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Alejandro Bedoya and the myth of national team pay based on revenue

The USMNT player gives his two cents about the roots of the equal pay issue

New York City Holds Ticker Tape Parade For World Cup Champions U.S. Women's Soccer National Team Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

—Ed. Note: Parker Cleveland is a contributor for Dirty South Soccer. This is a guest post.

For months now the U.S. Women’s National team has been calling for equal pay and has received a mixed response. Some see their salary as a gender equality issue while others say the USWNT players do not make as much revenue as the men and do not deserve the same pay.

A prominent and perhaps unexpected voice dismissing the women’s claims comes from U.S. Men’s National Team and Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. Last week in an article in the New York Times, Bedoya said:

‘I think the equal pay for equal play argument is flawed, and it’s flawed because sports business is atypical,’ Bedoya said. ‘We’re not talking about a man and a woman doing the same work at a law firm and billing the same hours and bringing in the same revenue. In the sports world, the marketing, the advertising, the media sponsorships - it’s all very lopsided towards the men at this point. It just is. As that changes, other things should change too, but right now that’s the reality, and pay should reflect that.’ ‘I see it not as a woman versus man thing,’ he continued. ‘It’s a numbers thing. Is someone sexist because they enjoy watching men’s soccer more than women’s soccer? At this point, that’s the simplest root of the difference.’

Pulling at this root reveals a deeper and more complex relationship between revenue and equal pay than Bedoya seems to recognize.

For one thing, the exact revenue figures between the two teams are difficult to determine because of how the U.S. Soccer Federation counts that revenue. In the conference call with reporters after the USWNT players filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against USSF in March, federation president Sunil Gulati noted that the ‘sponsorship and TV money are done collectively. We don’t break that down either with any of our partners or accounting’ but that the USWNT makes less revenue and should be paid less. The issue with this is that if the USSF is not splitting the revenue from sponsorships, television, and other income between the USWNT and USMNT the evidence for this is at least partly Gulati’s word.

For another, the idea that marketing, advertising, and media sponsorships are lopsided towards the men is made with the assumption that the market as it exists is natural, free, and not the creation of social and economic decisions. For example, USSF has failed to market the USWNT to raise as much revenue as they can by doing things like not securing a TV deal for the She Believes Cup earlier this year and by not extensively promoting the USWNT Olympic Qualifiers in February. Events like the 2015 World Cup Final, which gained the biggest TV audience in US history for a soccer game, and the impressive crowds drawn by the Portland Thorns and Orlando Pride, which attracted audiences despite the league lacking sponsors or a major TV deal, show the popularity of women’s soccer and the potentially huge untapped market that USSF is neglecting. It in effect leaves money on the table and then blames the women for the shortcomings of the federation.

A key agent in the marketing of soccer in the U.S. is Soccer United Marketing, the commercial affiliate of MLS and TV broadcast rights holder for both the men’s and women’s World Cups among other national team marketing and management concerns. Part of the market space that MLS enjoys is due to SUM requiring the network that purchased the World Cups to broadcast MLS games. This arrangement helped develop the market for MLS and raise it’s profile to a national level. No such arrangement was made by SUM for the National Women’s Soccer League, which is left to negotiate for national television broadcasts on its own. This leaves women’s league soccer in a nascent stage and without the ability to leverage the best asset professional women’s soccer has, the World Cup, to grow the market for the sport the way that the men’s league was able to.

It is interesting that Bedoya, who touts his degree from the Boston College school of management, fails to take into account the factors that drive the market when he makes these claims. However, what is actually troubling about his statements is that he fails to see how the relationships between the USSF, Soccer United Marketing, and MLS benefit him and other USMNT players in MLS while the USWNT players are constantly forced to justify asking for a pay increase. The structure of MLS means that owners receive a stake in SUM and part of the profits that it generates. Part of the SUM mission is to help the league grow, the league itself struggles with profitability and a 2015 report noted that 10 of 20 teams that year were profitable. Despite this, MLS is continuing to attract investment in the league as shown by the expansion of new franchises. In the long-term league owners hope to see MLS become more profitable as the league and sport in general grow in popularity. In the short-term a stake in SUM can function as an attractive revenue generating entity for MLS owners to buy into in order to compensate for potentially low revenue, or even losses, that the league is currently earning.

How this relates to Bedoya is through his recent transfer to the Philadelphia Union. Typically, USMNT players are overvalued in MLS relative to the global market because of their name recognition domestically and association with the national team. For example, Michael Bradley went from earning about $1 million when he was playing for Roma to a $6.5 million annual salary with Toronto while Jermaine Jones and DeMarcus Beasley certainly cashed in after the 2014 World Cup. Not that these players are not good or that Bedoya is only worth ⅙ of the $1 million he is paid playing for the Union, but a player like Ignacio Piatti, who is making a strong case for MLS MVP, is paid $425,000 this season. Bedoya is a good player but he will never light up the league the way Piatti does.

In the context of the USWNT and the pay issue, the women’s team generates profits for SUM through the sale of broadcasting rights to their games and manages other marketing aspects for the team. Though SUM does not disclose how much revenue the team generates for it, a Fox Sports executive noted that the network valued the $1.2 billion they paid the company for the broadcast rights for the men’s and women’s World Cups from 2015 to 2022 almost equally between the men’s and women’s events. This is revenue that goes back to owners in MLS, not USWNT players. In effect, this means that part of what makes it possible to overpay for USMNT players is the success of the USWNT and the revenue that they bring in for SUM. In the end, Bedoya’s comments are tinged with hypocrisy when he passes judgement on the value of his national team compatriots when his own inflated value is partly made possible by the revenue that they help generate which allows MLS to afford to overpay players like him.

It is time for the U.S. Women’s and Men’s National Teams to be paid equally and it is time for a more nuanced view of markets and how players are paid both because of and in spite of them.