How Soccer’s Best Women Finally Got Paid

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Mary Harris: Hey, everyone. Mary here. When the shooting in Evolve day happened, we were working on this show. It’s about women’s soccer and pay equity. And while the news is really dark right now, maybe even because the news is really dark right now. We wanted to share this with you. Anyway, even though as a couple of days later. All right. Here we go.

Mary Harris: When I think about U.S. women’s soccer, I think about a certain swagger. I think about Brandi Chastain scoring a winning goal at the World Cup and ripping her shirt off in celebration. I think about purple haired Megan Rapinoe and her teammates singing We Are the Champions and drinking champagne. After they dominated internationally in 2019. Slate’s Christina Cauterucci. She loves this confidence, but when she thinks about U.S. women’s soccer, she thinks about something else. Call it accessibility.

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Speaker 2: I remember my parents taking me and my sister to see a U.S. women’s national team game in the nineties and feeling like these were real people.

Mary Harris: Celebrity is. What do you mean when you say that?

Speaker 2: Well, they were approachable and it felt like they had, you know, superhuman talent on the soccer field. But they looked like regular people. They wore ponytails. We wore the same umbrellas. Now, thinking back on it, I wonder if part of that also had to do with the fact that even though these were the top soccer players in the country and in the world, they weren’t getting paid that much. And they were playing at like this tiny stadium that, you know, my older sister, a soccer team, could have conceivably also played at.

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Mary Harris: U.S. women’s soccer, like most women’s sports, has gotten second class treatment since forever. Which is strange because internationally the U.S. women have been hard to beat and the U.S. men have been beaten down. This disconnect between who’s winning and who is being treated like winners has been at the heart of the legal fight. U.S. soccer players have been waging a fight for equal pay. This fight has taken many forms. The women complained to the EEOC. They filed a lawsuit, a lawsuit they lost, by the way. Finally, they came to an agreement with U.S. soccer. It ensures men and women get equal compensation for equal work. For the women, it’s a historic first. Yeah. I mean, when they won the World Cup in 2019, the whole crowd broke out in a chant of equal pay.

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Mary Harris: Okay, people pay. People pay. And originally it sounded like USA. And then if you listened more closely, like, Oh, a, hold it, everyone’s here. Everyone here is saying equal pay. Which is I think it was a little unexpected, but it made it feel like this equal pay victory was inevitable, was it?

Speaker 2: Not at all. It really seemed for a long time like there were parts of the unequal pay structure that we’re going to pose an intractable problem in negotiations. This was never a foregone conclusion.

Mary Harris: Today on the show, how this equal pay deal was reached and why, when it comes to valuing women’s work, this agreement is really just a start. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around.

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Mary Harris: If you want to understand the way inequality is baked in to the systems and structures all around us, examining the pay equity issue in U.S. soccer is a pretty good place to start. Here’s what you need to know. Soccer players have a bunch of ways they make money. One way is playing for the national team. That’s the team that goes to the World Cup every four years. It’s the team that just settled this big pay deal.

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Mary Harris: But another way soccer players earn income is by playing for soccer clubs. For women, that means playing with the San Jose Earthquakes or the New England Revolution. The base salary on these teams is $35,000 a year. But the men, they can take their talents abroad. The highest paid American men’s player splits his time between the U.S. men’s national team and Chelsea in the U.K.. Last year, his base salary from Chelsea was almost $10 million. And he’s got endorsement deals with Nike, EA Sports, Hershey’s and Gatorade. Because the women don’t have these same kinds of marketing and revenue opportunities, they made certain compromises when they first negotiated their compensation with U.S. soccer back in the eighties.

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Speaker 2: So the structure was very different. The players unions for the men and the women agreed to different structures, in part because their base salaries gave them different amounts of security. So the women, because they weren’t getting paid much on the club level, needed more security to know that, you know, even if we don’t win all our games or go out in the first round of a tournament, I’m still going to be able to get paid. So they agreed to a structure where the majority of women’s national team players got a salary, sort of a modest salary.

Mary Harris: It’s like $100,000, right?

Speaker 2: Right, right, right. Which, you know, is a lot by most measures. But for a professional athlete, it is not that much. And then they got sort of low bonuses for other games. So, for example, in former collective bargaining agreement for friendly game, you know, against another country, which they would have about 20 a year, the women would get a bonus of about 1300 dollars if they won the game. If they didn’t, they would get no bonus at all.

