On March 8, 2019, International Women’s Day, all twenty-eight members of the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) sued the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) for gender discrimination.[i] According to the athletes, the discrimination has had an impact on their training, their medical treatment, their facilities, and their travel to and from matches, and, perhaps most notably, their paychecks. The gap in pay between the USWNT and the USMNT is stark. If the men’s and women’s teams won each of the 20 non-tournament games they are contractually required to play, women’s team players could earn a maximum of $99,000 ($4,950) per game, while men’s team players would earn an average of $263,320 ($13,166 per game). In this scenario, the women earn 38% of what the men earn.[ii] The debate on gender inequality in the United States started years before the lawsuit but was largely overlooked because of the prevailing argument that women should not be paid the same as men because the women generate less revenue. A 2019 Wall Street Journal article, however, revealed that the revenue disparity argument is now inapplicable on a national scale; “from 2016 to 2018, women’s games generated about $50.8 million in revenue compared with $49.9 million for the men.”[iii] Still, the USSF refuses to yield in the lawsuit and instead hides behind its mission, stated on tax filings, to promote soccer and make it “the pre-eminent sport recognized for excellence in participation, spectator appeal, international competitions and gender equality.”[iv] The USSF has yet to uphold its mission with its own actions.
Despite opposition from its own governing body, U.S. women’s soccer has managed to dominate since its inception in 1991. The team has won four World Cups, four Olympic Gold Medals, seven CONCACAF Gold Cup wins, and is currently ranked first in the world.[v] In some ways, the USWNT has been a victim of its own success. Further investment can’t improve a team’s ranking when they’re already the undisputed frontrunner; in the USSF’s eyes the return on investment is zero and increasing player salaries will only decrease their revenue share. USSF justified their continued unequal pay claiming that “the World Cup champions’ male counterparts have ‘more responsibility’ and their job ‘requires a higher level of skill.’”[vi] The ongoing lawsuit has brought attention to the systemic gender inequality that plagues U.S. soccer, but it also has exposed systems that have operated outside of the USSF, grown women’s soccer from the ground up, and helped create a world champion women’s team.
Currently, youth soccer in America exists as a “pay-to-play” system of development academies, which train members in replacement of high school soccer teams. Over two-thirds of the teams that partake in the USSF Development Academy structure require annual dues that range from $2,400 to $5,000.[vii] Unsurprisingly, in the 2018-2019 season there were 676 U.S. Soccer Boys’ Development Academies, compared to 290 U.S. Soccer Girls’ Development Academies.[viii] This disparity stems from the USSF funding less girl teams as well as a lack of demand by young females to participate in the academy system. Young male players are willing to pay the upfront costs because these academies are perceived as an investment, for they streamline talent to MLS or other professional leagues. Girls, however, do not face the same opportunity professionally. Although USSF operates the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), its meager salary cap of $46,000 is rather uninspiring.[ix] Consequently, talented young females are driven to participate in another system entirely – the NCAA.
There is significantly more opportunity for women than men in the NCAA; there are 64 NCAA Division I women’s teams but only 48 NCAA Division I men’s teams. Furthermore, NCAA D1 women’s soccer allows up to 14 scholarships per team, while NCAA D1 men’s soccer only allows 9.9 scholarships per team.[x] For women, college is the route to professional soccer. 91% of the players on the USWNT roster played NCAA D1 women’s soccer, but only 41% of the players on the USMNT roster attended college for at least one year.[xi] However, university serves as much more than a pipeline for women into professional leagues. In lecture on April 7th, Gwendolyn Oxenham explained that professional female soccer players are typically more educated than their male counterparts. That is, women’s soccer has become a means toward education, and thereby a future of possibility. Only an infinitesimal amount of men and women who go through the academy system become robust professional players. However, on average, the men who fall short of their ambitions to become a world class soccer star do not have the same educational foundation as the “unsuccessful” women. Thus, the NCAA system is most advantageous to the failed, but also the vast majority, of soccer players. Ironically, the NCAA system is problematic for those women that do succeed because its players are only eligible for four years. Without another option, the best female college players re-enter the USSF system and continue their careers with the NSWL, which is the selection pool for the USWNT. The USSF receives credit for “producing” the best women’s soccer team in the world, but in reality the NCAA covers the cost of development and hands the USSF potential USWNT players on a silver platter.
