 World Cup, FIFA awarded the men’s champions $38 million, compared to the $4 million awarded to USWNT for winning the women’s championship.

The bottom line: if the USWNT were paid under the same compensation structure as the men’s team, they would have earned approximately an additional $64 million between 2015–2019. The previous pay structure ignored the significant success of the women’s team and simply did not reward them for playing in the many more high-stakes matches than the men, including friendlies and exhibition tournaments.

The Legal Battle for Equal Pay

In 2016, five women on the USWNT filed legal claims on behalf of the entire USWNT before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). They filed two claims including a claim for unequal pay under The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (“EPA”). The EPA aims to eradicate pay inequity based on gender. The second claim was for gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, asserting that the men’s team received better working conditions, including charter flights, better accommodations, better venues for play, and support staff. By March of 2019, twenty-eight players joined the legal fight and the USWNT filed suit in federal court.

The claim for unequal working conditions settled in 2021, and the six-year legal battle for unequal pay recently settled in February of this year. Under the terms of the settlement, the USWNT received $22 million to resolve their equal pay claim with an extra $2 million to benefit the players in their post-career goals and charitable efforts related to women’s and girls’ soccer.

Further, the USSF agreed that going forward, women and men would be paid equally for tournaments and friendlies, including the World Cup. The settlement is contingent on agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement that will require certain concessions by the men’s team, including sharing some of their World Cup payments from FIFA with the women.

Why the Difference in the First Place?

Why were the women paid less under their respective CBA’s, and what are some of the takeaways from this legal fight?

Perhaps the women’s team never imagined the success that they would experience on the world stage and were thus more risk averse than the men’s team in negotiating their salaries. Some of the USWNT players opted for a more conservative pay structure, which guaranteed them a salary regardless of whether they played. The men’s team on the other hand negotiated a more profitable pay-for-play bonus structure where if they were called to play, they would receive lucrative roster and game bonuses. Further, the women may have fought for more security and benefits, such as health insurance, disability benefits, and maternity leave, at the expense of their bottom line.

Or, as in many other professions, and despite the notable successes of their female colleagues, the USSF, FIFA, and other soccer organizations simply tend to put more value on the work that men do. In this case, the men’s team must make concessions to close the pay gap between the men and women. Closing the pay gap recognizes that both women and men contribute to the organization as a whole and to its bottom line.

While the answer to close the gender pay gap likely lies in a combination of factors and still requires an immense amount of work, one thing is for sure: women in all professions must always understand their true value and their contribution to the workplace, just as the USWNT did when they set out to shatter yet another glass ceiling for women in professional sports. The USWNT are trailblazers who are inspiring young female athletes around the world to pursue their passion. They also just moved the goal post one step closer for women athletes to get equal pay for equal work.

If you have any questions about the Equal Pay Act or feel that you may not be receiving equitable pay in the workplace, contact an experienced employment attorney today.