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Speaker 2: The men, because in part they were getting these larger salaries out there on their club teams. They said, you know, it’s okay if we don’t get a base salary and only get bonuses for the games we play. That means if they missed a game, if they weren’t called up to the team, if they got hurt and didn’t play, they wouldn’t get a bonus. But these were extremely high bonuses, sometimes almost $20,000 for a game, and they would get paid that bonus even if they didn’t win. So the pay rates for each game were extremely different.

Mary Harris: It’s interesting, though, I can see the practical reasons for making those decisions where, you know, the women’s team was just looking for ways to guarantee that their players had some kind of source of revenue, like if they got pregnant, if they got injured.

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Speaker 2: Right.

Mary Harris: Since their club team salaries were so low.

Speaker 2: Right. And for a while, you know, U.S. Soccer used this as an argument against the women that, you know, you guys agreed to this. And if you’re not willing to sort of take the risk that the men are. Then you don’t get those high bonuses. You know, people have said that, you know, eventually the women did ask for the same structure as the men. And U.S. soccer said no. But you’re right that it is logical from the standpoint of somebody who just needs to be able to depend on a salary.

Mary Harris: So how did the fight over pay begin? Like, where do we where do we start?

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Speaker 2: So players on the women’s team have been agitating for equal pay and better working conditions basically since the U.S. Women’s National Team was created in the eighties. But the legal fights started in 2016 when they filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint saying they were paid less at every level of play, you know, for every game and every tournament that they entered. This was paired with complaints about working conditions. So in previous years they had been posting photos on social media of injuries they sustained from playing on artificial turf. You know, men’s contracts pretty much guaranteed that they were able to play on natural grass, which is a lot easier on the body than turf. The women were also saying they were forced to take more commercial flights, staying in worse hotels.

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Speaker 2: Again, these complaints can sound a little petty or ridiculous to like the layperson who’s wondering why is it a problem to take a commercial flight? But for an athlete who’s doing a lot of flying, it’s a pain. And when they’re flying from game to game or tournament to tournament and the men are getting chartered flights, it’s fair. For them to say, you know, why are we getting treated like second class players here?

Mary Harris: Yeah. And my understanding is that, like within a year, the players had kind of taken over their union in a way, and just were being much more active about what their contract would look like and sort of what they were asking for.

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Speaker 2: Totally. In 2019, the team seeing no progress on the equal pay or equal working conditions front withdrew that EEOC complaint and actually sued for gender discrimination.

Mary Harris: So this was an escalation.

Speaker 2: Exactly. And, you know, they were arguing, not only are we not being paid equally for equal work, but we are getting paid less for winning than the men are for just showing up.

Mary Harris: That sued. They ended up losing it. Right. Yeah. And it was it was interesting because the judge basically said the core of your argument that they were paid less than players on the men’s national team was factually wrong. It was a pretty devastating ruling to be.

Speaker 2: Yeah. This this really drives home how complicated the pay structure is. So the judge was saying you guys aren’t actually being paid less. But what was happening was the women were playing more games and winning them all. And under those conditions, when the men were playing fewer games and losing, they were getting paid about the same amount or women were getting paid a little more. And so the judge said, look, when you look at the cumulative pay, you’re not getting paid less than the men. And the women said, Yeah, but look at all that we have to do just to sort of meet where the men are. And so they started, they were agitating, you know, they said basically this this judges, the way he’s looking at it is unfair. And what we actually want. And what is fair is equal rates of pay, not just equal cumulative pay.

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Mary Harris: And this lawsuit was really bitter, like the filings that U.S. soccer put in there when folks got eyes on them. They were making arguments that were just. Repulsive to the women. They were basically saying women aren’t as good at sports. And so, you know, they should be lucky to be playing at all. Right. And you should dismiss this.

Speaker 2: And this is coming from the organization that is responsible for funding and investing in and promoting women’s soccer in the U.S. And they said this is a direct quote. The two sports, women’s and men’s required different levels of certain fundamental physical skills central to the game, e.g. speed and strength. So, okay, they’re saying that women’s bodies aren’t as athletic as men’s. Thus we shouldn’t have to pay them equal rates because, you know, if the women were required to play in the men’s league, they probably wouldn’t win. It was it was really shocking to the public who was who was following this suit and I imagine extraordinarily offensive to the players.