As the default system for American women playing beyond their college teams, the USSF lacks incentive to pay its players more. Perhaps this lawsuit will produce material consequences for the prevalent sexism embedded within the federation, but until other countries garner interest in women’s soccer and create teams that challenge the USWNT, the market value of an internationally competitive women’s team will not grow much bigger for U.S. soccer. The NCAA will continue to feed its best trained players to the USSF, who will continue to eat the revenue and media rewards. Still, it is important to recognize that U.S. women’s soccer as a whole is not in jeopardy. The NCAA’s educational model has built a strong pool of talented women who are prepared to succeed in their professional lives.
[i] Daas, “U.S. Women’s,” The New York Times.
[ii] Hess, “US Women’s,” CNBC.
[iii] Bachman, “U.S. Women’s,” The Wall Street Journal.
[iv] Bachman, “U.S. Women’s,” The Wall Street Journal.
[v] Daas, “U.S. Women’s,” The New York Times.
[vi] Budryk, “US Soccer,” The Hill.
[vii] Brenner, “Alex Morgan,” The Guardian.
[viii] U.S. Soccer, “U.S. Development,” U.S. Soccer.
[ix] Conerly, “Earnings Parity,” Forbes.
[x] “Number of Scholarships,” Smarthlete.
[xi] Wheeler and Hambleton, “Restructuring U.S.,” Top Drawer Soccer.
Bachman, Rachel. “U.S. Women’s Soccer Games Outearned Men’s Games.” The Wall Street Journal. Last modified June 17, 2019. Accessed April 10, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-womens-soccer-games-out-earned-mens-games-11560765600.
Brenner, Steve. “Alex Morgan Says Pay-To-Play Is Hurting Soccer in the US. Is She Right?” The Guardian. Last modified August 15, 2019. Accessed April 10, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/football/2019/aug/15/alex-morgan-says-pay-to-play-is-hurting-soccer-in-the-us-is-she-right.
Budryk, Zach. “US Soccer Argues Male Players Have More ‘Skill’ than Female Players in Equal Pay Case.” The Hill. Last modified March 10, 2020. Accessed April 11, 2020. https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/486855-us-soccer-argues-male-players-have-more-skill-than-female-players-in.
Conerly, Bill. “Earnings Parity in Women’s Soccer A Long Kick Away.” Forbes. Last modified June 10, 2019. Accessed April 10, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/billconerly/2019/06/10/earnings-parity-in-womens-soccer-a-long-kick-away/#595088bd76bb.
Daas, Andrew. “U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Sues U.S. Soccer for Gender Discrimination.” The New York Times. Last modified March 8, 2019. Accessed April 10, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/sports/womens-soccer-team-lawsuit-gender-discrimination.html.
Hess, Abigail. “US Women’s Soccer Games Now Generate More Revenue than Men’s – but the Players Still Earn Less.” CNBC. Last modified June 19, 2019. Accessed April 10, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/06/19/us-womens-soccer-games-now-generate-more-revenue-than-mens.html.
“Number of Scholarships in College Soccer.” Smarthlete. Last modified 2018. Accessed April 10, 2020. https://www.smarthlete.com/article/98/number-of-scholarships-in-college-soccer.
Scovel, Shannon. “Here’s Where Every Member on the USWNT Played College Soccer.” NCAA. Last modified July 8, 2019. Accessed April 10, 2020. https://wwwcache.ncaa.com/news/soccer-women/article/2018-10-27/heres-where-every-member-uswnt-roster-played-college-soccer.
U.S. Soccer. “U.S. Development Academy Welcomes 16 New Clubs for 2018-19 Season.” U.S. Soccer. Last modified March 9, 2018. Accessed April 10, 2020. https://www.ussoccer.com/stories/2018/03/us-soccer-development-academy-welcomes-16-new-clubs-for-201819-season.
Wheeler, Micheal, and Christian Hambleton. “Restructuring U.S. Men’s Youth Development.” Top Drawer Soccer. Last modified February 15, 2018. Accessed April 10, 2020. https://www.topdrawersoccer.com/club-soccer-articles/restructuring-us-mens-youth-development_aid43811.