At the 2018 World Cup, FIFA doled out some $400 million in prize money, including $38 million to champion France.
One year later, the Women’s World Cup pool was $30 million with the champion United States getting just $4 million.
Much — though not all — of the “equal pay” fight between the U.S. Soccer Federation and the United States women’s national team is centered on this disparity. The USWNT wants U.S. Soccer to make up for FIFA’s shortcomings, namely bridging that $34 million shortfall in 2018-19 and $67 million over the past two World Cups. Not doing so has been a deal breaker thus far.
U.S. Soccer counters that to do so would nearly bankrupt the organization and, at the very least, cut dramatically into other programs that benefit thousands of coach and youth player initiatives. That’s a major rollback just to pay millions to a couple dozen players.
On Friday, a federal judge in California dismissed the most consequential parts of the USWNT’s lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. The ruling centered on the conclusion that the women made a deal that sought more guaranteed money, and like it or not, a deal is a deal. It further concluded that the women actually made more than the men — although this was in part because the men couldn’t even qualify for the lucrative World Cup.
It was a significant legal setback for the women, and they vowed to appeal.
It’s easy to side with a popular, kick-ass women’s team that is seeking pay equal to a bumbling men’s squad in a fight against faceless bureaucracy. Almost everyone is doing it. Even the men’s national team supports the women, despite the fact their incompetence is a central part of the argument.
Yet at some point this has to extend beyond softball interviews on network morning shows and into a question over what is reasonable, or even doable. Or maybe more exactly, whether the USWNT is even fighting the right enemy here.
It’s FIFA that is mostly holding it back. Not U.S. Soccer.
U.S. Soccer, rather than act emboldened after its legal victory, reiterated to Yahoo Sports Monday that it wants to forge a settlement with the women, and pointed to its previous statement that said as much. It knows that without labor peace, sponsorships and fan support suffer. More money can be made together.
It’s why it hasn’t moved off a simple offer, from a March 7 letter, “to provide identical compensation to our women’s and men’s players for all matches controlled by U.S. Soccer.”
Still, U.S. Soccer has done a lot, not just for this specific team but for decades, both investing in the women’s game and pushing a mostly unwilling FIFA to do the same.
U.S. Soccer offers a full-time salary to all women’s national team players and pays their salaries in the National Women’s Soccer League. It also funds the NWSL’s central office. Without the support, there is no NWSL. The women sought this in their contract.
None of it occurs with the men because they earn so much more as professional players that it isn’t needed. That’s a luxury the women don’t enjoy but U.S. Soccer tries to make up.
Should it also make up the FIFA shortfalls?
U.S. Soccer turns over 100 percent of FIFA bonus money to the women. (It would give just 60 percent of the same type of money to the men’s team.) France gave its men’s team just 30 percent of its 2019 bonus pot.
The problem is the same sport is being played under two different business environments.
Men’s soccer is the most popular game on earth. Women’s soccer isn’t. The USWNT is the engine that is pulling it to increased profitability, but it’s got a long way to go. The USMNT, meanwhile, is the square-wheeled caboose being dragged by other countries into piles of cash.
That stinks. But is it all, or even $67 million worth of it, U.S. Soccer’s fault? Is this fight doing anything more than generating empty public relations victories?
Until recently, FIFA has done almost nothing to help grow women’s soccer around the world. In many countries, the sport is a non-entity.
Even the 2019 Women’s World Cup was an embarrassment. The promotional efforts of FIFA and local French organizers were almost non-existence. You could tour the country — not to mention surrounding nations — and not see a single billboard or banner noting that the event was being staged. The semifinals and finals weren’t even played in Paris, shoved off instead to smaller Lyon. It was ridiculous. A total joke.
It still generated a record 1.1 billion television viewers, up 30 percent from 2015. Some of that came from soccer-mad Europeans who became intrigued by the action and the success of European teams. (The USWNT was the only quarterfinalist not from the continent.)
It’s on FIFA to build off of that, and not merely because what’s right is right. It’s a growth opportunity for an organization that cares little about anything other than money.
The 2018 men’s World Cup reached a far larger audience of 3.5 billion viewers, about half the world’s population. It’s a massive draw, but one that is mostly maxed out.
The new fans, new audience and new revenue are on the women’s side. It may never be as big as the men, but it can get closer. They used to never think women’s tennis would come close to rivaling the men.
If FIFA had been doing its job, there wouldn’t be a $34 million gap in the bonus pool. Perhaps, if the outspoken and forceful American women and the legislative push of their national organization worked together, that would change more quickly.
That’s where the money really is. FIFA has the cash to spare and the power to change everything.
The women certainly have the right to appeal and to continue to paint U.S. Soccer as they wish. They are vowing to continue the fight, regardless of the chance of success.
It just seems like they are ignoring the real enemy.
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