Mary Harris: Yeah. I mean, what happened after U.S. soccer had this legal victory was kind of interesting to me because they didn’t take this victory and say, like, okay, well, now we’re done here. They kind of did the opposite. They did a bit of a housecleaning at U.S. Soccer. And then they signal to the players like, hey, negotiate with us.

Speaker 2: I think they realized that they had a lot to lose from being the villain in this case. You know, the U.S. Women’s National Team is one of the most popular and well known and well-loved teams in the country. It’s the best soccer team in the world. And they weren’t going to let this go. And U.S. soccer for, you know, the past five, six years that they had been defending, their unequal pay had really come to be resented not only by the players who play under them, but by the people who come out and watch sports.

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Speaker 2: And I think the fans would have followed the players wherever they went, you know, if they wanted to boycott or strike. You know, this was a team that had a lot of power and a lot more goodwill than the federation that was refusing to pay them equally. So they ended up settling the lawsuit and then coming to this agreement.

Mary Harris: When we come back, this new agreement meant the men’s team had to share money with the women. So who convinced them to do that?

Mary Harris: The agreement between U.S. soccer and the men’s and women’s players. It starts with a commitment to equal rates of pay for every type of work. So from now on, all players, women and men are going to get the same pay for each game, played the same bonuses for games one and four World Cup participation, and equal portions of a new revenue sharing agreement with U.S. Soccer. In exchange, the women give up those guaranteed salaries. But that was the easy part. The most difficult thing to negotiate here was the huge discrepancy in World Cup payouts.

Speaker 2: So U.S. soccer actually isn’t in charge of how much men and women win for their performances in the World Cup because the World Cup is won by FIFA. So I’ve always found that a little bit of a convenient excuse because FIFA actually pays U.S. soccer.

Mary Harris: And U.S. soccer can decide to distribute that money however they like.

Speaker 2: Exactly. And then, you know, that’s determined by the collective bargaining agreements. In fact, in other countries, the soccer federation keeps a lot more and doesn’t give as much to the teams. And so the U.S. is actually kind of unique in its passing on of the vast majority of that money to the players. And it’s it’s hard to even understate the gap in FIFA bonus money. I mean, it’s just it’s cavernous. So the next World Cup cycle, which the men are playing this year, the women will play next year. The pool of money that World Cup teams are eligible for in the men’s World Cup is $440 million.

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Mary Harris: Whoa.

Speaker 2: For the women, it’s $60 million. Wow. So that’s hundreds of millions of dollars difference. And and by the way, that that number for the women’s pool is already double what it was for the last World Cup. And so this is when when the women would say, you know, we get paid less for winning than the men do for showing up. This is sort of the best depiction of that and the most egregious example of that. So in 2014, the men made it to the round of 16 in the second round, and they lost. And they got $9 million the next year when the women played in their World Cup. They won and they shared $2 million.

Mary Harris: Oh, my gosh.

Speaker 2: So when U.S. Soccer said, you know, it’s not our fault, we can’t rectify this gap, the gap that they’re talking about is enormous. And, you know, technically, they could change it if they wanted to through the collective bargaining agreements. But the men had to agree to that, too, because it’s their players union that agrees to that. A bargaining agreement?

Mary Harris: Yeah. And they’re giving up some money, clearly.

Speaker 2: Right. Right.

Mary Harris: My understanding is that the way the World Cup money is being distributed, which is it’s being pooled and, you know, given to workers in a more equal fashion, is the first of its kind, like not just in the U.S., but worldwide. Is that right?

Speaker 2: Oh, yeah. So there are a few other countries and this is actually really encouraging that have equalized pay on sort of a national level, kind of like everything but the World Cup. So they’re getting paid equal rates for the games they play, you know, getting called up for training camps and all that. And then some of these countries are giving equal percentages of what they win in the World Cup to the teams.

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Mary Harris: But of course, that doesn’t compare when the cash amounts are so different.

Speaker 2: Oh, not at all. So what the U.S.. Teams are doing, pooling their money and, you know, minus a small percentage for U.S. soccer is really revolutionary. And in a way, it’s probably fair to say that this would be hard to sell in any other country because in the U.S., the men do so poorly and the women do so well. There are there are few other countries where the gap in performance is so large as it is in the U.S..

Mary Harris: It’s tempting to look at what happened here and see the men as behaving altruistically. But are they? Because I look at sort of the wider field and the men still have better opportunities at the club level, meaning the sort of local teams versus the national level. The men can maybe get better endorsement deals potentially. So were they being altruistic, realistic? How do you see it?

Speaker 2: I mean, the fact of the matter is, because the U.S. men’s national team doesn’t do super well, their World Cup bonuses are never like $1 million per player because sometimes they don’t even qualify. Or when they do, you know, they’re splitting still by the women’s standards, a large payout, but it’s not like they. Arrive most of their income from those that like single payment structure that they’re now going to have to pool. And some reporting has indicated that the men were more concerned with raising their game bonuses outside the World Cup because that affects a lot more players than just, you know, the 23 people who get called up for the World Cup games. There’s also the fact that there was pressure from U.S. Soccer, which basically said we’re not going to give you a deal unless you agree to some sort of equal pay structure.

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Mary Harris: So they saw the writing on the wall.

Speaker 2: Exactly. And, you know, I think there’s a little bit of, oh, now they get to look like allies. And yes, I’m sure there was a bit of I don’t want to say altruism but realization that this was the right thing to do. Yeah, it didn’t seem like there was really a way forward for them without something like what they ended up agreeing to. And the last World Cup round, 2018, 2019, the men didn’t even qualify. And the women, of course, won. And so if that happened again, the men would be getting more money than they would have because they’d be entitled to some of that money that the women brought home.

Mary Harris: Looking at the way this deal progressed, I kind of wondered if it could have happened any other way. And the reason I say that is because. Women needed to have these salaried jobs with the national team while they grew their support, their fan base, their league, all that, all the stuff that made them great. And while they got the attention of folks. But once they had that attention. And they were really winning. It was clear that salary structure just wasn’t. Workable. But it almost seems to me like you couldn’t have gotten to where you are now without that first step where you’re paid less and paid in a different way. Do you see it that way?

Speaker 2: I can see where you’re coming from. I will say I think it could have happened a lot sooner. You know, it’s been at least seven years since the women won the 2015 World Cup and which really, I mean, rocketed them to another level of stardom and revenue generation. But when you look at the years before that, when the women’s teams were still building their fan base because, you know, the the national team and the club league are still so young compared to the men’s. I don’t think the women should have been penalized for the fact that they didn’t get as much investment from U.S. Soccer to build that fan base.

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Speaker 2: You know, the local team, the Washington spirit, only recently started playing at the big soccer stadium in D.C., where the men play before that. I mean, just a couple of years ago, this was years after they won that 2015 World Cup. They were playing, you know, 30 to 45 minutes away at like a basically a soccer field that a high school team would play at, with with bleachers. And so how are they going to build a fan base when they actually aren’t in the city where the people are in a stadium that feels like you’re at a professional sports game.

Mary Harris: You’re making that. If we build it, they will welcome in, you know, which is like if you put them in the big stadium that fill it up, they’ll get people.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And if U.S. soccer had put money into advertising these teams into bringing them out alongside the men’s teams. That said, I mean, interest in soccer has gone up in recent years. And so I think the men’s league is also getting more popular alongside the women’s teams. But yeah, I mean, the the equal pay argument shouldn’t necessarily rest on how much money these teams are bringing in. Basically, I don’t think the women should be penalized from sexism that has led to disinvestment in women’s sports around the world.

Mary Harris: Yeah, it stood out to me when I was listening to the players talk about this agreement. One woman put it like this. She said, We’ve got a group of players that love to constantly be told no and then to show up and be like, No, I’m not going to let you tell me no. And that seemed to be the key here. The players just holding fast for years.

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Speaker 2: Yeah. I mean, they have a couple of incredible leaders in Becky Sauer, Brian and Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe and Kelly O’Hara and Kristen Press and all of these players that have been not only keeping the team together, but also being superstars in their personal lives and capturing the support of fans and also casual sort of World Cup viewers. And that part of it, the fact that they are such winning personalities and such incredible leaders is absolutely key to why this got done, because otherwise there wouldn’t have been the pressure on U.S. soccer. If nobody cared that the equal pay dispute was happening, there would have been no reason for the men’s team or U.S. soccer to, you know, radically shift the way pay was structured.

Mary Harris: Christina Cauterucci, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Speaker 2: Thanks for having me.

Mary Harris: Kristina Cauterucci is a senior writer at Slate and a former middle school soccer star. All right. That’s the show. What next is produced by Alena Schwartz, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson. We are getting a huge amount of support these days from Anna Rubanova and from Sam Kim. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. I will be back in this feed bright and early tomorrow morning. Catch you then.